Can Women Order From the Menu of Fiction?

Shortly after the publication of Jane Austen’s novel, Emma (1815), the greatest English writer of the day, the now largely-forgotten Sir Walter Scott, wrote an unexpected review of the work which brought her attention and acclaim. Though he praised the work on the whole, he hastened to add that,

"The author’s knowledge of the world, and the peculiar tact with which she presents characters that the reader cannot fail to recognize, reminds us something of the merits of the Flemish school of painting.  The subjects are not often elegant, and certainly never grand; but they are finished up to nature, and with a precision which delights the reader” (1815).

Not damning censure, perhaps, but the equivalent of a 3.5 or a 4 star review on Goodreads. What irks him about her work is its ‘smallness,’ its inability to scale grand vistas and look out on the world. Scott, himself, wrote of history, politics, and war, the derring-do of decisive men in a dangerous world. When women featured, they were typically demure, kind-hearted, or villainous. It smacks of the praise one would give to a precocious nine year-old artist drawing pictures of castles and dragons. Very well done, good perspective and so forth, though of course it says nothing about life. Life is all elegance and grandeur, and Austen, it seems, could only capture the smallest bit of it in an artfully drawn crayon portrait.

Something of the same sentiment appears in a retrospective tribute by George Henry Lewes, who, writing in 1859, imagined the fate of Austen’s legacy:
"She sits in the House of Peers, but it is as a simple Baron…But when it is admitted that she never stirs the deeper emotions, that she never fills the soul with a noble aspiration, or brightens it with a fine idea, but, at the utmost, only teaches us charity for the ordinary failings of ordinary people, and sympathy with their goodness, we have admitted an objection which lowers her claims to rank among the great benefactors of the race” (1859).

Sorry Jane, you’re no “great benefactor” to the race. Your stories of “ordinary” people with “ordinary” failings teach us nothing about the world. As a woman, she is only able to offer “charity,” since qualities such as profundity and wisdom are clearly beyond her. By the 1850’s Austen had yet to assume the dizzying heights of popularity she would assume one hundred years later, though people were clearly reading her: people such as the Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, and eventually Henry James, who owed her his entire career. So why pick on Austen, whose books were among the first to compete with the great male novelists of the 19th century? To be sure, there were great female novelists of the 18th century, but their works largely died with them; only Austen remained, to offer the possibility of authorship to every subsequent generation of women. Doesn’t that, alone, rank her among the great benefactors of her race—or sex?

I use Jane Austen to highlight a problem that I feel persists even in our age of political correctness and gender neutrality: the precariousness of the female writer. To be sure, this is a golden age for women in general, particularly in Young Adult literature which teems with successful female novelists. And yet, does the stigma still remain: are many of their works seen as too ordinary, insufficiently grand to achieve true literary status? This is more of an issue in genre fiction, particularly fantasy and science fiction, which have been dominated by men since their inception. Fantasy still lurks in the shadow of Tolkein on the one side, and Robert E. Howard’s Conan novels on the other, great male works that balance elegant (and in Howard’s case, bombastic) writing with epic feats of lore. Skim over the covers of a dozen fantasy novels and the narrative is all too clear: grim warriors cradling ancient swords to confront mythic creatures from a cursed prophecy. While a strong—and beautiful/sexual—woman will often make an appearance, she rarely commands center stage, or when she does, she tends to adopt the mantle of Red Sonja of Marvel fame (the female equivalent of Conan). To me this always begged the question: what would a woman writing fantasy want to write? While many women are drawn to fantasy, would they necessarily want to perpetuate the same narrative—with the same roles—supported by the same assumptions about gender? Would it be possible to write the fantasy novel Jane Austen would have written: smaller, more intimate, more thoughtful, and less blood and thunder?

I would argue that there is nothing small or inadequate about Jane Austen’s fiction, nor the work of a thousand other women writers; yet I still find them curiously overlooked in mainstream fiction. Indeed, we still have to talk about a writer as a female writer, rather than simply a writer. Many women have taken the path of least resistance and publish YA novels (particularly in fantasy/sci-fi), since this is a subgenre readily open to them with few men in the way. So that’s how it works, then: women write YA and men write the…rest of it? Isn’t there something a bit sexist and demeaning in assuming that women are better at writing for “young adults,” which depending on which agent/publisher you ask, either means high school age readers or anyone between eight and fifteen(!). We find ourselves with the chicken-or-the-egg dilemma: did women choose to write YA and so became the dominant force within it, or were they relegated to writing for teens and pre-teens because they were seen as the “lesser Barons” of literature? Which came first?

I have a lot of problems with the designation of Young Adult, but that’s another argument for another time. What bothers me is the implied snobbism at work in popular literature, which allows women their place but not on their own terms. It harkens back to Virginia Woolf’s seminal book from 1929, A Room of One’s Own. Here she claimed that there were so few women writers for one important reason: they didn’t have the privacy of a solitary room to write in, much less the time to spend in it. Men were encouraged to write, their struggles to do so becoming the stuff of legend—even literature itself. Women were ignored, mocked, shunned, and locked in asylums. They had to fight for their place at the table, and a writer like Jane Austen, in her quiet, unassuming way, was one of the first to insist on seeing a menu (and not just accepting a doggy-bag). A hundred years later, can women still order from the menu and write what they want, in whatever genre they want, and expect to be read? And more importantly, are women encouraged to read these works themselves? I fear that all too many young girls grow into readers who assume they have one—and only one—genre to themselves: Young Adult literature. I’ve been distressed to find so many of my students (usually around 18-21) reluctant to read anything else, even other, more “adult” works by other women. While many of these students truly prefer this literature to any other, I wonder how much of it is culturally constructed. The library and bookstore tells them where to go to find books—“Young Adult, Teen Romance, YA Graphic Novels,” etc. and so does When I was a kid, the library was simply a library: it had a kids’ section and everything else. In this case, the younger section merely suggested a reading level, not a genre. Are we inadvertently ghettoizing our children’s reading habits? And in this case of women, are we giving them a slim audience and a tiny (if lucrative) subgenre as the bill of fare? Can women order off other menus—or heck, even open their own restaurant?

The answer, of course, is yes, as many writers and readers discover. But even choosing a book is an act of great courage: when I was younger, certain books terrified me as much for their size as their pedigree (200 years old! A work of philosophy! A translation!). Imagine, then, the courage it takes for a woman to write a book in a genre that her teenage self wouldn’t read, that an agent wouldn’t represent, and that a publisher wouldn’t sell. When a female novelist of my acquaintance moved from publishing poetry to writing fiction, she was told by her agent to write Young Adult: “it’s perfect for you,” she was told, even though her poetry is as far from YA as could be imagined. Perfect for what, then? Perfect for someone destined not to be one of the “benefactors of her race,” perhaps; perfect for someone who prefers to write about the so-called “ordinary” things of the world, like love, friendship, sisterhood, and the simple joys of existence. All things, ironically, that men write of, too…

In the end, Austen went on to write works which profoundly benefited our race—the race of readers, male or female. Every man and woman should have the same opportunity, and we shouldn’t be so bound and determined to tell kids or women or anyone what to read. Marketing makes things simpler for the people selling books, not for the people reading them. And it makes it damn hard to find your voice as a writer, particularly if your voice doesn’t resemble the daily special that’s being served at every restaurant in town.