Resisting the "cult of the literary sad woman"

Leslie Jamison's viral article on literature's damaged women overlooks a range of writing which exposes the complexity and ambivalence of female pleasure

April 17, 2020
"In Bed, The Kiss", Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1892
"In Bed, The Kiss", Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1892

Leslie Jamison’s November 2019 New York Times essay on the ‘Cult of the Literary Sad Woman’ was roundly criticised in her reduction of certain writers, particularly Jean Rhys, to describe a certain type of writing that prioritised emotion, consciousness and self-destructiveness. At 22, Jamison reflected, she “needed blueprints for [her] epic sadness” and looked for them in the literature that seemed to fetishise what she calls elsewhere “suicide chic.” For Jamison, there is a limitation to seeing women suffer in art; she offers as an alternative Maggie Nelson’s writing in The Argonauts, in which she shies away from describing the illness of her child, and focuses instead on describing happiness, and importantly, pleasure. This pleasure, as Jamison reads it, rejects “sadness as a default narrative posture.” There are many baffling things about this essay, not least her analysis of vulnerability and suggestion that there are archetypes of a uniquely “female sadness,” but it interesting that reframing writing through pleasure seems to suggest itself as a firmly positive action, as if pleasure is, as she has it, the opposite of damage.

Jamison’s question of pleasure as a respondent to sadness is an interesting one, given the new cultural conversations around consent, sexual violence, harassment, and the norms of heterosexuality in general. The #MeToo movement has certainly shifted the concerns of contemporary feminism, but these public wrestlings are often limited to interpersonal relationships. What is more difficult to acknowledge is that questions of pleasure, sex and intimacy go beyond consent, into murkier territories that are not so easily arbitrated or judged. At the same time, Jamison’s dismissal of suffering seemed to suggest that for her, literature needs to move on from its dominant subjects, or at least writing by women has to—whether we would (or even could) make the same demands of writing by men is another story.

This question of pleasure in the face of suffering comes to the fore in Susanna Moore’s recently reissued 1995 cult novel In the Cut. Frannie, a teacher in her 30s, lives alone in New York City. One evening, whilst in a bar with one of her students, she accidentally witnesses a young woman giving a man oral sex in the recesses of the basement. This young woman is later murdered, and Frannie becomes involved in the subsequent investigation, as well as beginning a sexual relationship with Malloy, one of the leading police officers on the case. Moore’s novel is part detective novel, part thriller, and is unflinching in its descriptions of brutal violence and graphic sex. In its title, a slang phrase that both means ‘vagina’ and nods directly to the preferred method of violence in the novel, Moore shows that the two go hand-in-hand. As Katherine Angel argues in The White Review, Moore’s choice to so overtly relate the two asks crucial question about the narratives we read: “How are we to represent, in writing, the fact that sexual desire lives entangled with sexual violence? How are we to deal, in art, with the powerful, destabilising forces of both violence and desire?”

Moore’s novel further delves into the nature of desire through the complicated relationship between Frannie and Malloy, as the former suspects that the latter is the man she saw in the basement, and therefore the man that potentially killed the young woman. Throughout the narrative, Frannie accumulates words that she comes across in the city for a book that she is writing about slang, words that range from daily mundanities to racial slurs, many of which she hears from the police officers themselves. Regardless of this, Frannie’s desire to sleep with Malloy does not seem to abate and here, Moore’s novel posits a central problematic of sexual desire: that it cannot be controlled by questions of moral judgments. What happens when the men we desire and indeed sleep with are racist, sexist, or capable of violence? Who are we allowed to desire, even allowed to associate ourselves with?

In 2020, this novel feels more pertinent than ever, and in these concerns it joins new books such as Mary Gaitskill’s novella This is Pleasure, which asks: what are the new rules of heterosexuality in the light of not only the #MeToo movement, but a new popular feminism which seeks to call out individuals for bad behaviour? Comprised of two narrators, Gaitskill gives twin accounts of the behaviour and accusations that have befallen Quin, a successful New York book editor; one by him and one by his friend Margot. Quin is accused by a slew of women he has worked with not of violence but of harassment. Interestingly, Gaitskill does not present him as beyond the pale but someone who has perpetually tested and stepped over the line—with colleagues, with acquaintances, and with strangers. But while Quin’s actions are often clearly and uncomfortably inappropriate—asking a woman to suck his thumb, or putting his hands between Margot’s legs—Gaitskill is careful to note that many women also sought out Quin’s confidences and his friendship. Margot herself has enjoyed the peculiar dependencies of these intimacies, and in giving her account of their friendship we see her wrestle with her own experiences that appear very differently in the light of these complaints. Yet she certainly does not see herself as a victim through the relationship she shared with him, and it seems that there is no sufficient narrative through which she can fundamentally “understand” what has happened.

If Gaitskill’s work illuminates other dimensions of contemporary feminist narratives, then Nina Leger’s astonishing novel The Collection rewrites them entirely. In it, Jeanne seeks anonymous sexual encounters with men in hotel rooms across Paris, but the focus for her is not her own pleasure, but the penis itself. Though this presents an interesting rejoinder to the objectification of women through the male gaze, where the novel is more interesting is in its series of refusals. Much of The Collection is about narrative possibility: as Jeanne has these anonymous sexual encounters, Leger lightly begins to pursue narrative tracks that could take the work into a variety of genres. In one section she lists possible jobs for her main character, noting that if she made her a lecturer it would suggest “the inevitable sexual relationship nurtured by a professor with one or many of their students, a juicy apple into which every reader of this genre wants to sink their teeth”—subsequently, this lecturer storyline quickly becomes “a facile narrative device.” In a similar way, Jeanne is aware that others view her proclivities as having an origin point that lies in trauma or damage that can’t be explained.

When she confides in her friends, they are at first amused, then disgusted, until she invents lies that sees her fully subsumed into bourgeois domesticity: “Over the course of some months, she develops her script… To this imaginary man, Jeanne gives a first name, a job and a personality. She details their adorable arguments, mentions their plans for the future – oh yes, they’re looking ahead...” She skewers not only the particulars of a heterosexual relationship, but the language in which it is described, repeating as if by rote words like ‘plan’ and ‘future.’ But eventually, her friends stop believing her, and her ‘audience…dwindle[s].’ Leger refuses to pathologise her protagonist, suggesting that, for Jeanne, there are no “interior motivations,” at least not ones she is willing to share.

Part of the criticism that Jamison faced in the aftermath of her New York Times article was because, as many others pointed out, she had fundamentally misread the work of Jean Rhys. As writer and critic Lauren Elkin commented on Twitter: “Jean Rhys has incredibly complex strategies for ‘bringing consciousness to the page’ in Good Morning Midnight (and elsewhere) that are done a great disservice by readers dissing the novel's themes simply because they once over-identified with them.”

This seems to be a problem of not reading sadness or suffering into work but of reading any literature as only one thing, or as giving voice to narrate one kind of experience. In the works I have explored here, women write against reductive narratives—whether this be through depicting pleasure in the face of sexual violence, ambiguity in the face of public call-outs or a sexuality that refuses to explain itself. We can see an echo here in the work of Rhys, which as Elkin notes, does far more than ‘show’ sadness, but more precisely navigates the swirl of consciousness in which sadness resides as only a part. As writers, as critics, and as readers, to ask for women to write in a way that fulfils a narrow definition, or, in the reverse, to see the rendering of emotion as falling into archetypes, is to do away with an ambivalence that simplifies and makes shallow emotional life.