Over at the Guardian women’s pages Mary Fitzgerald has taken up the question of whether one needs to write differently for women than for men. I would recommend you read it, except by the third paragraph the perils of a British education and relatively literate reading public start getting her into trouble and she is off talking about Hélène Cixous and “écriture féminine.” Not to make assumptions about the vast amount of women writers working today, but I doubt that even when they conceive of themselves as “writing for women,” they do so with Cixous in mind. At any rate Fitzgerald proceeds to saddle Cixous’ (let’s face it, kind of obscure) brand of French feminism with responsibility for the Anna Wintours and Sophie Kinsellas of this world. One imagines Cixous in the great beyond saying (with my French Canadian grandmother’s tobacco-soaked rasp, natch) “Ferme ta gueule.“
Fitzgerald does, however, have a point. When I was a young and less jaded feminist I too would rail against what I saw as the excesses of “chick lit.” Surely you all recognize this stage of feminist awakening: one day you are reading a women’s magazine or a novel in which a character has gone on an extended shopping trip (fuck you, Sweet Valley High) and a small lightbulb suddenly appears over your head and alights itself. “I am not like this.“ And suddenly, the very appearance of the colour pink is like a red flag to you, enough to make you rend your (ethically-made, 20% hemp fiber) garments. And then your rage begins to snowball. Not only are you offended by the reductive stereotypes employed by the authors, you’re offended that this is what they think women want! Not all women want the same things! Don’t they know all women are different?
Well, of course they are, and I certainly resist any narrative the patriarchy tries to tell me about myself – how soft and nurturing I am, my apparent weakness for fruity cocktails (okay, true, but screw off, “manly drinks” that taste like last month’s unwashed socks), my love of velour. And I don’t believe, in any way, that any characteristic I have is directly biologically related. My affection for kitties does not keep a pied-à-terre in my ovaries.
But there is this thing known as the socially existing woman. There is something to the argument, and I know we’ve all felt it, that the female experience, in this culture, in this time, before the revolution and after somebody decided to publish our work, is distinctive. It is not immutable or unchangeable because it is different from the male experience, but it is there. And it is worth talking about.
Thus I cannot subscribe to a wholescale rejection of “writing for women,” because I am worried that it means uncritically accepting that the literary canon is already sufficiently imbued with (socially constructed, but nonetheless extant and real) women’s perspectives. It seems obvious to me that this is not the case. As our regular readers know, the Dudely Literati are the leading cause of ass-twitch in the PilgrimSoul household, not least because they conceive of themselves as writing about People or Humanity when in fact, they are mostly writing about themselves.
Sometimes I think we as women forget that so much of our attitudes about what it means to “write well” or “be insightful” are conditioned by the patriarchy, and the literary world is no exception. So allowing the supposedly “universal” standard of Good Writing to stand unchallenged by other voices – arguing, for example, that women can, should be, and are, just as interested in Benjamin Kunkel’s brainfarts as they are in Jane Austen’s – misses the fundamental point. Our idea about what makes Good Writing has traditionally been written by men, for men, about men and male concerns. When women (and here I do not mean the corporate-write-by-numbers un-self-aware “chick lit” – I mean Margaret Laurence and Toni Morrison) write about women, they should be applauded, not criticized, for adding to the range of perspectives out there.
And like it or not, the inclusion of diverse perspectives means that we are going to have unthinking female writers (hello Kinsella) out there just like we have unthinking male writers (I would like to kick Kunkel’s butt). But let’s be clear: their problem is their lack of critical awareness, not their desire to have a literature that speaks about and for female perspectives on life, the universe, and everything else.
And I guess what I’m saying is that I’m willing to pay that price for a single Alice Munro story. Shouldn’t you be?