Tuesday, July 21, 2009

On women's fiction or women in fiction, again

"Lisa Moore gets better and better," I wrote last month under "Recently Discovered" whilst reading her latest novel February. And then an esteemed acquaintance of mine emailed me asking, "When?" For he was reading February himself at that moment, and wasn't getting into it at all. "A fairly conventional historical romance" was his initial assessment, disappointingly, because he'd enjoyed Moore's previous work, and he wondered when he'd discover the brilliant bits of February that had so appealed to me.

I probably shouldn't have told you that. What I really want you all to do is go out and read February, and to love it just as much as I did. In fact, I really thought that love would come with no trouble, that my feelings towards the book were so straightforward as to be universal. "It's a rare thing," I'd written, "a perfect book", and I really thought that much was obvious. (And reviewer Caroline Adderson certainly thought so too.)

So I was surprised to find that another fine reader had found the book so unappealing. "When does the book get good?" he asked, of this book that had won me over with its very first sentence, "Helen watches as the man touches the skate blade to the sharpener." Here was a book very much in the present, very much in the physical world, and I'd never read a novel that started as such, and so I wanted to read on.

Perhaps it was lazy to just figure the differences in our opinions had to do with gender. "Maybe this is a women's book?" I suggested, and he replied a bit put-off by both my suggestion and also by a writer who would write a book that would shut male readers out. Turns out reviewer Alex Good had made an assertion similar to mine in his Toronto Star review: "This is a deeply maternal universe. Time and again, sympathy, solicitude and kindness for strangers are evoked. There are "geysers of love" and motherly feeling for vagrants, gas station attendants and of course the unborn. There is no sense of evil, aside from nature's rage in the sinking of the oil rig, and hence no conflict. The narrative doesn't progress so much as gestate, roiling around through a series of flashbacks until the hatching and matching at the end."

Exactly! Good has encapsulated what I loved about the novel exactly: the pervasive good, the ruminating narrative, the sense of gestation resulting in such a satisfying conclusion. Except, of course, he means none of this in a good way. And I wonder about this, and reviewing in general-- about how a description such as his is shorthand for "this book is bad/not literature". And about how "this book is bad/not literature" gets to be a shorthand for simply, "It didn't grab me."

Is a novel bad because it's a "women's novel" or a "man's novel"? As a woman, I don't find Hemingway bad, even with all the bullfighting. Of course, there are novels that don't fall into gendered catagories, and though universality is to be desired, I think that my very favourite novel Unless by Carol Shields (which is a maternal universe, if ever you've read one) is actually better for its specificity. I can understand how Unless might not be immediately appealing to a lot of men, but surely they could overlook that to see its literary merit.

But then, what is "literary merit", right? Someone will inevitably argue "aesthetics", but no one has ever been able to explain to me how "aesthetics" is not just a fancy way to explain away books one doesn't like. In his review, Alex Good faults February for lacking conflict and a "fast-paced, forward moving" plot. So, in essence, he faults the book for not being a different book altogether, for not being the kind of book that would appeal to him, and I'm not sure that's altogether fair.

I write this not as an attack on Alex Good's review (which was actually far more interesting than most reviews I read) but to expand upon the ideas the review prompted for me. To remark upon my surprise that February did not appeal to everyone, and to ponder what "gendered" writing is all about. Good says the gendered nature of the book is not what bothered him, but rather "
that those [gendered] parts of it are so transparently the stuff of commercial fiction." But what does that mean? Rings, to me, like that common dismissal of women's writing in general being un-literary and merely the stuff of commerical fiction. (Strange that Good suggests a fast-paced, forward-moving plot would have saved the material from being commercial fiction, for isn't plot what commerical fic is made of?)

Has Lisa Moore let her readers down by writing a "women's novel"? This very question, I think, is dismissive and sexist. But irrelevant, then, if there's no such thing as a "women's novel" at all. And is it dismissive and sexist to say that there is?