Thoughts on Women’s Literature

(c) Rosenstiel's; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Sir John Lavery

After reading so many books about women’s lives written by women lately and reading John Boyne’s article for The Guardian about how women are better writers than men because they can’t rest on their chromosomal laurels, I’ve been thinking a lot about “women’s literature.” It continues to annoy me that publishers and critics still refer to literary fiction by women about female characters as a separate genre. I see no difference between literature and so-called women’s literature because both genres ask the same questions: what it means to be a human.

Books like Red Clocks and The Girls show us womanhood in all its variations. There’s nothing small about questions of being a mother or not, being a wife or not, trying to work and have a family or not, how to look like a woman, how to behave like a woman, and all the rest. It baffles me that these topics have not, until very recently I think, been thought important by critics of contemporary fiction. There’s so much fertile ground there for academics and critics to discuss and debate with each other.

How could any reader not be interested in examining the inner lives of women, who spend so much time being told how to be and who have to decide between convention and individuality? I certainly am, perhaps because I’ve wrestled with that question off and on for most of my life. To see the question played out in literature has been incredibly helpful to me—just as I’m sure books by male* authors about male protagonists have helped male readers over the years address the divide between what men are told they ought to be and how they really are. Books by women about women’s lives have helped me give myself permission to be only me, instead of worrying that I’m not a wife or a mother and can never be a biological mother. They’ve helped shore up my conviction that I am not my biology and that my biology does not limit me to certain roles.

While women authors are still not equally represented in winning prizes or in the critical literature, I wonder if the tide might be turning in favor of women writers. I read as much bookish news as I can cram in around word and all my other reading and it seems, with a few exceptions, that the authors I see the most critical praise for and hear the most readers gushing about are women. It also helps seeing so many people taking potshots at Jonathan Franzen for pomposity and his failure to follow through on all the praise that was heaped on him after The Corrections.


* Saying male authors is not entirely accurate, I know. The English language is failing me a little because referring to authors who are men as male authors is less wordy than saying “authors who are men” all the time. Men authors just doesn’t sound right.

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