Love no longer a topic for women writers

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Love no longer a topic for women writers

Post  2DIE4 on Tue Apr 14, 2009 2:40 pm

'There is no exaggeration of women's moral excellence or intellectual capabilities; no insistence on her fitness for this or that function hitherto engrossed by men; but a calm plea for the removal of unjust laws and artificial restrictions, so that the possibilities of her nature may have room for full development." Thus George Eliot praised Margaret Fuller's Woman in the 19th Century in 1855, prefiguring the thoughts that were to surface in her 1856 essay Silly Novels by Lady Novelists. In that, she argued against a genre of popular novels that showed fiction as an occupation with "no external criteria to prevent a writer from mistaking foolish facility for mastery". Her worry was that the silly ladies might threaten women's educational opportunities, by showing what poor use they made of learning.

This week, nearly 150 years later, Dame Gillian Beer reprised and extended this debate in her Orange Prize lecture, and celebrated women writers' emancipation from the novel of sexual obsession and romantic love. As a judge of the prize - called upon not only to deliver a state of the art address but also to introduce the Orange shortlist - she had been struck "by how comparatively rare as the controlling topic of the works has been sexual love, or lust. Rare compared to the reputation - and tradition - of fiction."

Beer cited in support the absence of Anaïs Nin-style eroticism and "the anguished abasement" of Jean Rhys or Anita Brookner (shaky examples), and the presence of novels about "wars, families, national change, terrorism, history". She noted approvingly that "the fictions women are writing now range far beyond the domestic or miniature" and that the women under review "have found the freedom to explore fresh plots, often on a large scale, or with the power of intense recollection across communities".

The most obvious response is: when didn't they? Implicit in her remarks is the assumption of a compromised, hamstrung past, when women's horizons were so stunted that an unironised view of love as an engulfing force was all that was available; when they suffered from a poverty of imagination that meant that their daily confinement in the home ruled out other settings or themes; when the plot of a novel and the plot of a life could only follow two trajectories - that of love and its fulfilment, or love and its disappointment. But perhaps the most disquieting suggestion is that women were subject to unconscious forces beyond their control; that they were writing out a plot already constructed for them.

The numerous contradictory examples that spring to mind cover not merely a range of styles and periods but conceptions of what a novel could be. How to accommodate Muriel Spark's The Abbess of Crewe, a study of female charisma and allegory of Watergate? Or Iris Murdoch's The Black Prince, which explores obsessional love and creativity? What of Charlotte Gilman Perkins's feminist utopia Herland, or her subversive The Yellow Wallpaper? Or Olivia Manning's statuesque series, set against the second world war across several countries? Or novels that foreground taboo desires, like Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness or Djuna Barnes's Nightwood?

The list of novels whose central topic goes beyond romantic obsession or whose setting breaks the bounds of the domestic could multiply ad nauseam. But Beer, an eminent professor of literature, must know this. Why, then, does she make an argument so partial and so easily disproved? She might of course have been influenced by the maximalist trend, most recently seen in American writers like Don DeLillo or Jonathan Franzen. Could a woman write Underworld or The Corrections ? Certainly. Would she want to? Quite possibly. Does she have to, in order to be taken seriously? That's a trickier question.

The problem here is one of prescription, the idea of deciding on a fitting subject for fiction. That it becomes vaguely allied to women's social position might seem to strengthen the argument, but in fact makes it more bogus, as if women have now, by fortuitous advance, freed themselves from the shackles of excessive, ungovernable feeling. By celebrating women's apparently "new-found" ability to look beyond their immediate lives and emotional concerns, Professor Beer unwittingly diminishes both the difficulty and value of writing well about love, desire or domesticity. It's a false opposition, considering the brilliance of contemporary writers such as Helen Simpson and Tessa Hadley here, or Alice Munro, Carol Shields and Lorrie Moore in Canada and North America.

Or the Orange Prize winner, Ann Patchett, whose assured and composed novel Bel Canto is almost entirely about love, albeit in the charged context of a hostage-taking. The novel thrives on precisely that tension between the violence and potency of vast external crises and our misguided conviction that they are irrelevant to our small-scale, personal obsessions.

That there is no sign to an end of these concerns having their place - among many - in women's writing is the real cause for celebration, because it means that we can continue to enjoy, as we always have done, its diversity and experiment, generosity and ambition. The real threats to the contemporary novel are modishness, venality, pretension, cliché and fatuity. Unfortunately, women are no better equipped to resist these distractions than men.

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