Monday, March 19, 2018

Women’s Fiction

With women’s Day just behind us, I am focusing my reading this month on women authors. I notice more and more when I peruse big distributors like Amazon that there is now a genre called “Women’s Fiction.” Not so long ago, this same genre might have been called romance novels, and I take both designations as at least faintly negative, alerting readers that this is light fiction, all about squishy love and relationships, unlike the more muscled serious literature produced by men. In fact, if a reader really wants to read about relationships, between men and women, women and women, parents and children, and even our relationships with other animals, I think the category to look to is women’s fiction.

Indeed, when I look back over women authors of the last century or more, I think most could be put in this category. Simone de Beauvoir, Iris Murdoch, Penelope Lively, Doris Lessing, and even Nadine Gordimer write primarily about family and relationships. Yes, Murdoch’s novels are deeply philosophical, and Gordimer’s deeply political, but the stories told are about relationships. Take for example one of Gordimer’s later novels, A Sport of Nature, Lively’s The Photograph, Lesssing’s The Golden Notebook, de Beauvoirs’ The Mandarins; all of these novels are about relationships, and all (as I read them) feminist novels. 

But I want to put in a word or two today for even more popular so-called romance writers like Jojo Moyes, Joan Silber, and Miranda Beverly-Whittemore. Recently, after finally finishing an agonizingly long and gruesome psychological thriller, a reader friend loaned me a stack of library books when I told her I needed to read something more hopeful and optimistic. The stack included Jojo Moyes, The Last Letter From Your Lover, and The Horse Dancer both of which were deeply perceptive about how relationships go wrong, and how they can sometimes be righted, perhaps with just a few moments of real honesty or a real attempt to un-self, in Murdoch’s words, to really attend to the other. The Horse Dancer not only reveals much about how secrets and  hiding of insecurities prevents real understanding between lovers, and between children and parents, it also describes a beautiful relationship between a girl and her horse, and much advice about how we ought to attend to and treat animals in our lives. 

Now I agree that romance novels often become formulaic, with too much talk of six-pack abdomens and hot, smoky sex. And, as in The Last Letter From Your Lover, too much jerking around of the readers, first giving one hope of a breakthrough, a reunion, a happy ending, and then ripping the carpet out from under those hopes, only to begin to build a new anticipation of resolution, a new thread of hope cut off again, and again. Still, the characters in the novels mentioned are believable and fully fleshed out, and the circumstances usually quite plausible. 

Miranda Beverly-Whittemore’s fine novel, Set Me Free not only describes human relationships well and perceptively, it also tells us a lot about racism and the broken promises Native Americans have continually faced. I’m sure some readers would want to insist that Set Me Free is much more than a romance or women’s fiction book, but my point is that many in this poorly defined genre are much more than romances.

I learned long ago that I loved what many critics deride as ‘chick flicks,’ for many of the same reasons I find so-called romance novels important and uplifting. When I look back and recall why I so loved Edith Wharton. Alice Munro, Willa Cather, I discover that it was their acute understanding of relationships that endeared them to me. Would Jane Austin and Emily Bronte (were they writing today) be labeled romance writers? Certainly, relationships between lovers were key part of their works. 

At various times in my reading life I have rejected whole genres of writing: science-fiction, mysteries, only to discover my reasons were superficial and largely unjustified. So-called romance novels are, I suppose, my latest treasure-trove of overlooked or too quickly rejected novels. Jojo Moyes has made me laugh out loud and cry as she describes the sad but often laughable antics of lovers.

I have not learned much from self-help books on how to make relationships work, or how and when to jettison ones that don’t, but novels (especially those by women) have shown me just how deceit tarnishes and/or destroys relationships, just how even moments of real honesty can restart a relationship in trouble. 

I am a reader who loves to read about families, and here, again, I think the place to go is often this slippery genre I’m trying to characterize.

Next week I will return to my usual habit of reviewing a single novel when I review Rene Denfeld’s The Child Finder, another novel primarily about relationships. But today, I am happy to be recommending to you women’s fiction, which is neither soft nor shallow.

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