Thursday, August 23, 2007

What Is A "Real" Writer?

As I was browsing the table of contents of the 25th anniversary issue of Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, the title of Susan Staves’ essay, “Women Writers≠Women Novelists," fairly leaped off the page and danced a tango as it snagged my attention. I’ve had many a conversation over the years with people who don’t write novels (or even fiction) who are either anxious and insecure about whether they’re really “writers” or frustrated with people who insist that only novelists merit the designation. The unspoken assumption that being a writer means being a novelist is pervasive; but I can’t recall ever having read a refutation of the equation before now.

Staves begins by declaring her love of curling up with a good novel. Preparing for a trip to Oklahoma to attend an academic conference, she decided to read Edna Ferber’s 1930 Cimarron, which chronicles “the opening of Oklahoma” in 1889. According to Staves, in her Foreward to the novel, Ferber says that although she did a lot of research for the novel, she didn’t attempt to “set down a literal history of Oklahoma” for she had to discard a lot of material “as unfit for use because it was so melodramatic, so absurd as to be too strange for the realm of fiction.” The stories that the novel can tell, in other words, are limited. In the world of “true history,” Ferber writes, “Anything can have happened in Oklahoma. Practically everything has.”

This observation will be nothing new to novelists. Even novels that attempt to grapple with the world as it is must bow to the strictures of the narrative models that determine what is plausible and meaningful. Fiction that bears the banner of “Realism” is as artificial as a 1950s sit-com: “realism” is a style, not an accurate description of a novel’s content.

Staves uses Ferber’s observation to reflect on her own period of expertise, eighteenth-century Britain, and on

the still-present temptation to make our history of women’s writing a history of women writing novels and the temptation to use novels as the primary source of our imaginative contact with the lives and minds of eighteenth-century women.

I say “our” here speaking as a literary scholar, my original role and one to which I am always happy to return despite occasional excursions into other disciplines. Feminist scholars in other disciplines usually do not succumb to this temptation. Indeed, one advantage of the interdisciplinary character of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies is that at these meetings we can—and should—seize opportunities to listen to our colleagues in other disciplines. I have found that the impression of eighteenth-century women’s lives that one gets from current work in textile studies or musicology or economic history is remote indeed form the impression one gets from novels. Outside of novels, eighteen-century women often seem considerably less abject, more aware of adult sexuality, less sentimental, and more knowledgeable about money. This is certainly true, for example, of the women letter writers we meet in Elaine Chalus’s Elite Women in English Political Life (2005).

Later in the essay, she reminds us that

novels, especially novels written by women, were relentlessly judged in terms of whether they were suitable surrogate conduct books for adolescent girls. The conventions of the novel that developed under those circumstances were generic conventions that were not equivalent even to the social conventions that applied to women in polite society, and certainly not the same as conventions thought appropriate to contemporary historical writing, philosophical writing—or even stage comedy.

The more detailed studies of women intellectuals who wrote in forms other than the novel that we have, the more we will appreciate the great range and variety of women’s experience and thought.

Hmm. I wonder what anyone could possibly make of our world today by reading the novels now being published. Anyone involved with writing, reviewing, or publishing fiction knows well that that the narrative forms available to fiction writers represent a fairly narrow range of experience and values and a limited number of stories that don’t represent most of the people living in the world (much less much about their lives). (The same, certainly, could be said about television and movies.)

Staves’ main point is that the “literary landscape” (as it used to be called) of the eighteenth-century Anglophone world encompassed a good deal more than novels. And so she urges the importance of bringing into print and studying the mostly ignored nonfiction produced by Anglophone women writers in the early modern period. Women who wrote essays and history and biography and philosophy and theology, she emphasizes, were writers. And should be recognized and respected as such.

Her reflections prompt me to wish that our current notion of Writer were as broad. Scholarly and intellectual writing can be a pleasure to readbut often isn’t. Much nonfiction writing has perhaps come to be seen as utilitarian and thus of no aesthetic interest. But why not? Consider the talented writers of nonfiction that make an art of their thoughtful articulations: writers like Joanna Russ (who would still be a “real” writer even if she’d only written nonfiction), or Rachel Blau DuPlessis (oh the pleasures of the Pink Guitar!), or Claudia Ranikine, whose Don’t Let Me Be Lonely is unquestionably an eloquent work of art, even if it isn’t a novel.

Here’s to fine writers who happen to write in forms other than fiction: may they win the respect and admiration they deserveand above all, keep writing.


Lesley Hall said...

On C18th-early C19th women in the literary world, let me put in a big plug for the work of Norma Clarke's several works on Women of Letters. These demosntrate that women were writing serious critical studies, essays, works of history and scholarship, letters (often intended for eventual publication), etc.

And as someone whose interests lie mainly post-1850, it drives me bonkers when people assume that the conventions of the novel bear much relation to the real lives even of middle-class Victorian women. The prime example still probably being George Eliot - Mary Ann Evans's life would never have passed muster in a novel!

Timmi Duchamp said...

Just so!

& thanks for mentioning Norma Clarke. I haven't yet read any of her books, but now I'm looking forward to doing so.