Every year when the Orange Prize announces its longlist, or its shortlist, or its jury members, or an anniversary, or is mentioned in the press, people start to write long opinion pieces about the sad state of women’s fiction. This year’s award will be announced next week, and we’ve been enduring months of such complaints. Women’s fiction is too domestic, too small scale, too dreary, too often about rape or abuse. It’s not ambitious enough, not universal, not epic. Let’s leave behind whether or not it’s fair — after all, we do not saddle men’s books with the responsibility of being representative of their half of the species. Let’s also leave behind the fact that most of the people complaining about the state of women’s fiction seem not to have read very much, or at least not much outside the territory of books with cover art that could double as a tampon ad, all soft focus and floral. The main issue these commentators ignore is the fact that it has not been so long since the scope of women’s lives have been epic, let alone their books.
- Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas. 384 pages. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt $19.95.
There have really been only two generations of women who have been raised in a world with barriers lowered. And I mean “lowered,” and not “down.” Two generations of women who got to control their fertility, pursue work and higher education, who can plan and build epic lives. There have always been exceptions, of course, but lack of funds, fear of reprisal or social ostracism, and a nonexistent support system has made such lives only for the brave, the lucky, and the scrappy. This is why we have Edith Wharton novels, to help us understand this.
But having so few forebears, women are still trying to figure out how to build those lives, what might make them happiest or allow them to contribute, whether the traditional masculine path is what we should strive for, or whether there are other ways to live. Writers are trying to figure out women’s place in the world, and readers are picking up the books for the exact same reason. It can be like trying on an imaginary life, minus the pains of upheaval. We also read fiction for escapism or knowledge or a dozen other reasons. But it’s also about learning how the world works and how we fit into it, and part of us longs to recognize fragments of ourselves in the books we read, even if it’s a version of us that wears a superhero cape.
It is annoying to read the same thing over and over again — I don’t know how many more updates of Jane Austen books, sequels to Jane Austen books, retellings of Jane Austen books, or monstered-out versions of Jane Austen books I can take before I just snap. There are still huge gaps of women’s experiences for fiction to fill. That can be inspiring for a writer. Lorraine Adams said to me about her book The Room and the Chair — which is populated with aggressive, batty, slutty, heroic, downtrodden female fighter pilots, reporters, wives, and underage prostitutes — “I feel like so much fictional women are not reflective of the women I know.” Virginie Despentes wrote King Kong Theory in part out of frustration that “Even today, when women publish lots of novels, you rarely get female characters that are unattractive or plain, unsuited to loving men or to being loved by them.”
For a reader, it can be frustrating to look for a reflection of your own reality and not find it. But it’s worse to identify with a book, a character, or an author, and then feel betrayed when the writing goes off the rails. Scarlett Thomas was filling a much neglected chasm in women’s literature — the brainy, philosophizing idea books with characters that read too much and think too much about, say, quantum physics and not enough about where their lives are going. And for a couple books, it was a relief to read about such a woman, especially when her last book, The End of Mr. Y, became a bestseller. In her new book, Our Tragic Universe, however, things go all wrong. Thomas’ character (and it is just the one basic character, over and over again, in all Thomas’ books), is an awkward young woman, aging through the novels at about the same rate as Thomas herself. This woman is awkward, not impressed by society’s ideals of beauty, intelligent, and lives almost exclusively in her head. She has a creative job — in PopCo, she was a game designer; in The End of Mr. Y an academic; in Our Tragic Universe, a ghostwriter for a series of young adult novels — but chafes under the restrictions handed down from marketing experts and testing groups and she longs to break out. She also feels stuck, usually by a relationship (The End of Mr. Y and Universe) or poverty (PopCo and Universe). It’s repetitive, yes, but I had begun to identify with the Thomas character, and looked forward to each new installment.
Until Universe. Despite most of the book being a conversation on the idea of narrative, of Aristotle’s rules of drama, of the seven basic plotlines, Zen koans, and joke structure (I told you — she writes idea books), when it comes to getting this particular character unstuck (this time she’s called Meg) Thomas relies on the two laziest storylines the world of fiction has ever thrown up: Love Conquers All (see: every romance novel ever written) and Secretly a Princess (see: the Disneyfied fairy tale). Despite crushing on a married man decades older than her, Love Conquers All, and it will all work out. And despite being poor and trapped, living with a boyfriend she despises, the universe sends her a check for 25,000 pounds, a new house, new furniture, and a new job — all because she cosmic ordered them, as if in The Secret. It allows her to leave her boyfriend without any financial, physical, or emotional drama or struggle whatsoever. He simply slips out of the book, without even a whisper of protest. The reason she can do this? She is secretly a princess, or an “undiluted” archetype of the High Priestess.
Had the book been written by a man, I would have tossed it aside halfway through with a roll of the eyes. But having been at one point in my life broke, living with a horrible boyfriend and unable to leave without serious financial (or hell, physical) consequences, and seeing female friends trapped in poverty, bad relationships, bad apartments, it felt like a betrayal of the reality of the situation. Obviously it is not impossible to get yourself unstuck, but it can be devastating. If we’re still trying to figure out how to live our lives and get out of the traps we got ourselves into, hearing “You just have to cosmic order some money and a new house, and the universe will totally provide — or wait, probably not because you’re not secretly a princess,” can make us want to scream. Which is maybe why we discuss the state of women’s literature every single year, and take it all so incredibly personally when it comes up short.
Given the wide frontier of untrammeled land, it can be frustrating that so many writers want to stay safe as houses. After all, it’s not Rebecca West people are retelling, or writing sequels to, or filling with monsters. No one is retracing her steps through broken Yugoslavia for an update on her brilliant and shattering Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. Frankly, I’m more concerned about the state of male fiction — in the past couple months I have read two short stories written by men wherein male characters could tell whether their girlfriends had cheated based on how “tight” they were. Obviously male writers lack both basic anatomical knowledge and have run out of ideas entirely. But you won’t see a multitude of opinion pieces about that. • 3 June 2010