A Summer of #notwomensfiction (Belated)

Fall is here. Has been for about a month now. The air is crisp, cool, and every #basicwhitegirl is coming out of the woodwork for pumpkin spice lattes.

But enough of stereotyping women for their preferred seasonal beverage…I’m the one you should smh at.

Back in June we examined what women’s fiction is as a genre/reading category, how it’s inherently Othered because there is no “men’s fiction,” and how to destroy it with the #notwomensfiction campaign. Summer is passed and past, and I unintentionally took a three-month hiatus from the blog (I’m so sorry!). Though belated, I guess it’s fitting to bookend the expired summer with the results of this reading challenge.

What I Read

In the span of three (or really four at this point) months, I had a terrible run—with only three books read in total. I wanted to read so much more to support women writers, but I was focused on the job search, moved to a new apartment, finished up classes, got lazy, some other weird things…But no excuses! This is what I read:

  1. Paulina & Fran by Rachel B. Glaser, 2015
  2. Cutting Loose by Nadine Dajani, 2008
  3. The Daughters by Adrienne Celt, 2016 (as soon as I went to add this to my Goodreads shelf, an ad for the new book The Mothers bannered across the top of the page. How pleasantly ironic!

the-mothers

Screenshot from Goodreads.

What I Saw

Don’t judge a book by its cover, goes the old adage. Yet “women’s fiction” is too often visually coded as less serious than “regular” fiction (or fiction by men). To recap the posts that began this campaign, covers unconsciously factor into the bias against fiction by and about women, especially when their designs feature pastels, stereotypically “girly” things (pumpkin spice latte, anyone?), and/or fonts like  curlz mt.GIF. (And in publishing, covers drive sales, whether or not the author is self-published.)

Here are the covers of the three books:

covers-in-row

Before actually encountering these books in person, I had never heard of them. They were all free (also not supporting these women writers, so I should be ashamed of myself!), floating around campus, in little neighborhood drop-and-swaps, or at publishing conventions. I had no expectations, other than what the covers and back copy visually communicated.

  • Paulina & Fran: Tons of copies were scattered throughout my college program’s department lounge, so I nabbed one. The title indicates the relationship between two women, as does its cover, featuring, presumably, their faces. Who are they? (An alternate 2016 cover removes the sense of sorority that this cover establishes.) Cursive font. Nothing is strikingly feminine about this cover other than the two female faces looking away from each other and the reader—in fact, they may be resisting the male gaze in their lack of sexualization and inattention to the gazer.
  • Cutting Loose: Just from the cover, I know this book isn’t my cup of tea. The three women running toward the reader, splashing along the shore of a beach with their backlit hair blowing in the ocean breeze seems very much “chick lit.” But also interesting starry patterns and palm trees—which make me homesick. Almost curlicue font. Knowing this is a book I would turn away from based on its cover, I needed to give it a chance (or else I would be perpetuating the women’s-fiction-made-even-lesser-because-of-its-cover stigma).
  • The Daughters: Trees (notably bare) and script and deep blue and pale yellow—there’s no overt labeling on this cover. The title hints to matrilineage, yet this is definitely the least gendered of these books’ designs. Trees on covers are common enough, but trees in this book turn out to be where women seduce their prey (i.e., men). Maybe this aspect of nature is hinting to the Mother (Mother Nature)?

Random observation: All of their blurbers are women.

Other random observation: Nobel Prizes don’t have gendered literature categories. Thanks!

What I Learned

Since I had no knowledge of these novels’ plots, no inklings of the writing, and no expectations of either, I tried to go into this campaign as open minded as possible, ready to learn. I wouldn’t say I loved each of these novels, but they definitely weren’t particularly unlikeable solely because they were about women (see “80 Books No Woman Should Read” for writer Rebecca Solnit’s analysis of the persistence of the all-male literary canon).

Behind their covers, each expose different facets of women’s lives. These depictions of womanhood, interior and exterior, surprised me in their depth (that’s terrible of me!). Rather than the endless heteronormative white wet dreams Nicholas Sparks softcore romances offer to mainstream women’s fiction/romance readers, relationships between women and men aren’t the focal point of the fiction I read (spoilers ahead).

  • Paulina & Fran: Raw, witty, and empowering, this more literary work of fiction is an ode to women as friends, enemies, sisters, and lovers. The eponymous protagonists’ relationships are central to the plot, while men—infatuations or gay BFFs—are auxiliary (How auxiliary? “She’d once called James a dildo with eyes.”) distractions from Paulina and Fran’s barely-consummated love; the real romance is the electrifying, yet frustratingly unfulfilled, connection between the narrators. Rachel Glaser’s women are powerful, creative geniuses who reach self-actualization (for the most part) and develop artistic and business acumen that propel them beyond petty flings with college boys. This is probably the first lesbian fiction I’ve read since Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, and it’s just as bleak and real.

Here are some questions I had after reading:

  • How does Paulina & Fran reaffirm or counter the “women’s fiction” narrative/motifs?
  • To be frank, Paulina is a bitch. Are protagonists in women’s fiction required to be likeable?
  • If romance in traditional women’s fiction is generally populated by heterosexual couples (this is pure observation via Nicholas Sparks), how do (or should) lgbtq+ relationships fit into the women’s fiction category if there’s gay and lesbian fiction as well?
  • Cutting Loose: The cover doesn’t depart too much from the actual contents of the book on the surface—babes on a beach. Yet the characters’ multicultural heritages offer a layer of unexpected complexity. Nadine Dajani’s cast of women is a spectrum of rich/poor, young/old(er), thin/curvy, married/unmarried, virgin/whore, breaking these dichotomies to reveal people and motivations beneath their labels. There’s lots of boring description of clothes and makeup that went over my head, like a Sex and the City on Miami Beach, but these Latina and Muslim WOC bring to the fore issues of colonialism and globalism in American media, and with it intersectional feminism and rebuking the Stepford wife stereotype. Among a cast of chaste brides, rejected playboys, arranged marriages, and gay or abusive husbands, the women band together despite their religious beliefs, political views, cultures, and social classes. This book is all about female liberation, positive sexuality, questioning gender roles, and women’s lived lives. Though the ending is predictably happily ever after with hetero romances, this is what I want “chick lit” to be.
  • How does Cutting Loose reaffirm or counter the “women’s fiction” narrative/motifs?
  • Ranya is like a Disney princess, but is more than the Jasmine that meets the eye. How do gender roles play into “chick lit” and women’s fiction?
  • Is there a multicultural/postcolonial women’s fiction genre?
  • The Daughters: This lyrical literary work is as enveloping as a vagina, with its operatic musical scores and potential Freudian symbolism. As the novel’s title suggests, there are maternal bonds, (umbilical) cords that become tangled, frayed, and broken. Embedding these strands within family lore to develop female relationships fraught with jealousy and postpartum depression, Adrienne Celt explores generations of women as both caregivers and black widows who sacrifice anything—even their husbands/lovers and sons—for their daughters. She is not the Othered half of a heterosexual relationship, but rather her agency (via her daughter) is achieved through exploiting and disposing of men, similar to Paulina & Fran. With absentee mothers and unknown motherlands, WWII and the Holocaust, and gruesome Polish folk tales, this work of “women’s fiction” is as darkly serious as it gets.
  • How does The Daughters reaffirm or counter the “women’s fiction” narrative/motifs?
  • Anti-Semitism serves as an impetus for the protagonist’s family to move to America. How does fiction by and/or about Jewish women fit into women’s fiction in America? How are Jewish women represented in women’s fiction (as both/either characters or writers)?
  • Motherhood is almost toxic in this novel, and the nuclear family is practically nonexistent. How has women’s fiction evolved over time to reflect woman-as-more-than-mother and the dissolution of the family unit?

#notwomensfiction Online

Clearly men are Othered themselves in these three novels, so why is this genre or category? This campaign made me even more acutely aware of my own bias toward chick lit in particular and women’s fiction in general. To me, this type of reading is like the Lifetime channel of books—awful acting, awful stories, and my mom loves it.

But wait a sec, rebranded Lifetime has some awesome feminist promos now:

lifetime

Photo screenshot from the Fempire Diaries.

I plan to continue this campaign every summer—hopefully reading more! Next year, I aim to read women’s fiction about or by transwomen, multicultural and multiracial women, and women with disabilities (please provide suggestions/recommendations for these or anything else I should read!).

Thank you so much to those who participated in this campaign on Twitter and Instagram.

You’ve brought to my attention some great books by women, about women, not necessarily for women, all while dismantling the literary patriarchy.

Like this:

A photo posted by Shabnam (@dew.drop.diary) on Jun 24, 2016 at 2:12am PDT

And thanks, readers, for your continued support of Things He Says!

Share your thoughts/recommendations below!

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