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I have just spent three wonderful months studying fiction and poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop summer graduate program in ‘The City of Iowa City, Iowa’. It has been a fantastic experience, but it has also been a major shock to the system that has forced me to re-evaluate what it means to me to be a feminist. The other day, I received written feedback from a fellow student in my fiction program that said: “As in previous work, the author’s loathing of men fairly leaps off the page.” Said student has since apologised, saying he didn’t mean me, he meant the voice of the story and the characters. He said it was a compliment, but that I should be aware that such a strong voice wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste.
I was completely taken aback, primarily because I think it’s bizarre that an educated person would ever use a term so close to ‘man-hater’, and also because I didn’t think my writing addressed gender issues or had feminist themes.
As at Victoria’s IIML where I did my minor, teaching at Iowa is based around small workshop groups in which we receive feedback from our fellow students. Never in my time at the IIML did I hear anyone discuss my work in terms of feminism, the patriarchy or, in fact, gender.
However, Mr Loathing was not alone. Another classmate called the final paragraph a glib trick designed to allow me to include a criticism of the patriarchy in a story that didn’t suit such intense rhetoric. I told one of my friends from the same class about these bizarre comments, and he said: “Yeah, I see how it could come across that way.”
I was told by another man from my class that the way I initiate discourse is too aggressive, and that if I am interested in other people’s opinions I should open with a question such as, “Don’t you think it’s interesting that…?”, and that I should never ever tell people that they need to change their behaviour or their thinking. I hope that the irony of that statement is not lost on you.
So, outnumbered, I was forced to consider what I had written and why it had been read the way it had. The feedback letter that pointed out my loathing for men noted that in the course of the story, I had described the character of a male teacher as old, scaly, whiny, artless and dull. I think it’s worth noting that in the same story my three female characters were variously described as sneering, austere, forgetful, contemptuous, cynical, disappointed, desperate, haughty, indifferent, thundering, disrespectful, sarcastic, enraged, hopeless, insane, disgusted (this is an embarrassing number of adjectives), distressed, confused and nervous. I don’t know if you noticed, but none of those are positive attributes.
I was still extremely uncomfortable with the idea that my work was being read as overtly feminist. It is true, of course, that fiction reveals an author’s prejudices and cultural biases even when they don’t realise it. Ernest Hemingway was an anti-Semite. No matter what I ‘think’ or ‘believe’, there are deeper inherent patterns to my thinking that will come up in my writing. That includes racism, sexism, Eurocentrism and general nastiness. It would seem that some of the concepts I take for granted read as feminist ideology.
Why does that worry me? Why don’t I embrace the chance to defeat the patriarchy with the power of literature? Well, because I didn’t set out to be a ‘feminist writer’. It is not my intention to describe the ‘female experience’. I don’t feel qualified to do that. I haven’t studied feminist theory; in fact, the ideas laid out in feminism seem so obvious that I don’t find the conversation interesting. I only began thinking of myself as a feminist once I was required to define myself in opposition to mainstream views. And, perhaps more importantly, I want people to pay attention to whatever else it is that I’m trying to talk about, not just discuss my work in terms of feminism.
But the question is, given that I am aware of the problems facing women everywhere, from unspeakable sexual violence to patronising comments, do I have a responsibility to intentionally address feminist issues in my work? No, I don’t. Firstly, because if these conversations get in the way of me writing what I want to write then the cads have won, and secondly, Doris Lessing.
Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2007. Her most famous work, The Golden Notebook, published in 1962, has been referred to as a feminist manifesto. Why? Essentially because it follows a female character who has wide-ranging ambitions and a complex inner life. Lessing found being pigeonholed as a ‘feminist writer’ extremely frustrating. Calling The Golden Notebook a feminist manifesto undermines the fact that the book explores a host of other complex ideas. In the introduction to later editions of the novel, Lessing wrote:
Some books are not read in the right way because they have skipped a stage of opinion, assume a crystallisation of information in society which has not yet taken place. This book was written as if the attitudes that have been created by the Women’s Liberation movements already existed.
In the end, even though Lessing never set out to advance the feminist cause, she did. We have to continue to fight the good fight and repeat over and over that a person’s value and capabilities are not dictated by their gender. I would be extremely proud to play a part in that fight. I’m certainly not going to attempt to ‘tone down’ my ‘loathing of men’ in order to make other people feel more comfortable. But I should also be able to write a story in which a male character does not represent ‘men’, and power play between a male teacher and a female student does not represent ‘the patriarchy’ to my readers. My work should not be read with the assumption that the blanket term ‘feminist author’ and all its connotations applies, because although I am a feminist and a cis woman, I am a human being first and foremost.