Could this have been written by a man?

by | Dec 16, 2009 | Blog, Improve your writing | 1 comment

This post was prompted by a piece by James Bradley over at City of Tongues in which he considers why he enjoys reading blogs by women more than those by men. His post alerted me to Rachel Cusk’s piece in the Guardian last weekend, “Shakespeare’s daughters”, on the nature of “women’s writing”.

While it’s now 50 years since Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, and 80 years since Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, Cusk says the challenges and compromises of women’s lives – “babies, domesticity, mediocrity” – remain the same as ever, and those challenges are also those of women writers. And so the project, for Cusk, is for women writers to own the differences that distinguish their lives, to express rather than deny a distinction between the lives of women and men: “Writing may become ‘women’s writing’ when it could not have been written by a man,’ she concludes.

I like this idea, even though I suspect I am one of the women writers Cusk refers to in her piece who ‘might … nurture a certain hostility towards the concept of women’s writing’. I am sufficiently well educated to know that I am the beneficiary of advances hard-won by preceding generations of feminists, and proudly call myself a feminist despite the contested cul-de-sac in which that term now resides. I also call myself a writer (among other things), although I tend not to think of myself as a ‘woman writer’, and certainly not when I’m writing. It’s not hostility but ambivalence that I feel about the concept of “women’s writing”. If I am to give voice to the great and complex silences of women’s lives, then I do so by writing about what interests me, which by definition will be filtered through a woman’s consciousness. I can’t claim to be interested in the same things as “woman” en masse, and my media consumption tends to be quite different from what the majority of women seem to want to read or watch. I want to write about things I haven’t read about – or things that I have read about, but disagree with what’s been written (whether by a male or female writer). But I don’t feel that chick lit or self-help or memoir (including my own) could be called attempts as assimilation with “man”, as Cusk suggests, unless you decide that the entire book publishing industry is designed for men. It cannot be so, because the overwhelming majority of fiction readers – as evinced by attendance at writers’ festivals – are women.

At the moment I’m working on a story of two women musicians from different historical periods. I am trying to position each character within the social and economic forces which shape their respective lives, because as a woman I am intensely conscious of the ways in which those forces – including class, financial security, sexuality, professional independence – often work against women. This is not to say that my characters are passively blown about by circumstance; rather that they make life choices from the options available to them, which, depending on the year and country they were respectively born in, are plentiful (though not limitless) or very small indeed. So I am trying to write about love, about work, about motherhood, about artists, from the point of view of a woman. I think it will be for readers to decide whether or not what I write could have been written by a man.

Just as girls grow up learning to “read like a man” – and by so doing, learning to normalise the male point of view that dominates the majority of fiction narratives – perhaps there is a challenge for male readers to consciously choose to read more writing by women. Surely there is incremental value for men to read about female desire (whatever the object) from the woman’s point of view, unfiltered by the male gaze that women have come to view (I use the word deliberately) as normal.

Cusk laments the loss of “public unity among women”, arguing that these days, marriage and motherhood are seen as “choices, about which there is a limited entitlement to complain,” leading to a loss of “political caste” even as we have gained individual freedom. “Were a woman writer to address her sex, she would not know who or what she was addressing,” she says. I find this a rather twee notion, though Cusk might suggest I’m in denial and have simply dissociated myself from my gender in my desperate attempt to “assimilate … with man”. I can’t understand how “chick-lit” or self-help books (mostly written by women) or memoir (including my own) could be considered attempts at such alleged assimilation. Certainly the novel seems broad and deep enough to accommodate profound variety of form and content – what else do Zadie Smith and Alice Munro have in common as writers other than their gender? Here I take issue with Cusk’s idea of the necessity of women writing the “book of repetition” – “fiction that concerns itself with what is eternal and unvarying, with domesticity and motherhood and family life” – and her suggestion that these subjects are not tolerated in contemporary fiction. In fiction I’m always kept engaged by the writing, more than by than the subject – the most mundane scenario can be made utterly compelling by the sheer skill of the writer. And yet I would be loathe to think I had to conform, simply because of my gender, to writing about subjects which do not interest me.

Like any form of public address, the most powerful points are often made through storytelling and anecdotes, by using the indirect lighting of a well-chosen narrative – scenario, character, plot, style, tone, wit – to better illuminate the darker recesses of actual experience that are common to most women at one moment or another in their lives. Surely a sense of “public unity among women” will be the gradual and cumulative result of many women writing and publishing stories about all aspects of their lives, over a number of generations.

There I will stop. There are presents to buy, cards to write, bills to pay. There are so many more topics relating to women and blogging and the economics of writing – perhaps the stuff of future posts – but I will now push this one into cyberspace, thank you for reading, and invite your comments.

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