Women’s Writing: Discuss

Must must must link to this provocative and well-argued piece, by Kerry Clare, on women’s fiction, and how it continues to be viewed by critics as being of lesser value than men’s fiction, even now, long after Virginia Woolf wrote about the issue in A Room of One’s Own: “This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with 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.” 
In her essay, Clare posits that the gestational approach to plot in a book like Lisa Moore’s February is indeed very much unlike the conclusion-driven fiction that we consider to be traditionally male; but that the layered and continual sock-folding nature of “feminine” fiction should not and cannot be dismissed simply because it approaches time and human transitions differently.
I guess my question is: do women really understand time and action differently than men do? Is this a feminine quality, or does it relate more to the fact that more women than men, even now, spend time folding socks, and completing repetitive daily tasks? Do our bodies call us to observe and reflect upon repetition and a less linear understanding of time, are women by nature gestational beings? Just asking. I don’t know.
Read the article. And then comment, because I really want to know what you think (… as I sit here, writing what seems to me to be a prototypically feminine book).
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  1. Susan Fish

    I read this article with deep relief. I am just finishing a first draft of a novel, a second sequel, and I have been having a dreadful fear that the book lacks plot. And yet, I think it holds together and things happen and there are definitely stories. My book has no placenta on a plate, but I think it is women’s literary fiction to a large degree, and I feel grateful for the distinction. At the same time, I do want a book to take me through something to catharsis of some sort, or resolution. Aimless meandering is not worthy of the reader or the characters. I haven’t read February, so I can’t speak to the particular book. I also think that you can only write what you can only write. and no one else can.

  2. m

    Although I really hate the idea that men and women are so different (Mars vs. Venus thinking), I do think that women and men have different concepts of time and I think it’s based in our bodies (ovulation, periods, etc). I am much more aware of the passing of time, the marking of time than my husband, or any male I know.

    Does that mean our art is different? I don’t know. I think we create art that somehow reflects our lives. If more women writers are SAHM than our male counterparts, then yes, it will be reflected in our writings, but that’s not because of our gender, but because of our life situation. Furthermore, I believe plot comes from character, not outside forces.

  3. Drake Alley

    Part of me is tempted to say yes, in some ways women do understand time and action differently than men. Certainly, such a statement “feels” true based on personal experience and observation, but it is also a statement that quickly starts to “feel” problematic (so many exceptions, so many qualifications).

    In terms of women’s writing, I’m particularly interested in the way that difference is constructed through reception. Clare’s essay, especially her first example, makes it clear that particular readers choose to read male and female writers differently, regardless of the actual content of the texts. Also, as Lisa Robertson emphasizes in a recent interview over on the Lemon Hound blog, institutional formations (publishers, the academy) play an important role in constructing and perpetuating difference. Given the impressive diversity in contemporary women’s (and men’s!) writing, my guess is that a sense of difference emerges as much, probably more, through processes of publication and reception as it does through the texts themselves.

  4. Anonymous

    Women and men live in the same world in crisis, are embodied to the largest possible degree in the same ways and from that perspective of course they do not “understand” time and action differently (and not so much differently from some higher apes, possibly?)

    However, the tasks many women have been allotted or taken up might lead to different forms of expression – on occasion. Isn’t it really that there are different ways of writing literature? Just as male painters have painted flowers, and so have women, but we know the male painters much more readily, so too have male writers written about daily tasks and daily conversations and realities in a sockfolding way (recall Joyce saying that he to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the Earth, it could be reconstructed out of his book – pretty much in those words). But also recall Ian Mcewan, who backgrounds the invasion of Iraq to his day in the life of a surgeon in Fitzrovia. I don’t recall people trashing his novel on that account (and i loved it myself – but I have not read Moore, I have to admit).

    In the end, aren’t they all concerned in some way to describe the fragility of our existence as humans on this planet?

    I turn to Sisyphus about time, on occasion. He thinks he’s describing the human condition, no? and isn’t his description applicable to all sexes? (my fear always that we limit things to two, too often)

  5. Anonymous

    Meant to mention Camus, when I made that last reference (to the myth of sisyphus)…

  6. Carrie Snyder

    I wonder if the difference, as Drake Alley suggests, is more in the judgement of the work than the content or shape of the work, ie. if we did not know whether or not an author was male or female, could we tell? Are we too tempted to split the world in two; or is the world really split?

    I read female authors almost exclusively. Not deliberately–at least, I don’t think it’s deliberate. Wonder why.

    I’m watching my two-year-old become obssessed with gendering the world, a new and somewhat disturbing development, and I’m wondering where that urge comes from. I don’t like it. Why should pink be a “girl” colour? Why should long hair be “girl” hair? Etc.

    I also note, possibly too tangetially to be useful, that my husband only noticed how messy the bathroom was when he started cleaning it, after the birth of our third child. Suddenly, things he hadn’t noticed before jumped out at him. So maybe women aren’t natural sock-folders, but we’ve learned to be sock-folders. We won’t always ovulate; we’ll outgrow that, too. Maybe we’re more tuned to the layered and repetitive nature of time, but we could just as easily tune out, once we’ve moved on to another stage.


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