‘Women’s literary fiction’ is a relatively new genre of writing, through women have been writing for centuries. Indeed the first ‘officially’ recognized novel as we understand the term today was penned by a mediaeval Japanese women back in the 11th century – Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki. Highly recommended.
However it is not my intention to write a nuanced discussion on the why’s and wherefore’s on gender focused writing. Instead I am offering a few personal reflections on a selection of novels I have read over the past few years, all of which I would characterize as ‘women’s fiction’. Like many other readers I became dimly aware of a new kind of modern novel which appeared to be written from a female perspective back in the ‘90’s when The Red Tent was published.
Now I know that there are many literary critics out there who would dispute voraciously that there can be women- or men-centred writing, and not all of these disputants are males who disparage anything vaguely suggestive of being solely women oriented. Joyce Carol Oates is one female writer who immediately springs to mind. She maintains that good writing is reflective of neither gender, it is simply good, or not. I have always disagreed, though I have read novels penned by males which can almost match a woman’s writing with its female perspective.
For me personally my first taste of contemporary women’s literary fiction occurred in 1997 when I lifted a copy of The Red Tent by Anita Diamant from the shop bookshelves, and then proceeded to devour its contents, discovering a hunger within myself for words reflective of my female based experience. I loved it. Not only was it a story well told, but it describes lived experience and particular female-based emotions which I recognized and realized I was so hungry to read about. Before The Red Tent there were of course novels like The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim telling the story of a group of four women who find each other and then themselves (a theme of ‘women’s fiction’), proving that such an approach to writing has long been part of the literary scene. It is just that it is only relatively recently that womens fiction as a specific genre has become so productive. Of course many French feminists have long espoused a form of writing which came to be called ‘l’écriture féminine’, and to read their words and works is justification enough, if justification is needed, to maintain such a genre distinction within the literary world. But until the late ‘90’s there seemed to be a dearth of novels by and about women’s issues. [I shall anticipate being proven wrong in this assertion. Please note in the comment section below your own favourite ‘womens fiction’ novels, both pre-90’s and in more recent years.]
Having had a taste of honey, the lure of a novel written by another woman whose imaginative writings reflected much of my own experience, albeit in times long preceeding mine, I was desperate to discover more. And so began years of seeking and finding many biblical inspired novels in a similar format to The Red Tent. But what had been new and exciting gradually grew tired and repetitive. I needed something different, something fresh.
The internet of course is something of a god-send with its virtually (!) unlimited potential as a world wide book catalogue, and I have engaged in very many happy hours, chasing book titles from book seller to book blogs and author’s web sites, then back to biblio dealer. Is there anything quite like the lure of a promise of the perfect novel? Over the years I have found a few, though mostly they fall under the rubric of perfect beginning, or wonderful middle, or, very rarely, satisfying ending. Indeed I often wonder why creative writing books harp on quite so much about getting the opening paragraphs / chapters right ( apart that is from attempting to hook the agent’s/reader’s interest) when it is the ending that the sense of the book lies. And there are so few books with even a half decent ending. Though one I read recently, The Madonnas of Leningrad surprised me with its exquisitely perfect concluding chapter. But you will have to read the novel to understand the truth of my claim. If I tell you why and how the author Debra Dean achieves this almost impossible task I will have divulged too much.
Another novel with an excellent ending is The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. Not everyone who reads this tale ‘gets’ it, but for those who do, it is an ending you cannot possibly forget, one that will continue to haunt your dreams for many nights after re-shelving the novel awaiting its second reading.
But for anyone seeking access to the genre of women’s fiction I can do no better than to point you in the direction of Meg Waite Clayton who introduces her readers to a wonderful selection of female authors and their novels. It was from Meg’s blog I first learned about Debra Dean. Generally speaking Meg’s site is my first port of call when I am in the market for a new novel penned by a woman who I am certain will answer a need and enunciate desires I may not yet know I have. Check out her blog ‘1st Books:Reading, Writing and Book-Based Travel’ here. And while you’re at it why not pick up copies of her own women centred fiction, including The Language of Light, The Four Ms Bradwells, The Wednesday Sisters and her forthcoming The Wednesday Daughters? [I hope to review them all soon!]