Thursday, August 25, 2005

The latest recipient of the BookBitch BookSlap:
Roxana Robinson, who obviously hasn't read many books in any of the genres she trashes. Ignorance run amok, and published courtesy of the Chicago Tribune.

A simpler, acrimony-free definition of `women's fiction'

By Roxana Robinson.

Roxana Robinson's most recent books are the short-story collection "A Perfect Stranger" and the novel "Sweetwater."
Published August 21, 2005

It is a truth universally acknowledged that there is such a thing as "women's fiction," but here agreement seems to end. No one can define the term to anyone else's satisfaction, and attempts to do so often degenerate into an exchange of accusations and denials. It's curious, how highly charged this issue is.

So let's try an empirical approach. Let's look at the books that women read in the largest numbers, the books standing in serried ranks at the airport and the supermarket: the best sellers. Certain books declare themselves, with pastel covers and soft-edged, blurry graphics. They're all by women. The jacket copy reveals the protagonist to be a woman and the plot to involve love. These are romances. Surely, if anything is "women's fiction" it is these books.

Like most best-selling novels, romances are escapist fiction, non-realistic fables. They follow formulaic conventions of plot, character and resolution. They deliver a clear moral message and no surprises. The narrative, after ingenious twists, always delivers the reader to the place at which she knew she would arrive. These books are neither beautifully written nor intellectually challenging; they offer little complexity and tell us nothing new or profound. So why do women read them by the millions?

Best sellers function the way populist literature has always functioned. Like myths, fables, fairy tales and sagas, they provide instructive reinforcement for our society. They validate our beliefs. They reiterate the truths we live by, or would like to live by, or which we would like to believe we live by. The truths are these: Virtue will be rewarded, and good will triumph over evil. Judging by the sales, this is a message we want to receive again and again.

Romances concern the quest for love, and their goal is engagement. The narrative device is a metaphorical search for awareness, with the heroine as the initiate who must undergo a series of trials. To succeed, she will need certain attributes: perceptiveness, generosity, empathy and self-knowledge. The human objective of the quest is the beloved--this is the heroine's shadow-partner, her other half. He and she have a date with destiny, which comes as the final engagement.

The heroine may learn that her perfect (but dead) husband was the father of her (supposedly) best friend's (supposedly) sperm-bank baby. She will be deeply shaken, but when she learns to forgive her dead husband, and her friend (who dies, too, so they needn't really make up, plus the heroine gets to keep the baby), as well as herself (for pretending that her marriage was much better than it actually was--frankly, it was a terrible sham), then she can accept the really perfect partner who has turned up just down the beach and who is so loving and true and a far cry from that--at last it can be said--two-timing cad.

The setting of the romance is domestic, the focus narrow. The heroine's worldly task is attraction, so the mechanics of allure are crucial, and its tools--clothes, makeup, hair-dos and manner--will be exquisitely detailed. The philosophical scope is limited. If a social issue arises--hunger among the poor, for example--the heroine will take the side of virtue, and favor feeding. Conventional morality reigns, and though philandering may occur, the final engagement will be based on fidelity. Loyalty is given to an individual, not an abstraction. Emotion is paramount, and love the engine here. Love is the dominant presence: It animates the characters, produces the suspense, provides the central action and the satisfying conclusion.

The underlying premise of the romance is a primal need for emotional connection. The heroine's reward is abiding love, with the implied concomitant rewards and responsibilities: children, home, roots and so on. This functions as a powerfully instructive text, with obvious benefits for society: If women are committed to their husbands, families and households, society will survive, supported by a vast network of committed women, who will provide stability, continuity, communal interconnection and moral consensus. These are the foundational pillars on which any society depends.

Societally, the romance genre plays a big role, and economically, it's a huge market. So it's curious that "women's fiction" is treated so dismissively. The term is a slighting one, faintly derogatory, though people who use it might deny this. This is why the issue is so charged: It seems that the mere declaration of gender confers belittlement. And why is this? Could this be that old, outdated bugaboo, gender discrimination? Aren't we way past that? But it's hard to see this as anything else. It makes no sense to dismiss this genre simply on the grounds of populism, because men have their own populist fiction.

Let's look at thrillers.

Thrillers, too, declare themselves on sight. The covers are ominous grays and blacks, with bold, hard-edged graphics, often in crimson, and often featuring ideologically coded designs, like swastikas. The copy declares that the protagonist is a man and the plot involves death. This, too, is escapist fiction. It's formulaic, obeys conventions, delivers a moral message and ends just as it ought.

The premise here, too, assumes a primal need for engagement, but here this means mortal combat. The narrative device is that of the hunt--a real, not metaphorical, one. The hero is hunter and prey. To succeed, he must be resourceful, elusive and homicidal. (Not ideal husband material.) The vehicle is an international ideological struggle, carried out at a personal level, and the hero is on the side of Right. (He's usually trying modestly to save the Free World.) The human objective is the enemy, the hero's shadow-partner, his other half. They, too, have a date with destiny: They're trying to kill each other.

The focus here is close as well, though the setting is international and the politics global. In the thriller, loyalty is given to an abstraction. The hero's primary task is killing, so his tools--guns, knives, tanks, bombs, warships and fighter planes--are described in exquisite detail. (You may find the lengthy and precise technical discussion of nuclear-submarine deployment in the North Atlantic fascinating. Or you may find it deeply soporific.) The heroes of thrillers are often loners--single, mobile and disengaged--who rely more on their own wits than they do on orders from their superiors. The fundamental struggle here concerns escape, the emotional engine is fear, and the animating presence is death. Fear of death is constant, and the more terrifying the action, the better the story. The hero risks his own death, and deals it out to others, in defense of his country. His escape, and his enemy's destruction, function as personal and political victories. The benefits here are clear: A society needs citizens who will risk their lives for the greater good. In our individualistic culture, the daring loner--James Bond, Walter Mitty--is valued more than the obedient soldier.

So why aren't thrillers called "men's fiction"?

Thrillers are every bit as shallow as romances: They're just as simplistic, just as formulaic and, just as often, poorly written. So why do the two genres receive different degrees of respect? Thrillers have a virile and swashbuckling air, romances, a pallid and sentimental one. Thrillers are cool and romances are not: It seems sex is not as sexy as death.

Yet if love and death are the two great subjects of fiction, if they embody the opposite extremes of our desires, and if they provide the two great pillars supporting the long arc of human experience, why do they receive such different levels of respect? Because the same discrepancy occurs among literary works, as Virginia Woolf observed:

"This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing room. A scene in a battlefield is more important than a scene in a shop--everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists."

Now we see why the term "women's fiction" is so difficult to define--because it's not confined to formulaic, mass-market works. It seems that this dismissive tone may be applied to any domestic fiction, written by a woman, that takes as its subject the great question of human desire. It doesn't matter how seriously the author takes the question, nor how beautifully she writes, nor how serious the question actually is--the work may still be swept right off the table and onto the floor with the bodice-rippers, using the all-inclusive denomination. Needless to say, the term does not apply to books on this same precise subject that are written by men. No wonder this is all so confusing: sometimes "women's" applies to the subject, and sometimes to the author.

So maybe we should define the term altogether differently.

Maybe it would simplify the issue, and drain the debate of acrimony, to define the work instead by its readers. Because women dominate the audience for literary fiction, the writers of "women's fiction" would be Updike, Cheever, Marquez, Lethem, Franzen and the other distinguished male authors whose work is read by women in droves.

If the term isn't sexist and contemptuous--and no one who uses it admits that it is--then these writers should be grateful for the title, and proud.

Chicago Tribune | A simpler, acrimony-free definition of `women's fiction'

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