Women authors must drop domestic themes (not)

I’ve just read the most strangely ill-informed post: Guardian Unlimited: Arts blog – books: Women authors must drop domestic themes, by Muriel Gray. She’s a judge of the all-women Orange prize, and writes that if the books selected for this prize are indicative of "women’s literary health then we would have little to worry about", which I take to mean that they are not, on the whole, centred on domestic themes. The rest of the piece is a vague attack on the "increasing lack of inventiveness and imagination" by women authors, urging them to "break free of their gender constraints". There are plenty of sweeping statements like this one: "But while these wonderful authors are representative of the very best women writers they are not, sadly, representative of the majority of women authors currently being published." No examples given.

So according to Muriel Grey, if you are an author and a woman, you should write (or rather, not write) a certain type of book? I think this is to misunderstand the point in the most basic way. People who write, write about what inspires them. They may write about "domestic themes" and be called Jane Austen or Gustave Flaubert. They may write outside the domestic theatre and be called J. K. Rowling or Philip Pullman. Who cares?  A book speaks to the reader. Whether it is written by a man or a woman, or provides insights via focusing on domestic themes or through a broader canvas is irrelevant. Tollope, Dickens, Eliot, the Brontes — pigeonholing is just silly. The idea that women authors are a set of people writing about the ironing, and who will change their ways via a Muriel Grey lecture, is in itself rather a strange world-view. 

6 thoughts on “Women authors must drop domestic themes (not)

  1. It sounds like a very silly argument: Absolute statements not corroborated by evidence.
    Bryan Appleyard just cited a similar article by some guy chastising London theatre by saying no one goes anymore because all the plays are so boring and politically correct (Bryan, sadly, was citing the article as one he agreed with). But the writer didn’t *name* any plays! What a dumb thing to say. There are an awful lot of bad plays, yes; but there are also a surprising number of good ones.
    In the last few years I’ve seen some brilliant plays: 2/3rds of “The Coast of Utopia” trilogy by Stoppard (one of three didn’t quite work); his “Invention of Love”; “Proof”; “Copenhagen”; “Doubt”; “I Am My Own Wife”; “The Pillowman.” And I’m only naming plays I’ve seen in the last couple of years, nor am I including musicals, of which there have been several brilliant ones kicked off by “The Producers.”
    As for Muriel’s peevish post, no doubt there’s a great deal of bad writing by women, but there’s certainly loads of great writing too. (To wit, the novel that won the Orange Prize last year — _The Secret River_.) Probably, Maxine, she was trying to take a dig at “chick lit” but didn’t want to come right out and say it. Literary fictionists look down on the genre and it is written by women. I bet that’s what she wanted to diss.

  2. It takes a certain confidence to offer an argument without any supporting evidence. And don’t you hate writers who misuse transitive verbs as intransitives, fancying that this gives their words a majestic sweep?
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    “Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”

  3. I thought it was ridiculous as well and commented on her post in addition to posting about it on my blog. I was pretty horrified to realise that those words were typed by an “Orange Broadband” judge. Can’t say I’m looking forward to seeing who’s the winner. (Someone who writes on a more “epic” scale no doubt, not restricting herself to laundry and grocery lists.)

  4. Bah! You write the book that is within you.
    If you’re lucky it will be published. If you’re even luckier and manage to jump all the hurdles without coming a cropper, (some) people will hopefully want to read it.
    One (wo)man’s meat …

  5. I wonder how they pick these judges.
    Some of the best novels I’ve read are have had ‘domestic themes’ – and some have actually won the Orange Prize – Carol Shields’s Larry’s Party, for instance. In fact that was the best Orange Prize winner I’ve read.

  6. That’s a good point, Susan, that hadn’t occurred to me. It is quite common to read an article written in “code” to some readers, but obscure to the rest of us! Ten years or so ago, “chick lit” was called “Mills&Boon” or “romantic fiction” – all the same stuff I presume. (I’ve read the odd chick lit, and it seems to me utterly traditional plots but with a bit of a risque twist). But no harm in it, surely? There are plenty of “genres”, but who cares? I suppose that on balance more women write “chick lit” and more men write “spy thrillers”, but I don’t think that justifies lumping “women authors” together and telling them off (or “men authors” ditto, though she doesn’t cover them in her article).
    Agreed, Clare, many authors have illuminated human nature and universal truths from a domestic setting male and female — Carol Shields for sure, Ian McEwan for another example, but many others.
    The only thing I know about Muriel Grey is that she used to write a popular culture column in Time Out years ago, when Julie Burchill hit the big time of the Daily Mail. MG was nowhere near as funny or insightful as JB. (Even though I, in common with most of her other readers probably, rarely agreed with the point JB was making, she could write a good and stimulating article. Unlike MG who I found rather pedestrian by comparison.)

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