The Consolation of Genre

I have found that almost all of the romance novels I have read achieve something that sounds mundane, but remains quite radical: they model a form of female happiness and fulfillment still lacking in most canonical works of literature. Imagining stories for women (too often, but not always, heterosexual, cis-gendered, and monogamous) that end optimistically, these novels not only depict relationships that involve negotiation and growth, but also allow female protagonists to experience a kind of personal, sexual, and professional fulfillment that does not feel like an unattainable fantasy.

– Cailey Hall, The Consolation of Genre: On Reading Romance Novels

Emma Donoghue, Astray (2012)

Emma Donoghue is one of my favourite writers and I particularly love her historical short fiction.

The stories in Astray are based on fragmentary and marginal historical sources, such as news reports, letters, obituaries, legal records and museum exhibits. The overarching theme is people who are on the move, out of place, in transition physically, emotionally, and psychologically. The book is organised into three sections (‘Departures’, ‘In Transit’, and ‘Arrivals and Aftermaths’), and the characters we meet within them are immigrants and emigrants, drifters, adventurers and runaways.

Each story explores the opportunities and risks of movement and boundary-crossing, what’s gained and what’s lost. An elephant is sold to P.T. Barnum, much to the dismay of his zookeeper. A woman supporting her family through prostitution in mid-Victorian London considers making a fresh start in Canada. An eighteenth-century wife tricks her husband out of his fortune and disappears. Another wife persuades a slave to run away with her. A married couple’s new start in America is blighted by tragedy before they can be reunited. Two young men go prospecting in the gold rush. A frontierswoman drags a prodigal husband home. A child is adopted and sent abroad against her first mother’s will. A seventeenth-century puritan community grapples with accusations of sexual “deviance”. A child soldier is caught up in a campaign of organised rape. The daughter of a businessman in New York discovers that the man she knew as her father once lived as a woman. A lesbian artist contemplates her life as her partner descends into dementia.

I really enjoyed Astray and found the stories fascinating and poignant. Donoghue is an emigrant/immigrant herself, moving from Ireland to Canada to pursue a relationship. The ‘Afterword’, in which she talks about how this experience shaped the book, creates a real sense of empathy and resonance. As with much of her work, there’s a focus on the lives of women and queer people, as well as people who live on the margins and don’t really fit into any normative categories.

*** Just one word of warning: ‘The Hunt’ is a deeply disturbing story about rape and I think it could be extremely triggering for people who’ve experienced sexualised violence

The Many Ways in which we are Wrong about Jane Austen

She never expected to be read the way we read her, gulped down as escapist historical fiction, fodder for romantic fantasies. Yes, she wanted to be enjoyed; she wanted people to feel as strongly about her characters as she did herself. But for Jane a story about love and marriage wasn’t ever a light and frothy confection. Generally speaking, we view sex as an enjoyable recreational activity; we have access to reliable contraception; we have very low rates of maternal and infant mortality. None of these things were true for the society in which Jane lived. The four of her brothers who became fathers produced, between them, 33 children. Three of those brothers lost a wife to complications of pregnancy and childbirth. Another of Jane’s sisters-in-law collapsed and died suddenly at the age of 36; it sounds very much as if the cause might have been the rupturing of an ectopic pregnancy, which was, then, impossible to treat. Marriage as Jane knew it involved a woman giving up everything to her husband—her money, her body, her very existence as a legal adult. Husbands could beat their wives, rape them, imprison them, take their children away, all within the bounds of the law. Avowedly feminist writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft and the novelist Charlotte Smith were beginning to explore these injustices during Jane’s lifetime. Understand what a serious subject marriage was then, how important it was, and all of a sudden courtship plots start to seem like a more suitable vehicle for discussing other serious things.

No more than a handful of the marriages Jane depicts in her novels are happy ones. And with the possible exception of Pride and Prejudice, even the relationships between Jane’s central characters are less than ideal—certainly not love’s young dream. Marriage mattered because it was the defining action of a woman’s life; to accept or refuse a proposal was almost the only decision that a woman could make for herself, the only sort of control she could exert in a world that must very often have seemed as if it were spiraling into turmoil. Jane’s novels aren’t romantic. But it’s become increasingly difficult for readers to see this.

My favourite paragraphs from Helena Kelly’s fantastic essay, The Many Ways in Which we are Wrong about Jane Austen 

Making Lesbian History Visible

At this point I would like to make a radical proposal: that we temporarily forget about who calls themselves a lesbian; why, or why not. Instead, I propose that we look into the emotional, psychological, economic, political, intellectual, artistic, sexual, daily and life long experiences of women who allowed or refused the embrace. The conversations that did happen and did not. The words permitted, and those uttered without permission. The invitations refused and accepted. The fears. The imaginations, erotic and projected. The walks in the woods, the fucking, the pleasure of the company acknowledged and refused. The meals, the conversation, how and what conversations provoked, the actions, the artworks, the articles, books, tears, orgasms realized/failed/imagined/remembered, caresses, tendernesses, the refusals of tenderness, kisses that were and should have been, and how this moved the earth, the culture, the society or even just one or two people’s small lives. I propose that we call this whatever we want to call it, but that we not let it fall by the wayside, because when those of us creating queer history and culture display a reluctance to go deeper and transcend the artifice of restrictive thinking, the mainstream representations are handed a convenient model of hesitant obscuration. Lesbians give each other meaning in private, and it is too easy to keep the secret. It doesn’t have to be clean, neat, safe, compartmentalized, or expected. Show it all and let the chips fall where they may.

Sarah Schulman, ‘Making Lesbian History Visible: A Proposal’ at Out History

Women & Writing

Women often resist being described as “women writers,” and with good reason. The need to prefix “writer” with a tag suggests that writer really means male writer (or perhaps, more specifically, white, straight male writer). It implies that readers need to be warned; that women are intruders on the default terrain — which, in the pages of many magazines, they are. Similarly, the idea of “women’s writing” provokes ambivalence precisely because it implies that women are writing only from, and about, their experience as women (unlike men, who are asking the big universal questions of interest to all, in their great American novels-to-be). The implication is that women are trapped within their particularity, unable to speak to those who don’t share it, while the writing of (straight, white) men is universal rather than particular. But everyone is shaped by their experience of gender, whatever that experience is; there is no view from nowhere. Men’s experience is no less specific than women’s; it’s just that we fail to see it as such.

Katherine Angel, Gender, blah, blah, blah 

Lucille Clifton, i am running into a new year

i am running into a new year
and the old years blow back
like a wind
that i catch in my hair
like strong fingers like
all my old promises and
it will be hard to let go
of what i said to myself
about myself
when i was sixteen and
twenty-six and thirty-six
even forty-six but
i am running into a new year
and i beg what i love and
i leave to forgive me.

From Good Woman: Poems and A Memoir 1969-1980

Via @emdanforth on twitter