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I’m still holding fast to my decision to no longer use the term “Women’s Fiction” when describing a particular style of writing that typically focuses on relationships among spouses, partners, friends, and/or family members. It’s a reductive and somewhat condescending descriptor that pigeon holes certain writers. Meg Wolitzer elaborated eloquently about this very topic in the New York Times Book Review.
The issue of how we view female writers recently bubbled to the surface once more thanks to one Wikipedia editor’s overzealous categorization. As the category “American Novelist” grew, this individual created a subcategory of American Women Novelists and starting with the A’s began segregating the female author to this new page. As you can imagine, this curatorial decision has created a wee bit of outrage. The situation was brought to light in an Op-Ed piece for the New York Times by Amanda Filpacchi (an American Woman Novelist) titled “Wikipedia’s Sexism Toward Female Novelists.”
How silly would it be to have a category “American Male Novelists.” It’s just odd to use gender as a descriptor. Why not genre-- “American Crime Novelists” --or time period “American 19th Century Novelists”? Gender is simply not an effective method of categorization—if the purpose truthfully is to make things more easily findable. At any rate, I’ve been thinking a lot about issues of creativity, gender, and marriage since several of the books I’ve recently read have explored similar subjects. Isn’t it strange how you often find yourself immersed in a particular topic out of happenstance?
Many of my most recent reads share (to a certain degree) the theme of creativity and (versus?) domesticity. Is it possible to be both an exceptional artist and a devoted spouse/partner? Generally, these are questions for women, and perhaps they reflect a larger dialog such as the one Betty Friedan ignited 50 years ago by writing about the “problem that has no name” and continues with Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In.
I just finished Claire Messud’s haunting and brilliant new novel The Woman Upstairs. The enraged narrator is a good girl, a rule-follower, a “woman upstairs.” Reliable, responsible, and rational, she is rarely observed and easily overlooked. This woman upstairs, third-grade teacher Nora Elridge, is simmering with anger about her unfulfilled promise and her “fun house” of a life when she meets the exotic and entrancing Shadid family. Becoming part of their world awakens longing within her that she struggles to understand. As I was reading The Woman Upstairs, I was reminded of the “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a short story published in 1899 by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, in which a young wife is ordered to rest (avoid excitement of any kind, but particularly writing) in order to recover from a “temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency.”
I was again reminded of Gilman’s groundbreaking short story while reading Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Fowler. This recent biographical fiction recounts the courtship and tumultuous marriage of the Fitzgeralds from Zelda’s perspective. What begins as a whirlwind of parties, expensive hotels, and copious amounts of alcohol turns into bitter arguments, reckless spending, lies and mistrust. What I found particularly powerful in this romantic, sad, and highly readable novel is Zelda’s struggle to maintain her identity as an artist in her own right—not as the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Another book that I consumed in just a couple of days was Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer. This epistolary novel tells the story of two fictional characters loosely based on the lives of Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell. Frances and Bernard meet at a writer’s colony in 1957 and develop a deep friendship that affects them for the rest of their lives. As they develop as writers, and their relationship deepens, Frances must examine her need to write and the possibility of marriage.
While I hope you might enjoy some of these women writers, I would kindly suggest that we begin just calling them “writers.”