Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Man Reading Women's Fiction

Author, blogger and self-confessed 'grumpy old woman', Rachael King has been musing on the number of people - especially men - who prefer to read fact to fiction, and how many men are turned off by women novelists.

Enter US writer and house-husband Rob Hardy whom I tripped over on the internet just now. He not only reads women novelists but has been reading a stack of Virago Classics (see author images above) and delighting in what he calls the 'out-of-body experience', of getting inside and empathising with lives different from his own and yet connected by the 'thread of dailiness and domesticity.'

This month, Rob Hardy delivered a paper on this very subject to a fascinating-sounding women's literary study group in Minnesota called the Margaret Evans Huntington Club. Begun in 1876, it has met on Monday afternoons ever since. The club spent four years in the 1890s studying Greek Tragedy! Before you hear more from Mr Hardy, here's a quick excerpt from one of the club's monthly reports (February 1897):
Mrs. Cooper's paper on Iphigenia as the typical Greek maiden was beautifully written and read. She represented Iphigenia as speaking, telling her own story as we learn it from the drama. Each paper was followed by informal discussion of the topics treated.
Rob Hardy begins his paper by talking about how Pippi Longstocking turned him onto reading.
My first clear memory of myself as a reader comes in the middle of that third grade year. The book was Pippi Longstocking. Of course. Pippi was red-headed, freckled, high-spirited, and mischievous. She was also several things that I was not. She was strong, self-confident, and independent. She had no principal, no parents or teachers to tell her what to do. She lived a life of adventure. She was a girl.
After finding his way into other books and lives 'both familiar and different', Hardy became a stay-at-home father and discovered The Way Things Are by E.M. Delafield - a Virago Modern Classic. This opened up a whole raft of woman writers he'd never heard of before. He quotes critic Elaine Showalter:
Showalter observed that the conservatism of the literary canon “reduced and condensed the extraordinary range and diversity of English women novelists to a tiny band of the ‘great’”— specifically, Austen, the Brontës, Eliot and Woolf.

Showalter noted that scholars and ordinary readers had “lost sight of the minor novelists, who were the links in the chain that bound one generation to the next.” Hundreds of women writers had gone out of print or were otherwise waiting to be rediscovered—novelists like Rose Macaulay, Elizabeth Taylor, Antonia White, Barbara Comyns, Sylvia Townsend Warner, E. Arnot Robertson, Elizabeth Jenkins, F.M. Mayor, Kate O’Brien, Rebecca West, and Winifred Holtby.
Hardy goes onto to say that Carmen Callil responded to this challenge by founding Virago Modern Classics in 1978, 'to make women’s voices heard.'

Rob Hardy's paper echoes Lloyd Jones' belief that novels aren't about escape from life but about learning to how to live in this world (this came out in his session at the Christchurch Writers Festival). Hardy would say this element is intensified in novels by women, and he's not the only one:

I am not alone, among male readers, in finding this heightened sense of sympathy and identification at the heart of the appeal of women’s novels. The novelist Jonathan Coe, writing in the Guardian about Dorothy Richardson, praised her novels for making “readers feel that they had actually lived [a] character’s life, in rich, imaginatively continuous detail.”

The novelist and Tory politician Ferdinand Mount put it this way: “[W]hat is indispensable [in a novel] is a certain quality of sympathy with the characters and their dilemmas. Even when raucously exposing his or her character’s absudities, the novelist must convey some fleeting sensation of what it would be like to be them.” Mount finds this quality, this ability to make us imagine another life as it is really lived, more consistently a feature of women’s writing.
And there's more:

For most of the history of the English novel, writing was one of the only occupations open to women, one of the only ways in which they could make their voices heard outside the nursery and the kitchen. That’s part of it—their writing can’t help but express the immense gulf between the expansiveness of their imaginations and the narrowness of the sphere to which they were confined.

But being confined to that sphere, the sphere of domesticity, they couldn’t help looking around and seeing some of its homely beauty. They couldn’t help seeing that this world of messy children and dirty floors, of broken cookers and tight household finances, was also the real world. More real, perhaps, than anything else.

It's another whole discussion as to why writing that is deeply domestic doesn't figure much on the literature geiger counter, but good on Rob Hardy for letting it figure on his, and encouraging others to do the same.

For now lets return to Rachael King whose husband, she says on her blog, is another male reader of novels by women. She says it might be why she married him. Interestingly, he's also doing a Rob Hardy and has spent much of this year as a 'stay-at-home' father while Rachael writes as Ursula Bethell Fellow at Canterbury University. It would be interesting to hear his views on the subject.


Rob Hardy said...

Thanks for your sympathetic words about my paper. And I do hope that The Blue will become available in the United States soon. You'll definitely have an enthusiastic male reader here in Minnesota!

Mary McCallum said...

Hi Rob, I was fascinated by your paper and the group you delivered it to. The blogosphere is a wonderful place when it delivers up gems like that.