Why do we need a women-only prize for fiction? Women may write differently but in great writing gender is transcended and women writers must now insist on its irrelevanceby Lesley Chamberlain / June 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
The year 1997 has been a good year for women in literature. Muriel Spark won the David Cohen prize, and Beryl Bainbridge the Whitbread. In the recent past, Antonia Byatt, Penelope Fitzgerald, Penelope Lively, Iris Murdoch and Nadine Gordimer have all been Booker winners. So does the women-only Orange prize for fiction, due to make its second award this June, need to exist? The comment, by co-founder Kate Mosse, that “women’s creative achievements are under-represented on prize shortlists” seems plain wrong. But there is another assumption enshrined in the Orange prize: that women write differently. If so, we should consider why and how.
Jorge Luis Borges declared that he would never read books for, or by, women. But what would he have made of Jeanette Winterson’s latest novel, Gut Symmetries? Is Winterson invading masculine territory when she draws on contemporary science to explore the idea of simultaneous universes? Hardly. There is nothing gender-specific about a tale which announces that reality does not resemble our vision of it. Winterson’s writing about sex, especially of the lesbian and triangular variety, has ill-served her with critics. Had her femaleness not rebounded on her, her brave, ambitious fiction, might be judged alongside Umberto Eco’s The Island of the Day Before. Gut Symmetries is flawed and uncompanionable, but there is something Milan Kundera-esque about it too. Possibly Borges believed women writers found intellectual puzzles, like those in his own writing, an insufficient basis for fiction. There seems much historical truth in that. No woman yet has written like Joseph Conrad or Thomas Mann. But in 1997 novels of ideas by women which just fail to marry the logic and the life, like Winterson’s, may be a pointer to the future.
The “women and ideas and seriousness” problem matters. As Joseph Brodsky said, it is a touch of metaphysical thought which lifts fiction or verse into literature. Novels by women which have transcended the problem, from Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Bowen, have had as their hallmark brilliant formal control, giving an essentially moral shaping of life. George Eliot in Middlemarch integrated her philosophical ideas into a vivid account of changing rural life. Iris Murdoch’s melodramatic home counties platonism is also unique, and the early novels have special power, being philosophically driven while still in touch with reality.
If there is a common difficulty for women writing today, it lies in the nature of female characters. Women need to write about women whose horizons and experience are wide. A few years ago filmscript guru Robert McKee advised writers that women are poor generators of action in a plot because they caused only a few ripples when they fell into the pool. You can see the problem even in Gut Symmetries. It seems difficult to make thinking, socially engaged women realistic. Murdoch’s women tend to be vaguely literary graduates, but to call her realism matriarchal, as Lorna Sage does in her otherwise compelling Women in the House of Fiction (1992), inflates their importance. They are freaks in the best sense. Powerful female characters on television show us reality has moved on, but good fiction has not caught up. The new novels last year by Doris Lessing (Love Again), who is Murdoch’s generation, and the younger AS Byatt (Babel Tower), were cases in point. Lessing’s and Byatt’s leading women are hobbled by being respectively an erudite theatre director and a writer-teacher, much like their creators. They are ladies who do literature and quote too much. Clever disquisitions on love (Lessing) and love and social issues (Byatt) do not always make up for the tedium of characters.
The uncompromising modernist Christine Brooke-Rose (born 1926) is that rare female writer who avoids limited female characters, partly because her novels are streams of consciousness, partly because her themes are metaphysical more than social. The ladies who do literature pale beside Brooke-Rose’s female multilingual interpreter in Between (1968).
Yet both Lessing’s and Byatt’s subjects are arresting. In Love Again an elderly woman’s unrequited erotic love for a young man made me wish for this long book to shorten itself, gather in its intensity, take risks with loss of dignity, and become a female Death in Venice. Meanwhile Byatt’s Frederica asks with great passion how women can cope sexually with being clever. This ought to be a major theme in women’s writing, like the male artist outsider. But it seems to emerge either as a fairy tale, a social survey or soft porn. Women have not yet found a way of writing about loss of dignity.
Another problem centres around love. Of course women write a great deal about two things they know well: love and family life. But if their female protagonists only exist in the world because men find them attractive and lead them into various joys and quandries, that is surely a defeat. But for many women life has now outstripped what Jackie Wullschlager in the Financial Times called “the smart gossip with girlfriends genre.” Louise Erdrich and Helen Dunmore are examples-serving up feminist fiction with lashings of sex. Even in good writing, such as Lessing’s, the female protagonist is invariably attractive, otherwise presumably she would not meet anyone and the plot would not move. When Lorna Sage in Women in the House of Fiction compared Erica Jong’s later novels to Shirley Conran’s Lace (1982), she was prophetic. Almost from the moment women’s liberation was in place, in fiction it was tempted to sell out. Women, no longer required to conceal their appetites, would make big money by parading them in bonkbusters.
Perhaps the problem of creating serious-minded women characters who are engaged in the world follows from our easy political circumstances. Reading Nadine Gordimer or Christa Wolf, you realise that the urgency of apartheid South Africa or communist East Germany creates what is needed for female characters to become illustrations of universal values in jeopardy. In Occasion for Loving (1963), Gordimer creates a white visitor having an illegal affair with a black man, whose life then embraces experience “outside what you think you were meant for.” Gordimer is a writer of real muscle, tougher than most of the boys and all the bestselling women.
It is interesting to see how, in the wake of HG Wells, Huxley and Orwell, women have handled dystopia. In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1986), love has been forcibly replaced by mandatory supervised coupling. Nothing may be said, or felt, of an intimate, emotional nature. Women do not adorn themselves or wash their own hair. Nor does anyone smoke, drink, fornicate or swear. This fake puritanism may be a warning against extreme pc tendencies in feminism itself. But as a novel about the dangers of totalitarianism it is a rather shallow read beside such masterpieces as Brooke-Rose’s Out and Nabokov’s Bend Sinister. Love gets debased all the time. So what? Atwood’s dystopia is middle-brow women’s talk: all gossip and lament, centred on the sacrosanct body.
Before all the modern dystopias though, by men or women, came Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a novel about how estrangement can turn a good human being into an evil one. Frankenstein is still a fascinating read, reflecting the scientific and moral theories of the day. It is also a reminder of how devastatingly good women are on estrangement, when the trust, loyalty and dignity essential to humanity collapse. Subversion of the good order of the world begins in the domestic context and ripples out, as in the tale of another man-made monster in Wuthering Heights. The same insights seem to feed women’s brilliant performance in the detective and thriller genres. Women put life back together again after it is torn apart. Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day (1949) ends with an indiscriminate conception and a birth, which is the greatest triumph over war.
Would anyone in our post-feminist age really want to suggest it is only men who do the tearing and women the healing? Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is a subtler working of male and female difference. Mrs Ramsay is certainly a kind of healer. Mr Ramsay “never looks at things” but has a great mind, while his wife is superbly attuned to the presence and absence of people and things, to what the artist Lily Briscoe calls the ecstasy of objects. Bowen and Woolf are a magnificent inheritance for any woman writer.
And yet it is that capacity for subversiveness epitomised by Mary Shelley, which has the upper hand today. Hilary Mantel is terribly good at it, as is AL Kennedy. But neither of them has deposed Anita Brookner as our most powerful artist of the absence of the good. In Brookner’s brilliant but repellant tales life, for both male and female characters, goes into reverse even before it has begun, leaving only a slow, wasteful descent into nothingness. Brookner’s are quintessential anti-novels, although written in classical prose. They deny what has been an essential spirit in the novel since the 18th century: that life is potential, development and discovery. Brookner’s characters are female outsiders, unattractive, and unable to grasp life. Evil lurks behind the comedy of manners, because the characters do not revolt; they slide back towards their maker.
Women write differently, and yet in the best writing gender difference is transcended. Let us insist on this. Of course there had to be an imprint of “women’s writing” in the 1970s to capture their liberated social, intellectual, economic and sexual circumstances. Virago did this.
But the reason why women must now insist on gender irrelevance is that market values have taken over “women’s writing.” Orange, emphasising readability, is doing the work of mass market publishers. Last year’s winner, Helen Dunmore’s A Spell of Winter, is a readable post-Freudian fairy tale about incest. Its successor, Talking to the Dead (1996), is a similar tale about the adult sexual implications of early sibling rivalry and cot death, together with long paragraphs on fruit pie and ice cream. It is a curious world of primitive fears, in which women are childbearers, pleasure-givers or witches, and men either impregnate or police the wandering female psyche. The result is a skilfully woven, yet oppressively ordinary narrative.
But the trend is worse than ordinary because of the way it has been misappropriated. Like “the people” before them, “women” as a cause have been sold to the marketing men, who will accuse you of elitism if you attack their plans to profit from readable women’s books. But recall that Orange is a mass communications organisation and that one prize judge this year is Fiona Kennedy, fiction buyer for Tesco. No personal offence to Kennedy, but why should women en masse be co-opted as part of this market-driven cultural levelling? All women are not the same, and the literary heritage of writers who happen to be women is worth immeasurably more.