We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

An archeaology of women's experience: 20th century, 2nd half · 27 September 06

Dear Harriet,

I’ve finally finished Diane Philips’s Women’s Fiction, 1945-2005. It took me quite a while and I managed this one by reading in the dark-before-dawn hours while waiting for the light.

While at its opening, I thought Philips had simply written a refreshing well-written study of a types of women’s novels which were published and sold widely, by the end I could see that she uses her popular women’s novels from each decade in the second half of the 20th century (post WW2) to make visible to the reader the ways in which women were able to present themselves to themselves. Philips’s book is an archeaology of women’s experience in the second half of the 20th century. By excavating these cultural mirrors, she reaches many women’s otherwise unexpressed conflicts, dreams, desires, and troubles or problems and contradictory aspirations indicative of each era.

Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) Still Life

Philips’s novels may be thought to reveal from the 1980s on an enormous (unbridgeable?) disconnect between the way feminists have seen feminism and themselves from the 1970s to 90s, and how women who are anxious (or determined) not to identify themselves as feminists see feminism and themselves.

However, there is room for hope this lack of understanding is not so. The books in the later part of the era are so much poorer and more cliched, partly from the increase of commercialism and dumbing down even of these products as well as cultural backlash before women’s movements. Women are presented a far more caricatured version of themselves; they appear to be if anything less honest with themselves than they once were, sort of cartoony. My experience of a publisher was that he intensely disliked my ideas if they hinted of feminism. So it may be that the recent novels reflect the male publisher world and a determination to make a profit from the lowest common denominator—sell a lot by selling junk. So the complete lack of understanding may be an appearance, a function of the marketplace itself. Nonetheless, the naivete of the content and sheer imbecility of the language and goals do contradict Philips’s idea that there is often little distinction between pop, middle and high brow novels.

The last "typology" of "resentful daughter: post-feminism" is also worrying. I’d call these books anti-feminist. They probably function to exacerbate intrasex antagonism, make the adversarial and naturally conflicting and competitive aspects of family life worse, and alienate women readers from themselves. I’m a great believer in "it has the effect of a conspiracy" as those in power agree X is in their interest: this picking out of real anger at emotional blackmail and bullying in many women who use motherhood as a substitute for the power they can’t get elsewhere
is insidious. I wonder if such books are appearing as part of the masculine backlash.

Here are her typologies, what she geologizes:

1950s: Post-war masculinity. These are post WW2 books where male characters are traumatized over their experience in the war and also having trouble coming to terms with new demands and definitions of what is a good man. A coping male protagonist is often at the center. Novels described include Monica Dickens’s The Happy Prisoner (1946), The Angel in the Corner (1956), and Man Overboard (1958); Storm Jameson’s The Green Man (1952), A Cup of Tea for Mr Thorgill (1957)

1960s: The single mother novel. These are books where the heroine becomes pregnant outside marriage; in just about all the heroine chooses to have the child and the novel is about the burden and complications and rewards that ensue. Philips says an American survey in 1959 of documentable (middle-class) women who got pregnant outside marriage showed only 2% chose to carry the pregnancy through to birth. Novels described include Lynne Reid Banks’s The L-Shaped Room (filmed 1962), Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone (filmed 1969 as A Touch of Love), Nell Dunn’s Up the Junction (filmed 1967) and Poor Cow (I saw that film).

1970s: The college novel. The group novel which shows the college friends growing up and coping over time. I just saw a film version of this in Friends With Money. Novels described include: Mary McCarthy’s The Group (1952), The Groves of Academe (1980), Deborah Moggach’s You Must Be Sisters, Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything (1958), Class Reunion (1979), Judith Rossner’s Looking for Mr Goodbar (1977), Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle (1973), Alice Walker’s Meridian (1976), Marilyn French’s The Woman’s Room, Marge Piercy’s Small Changes and Andrea Newman’s A Share of the World (1979).

1980s. Sex and Shopping Novel. These show women regarding shopping as a form of genuine work and skill; it’s an occupation through which you grow rich, glamorous. The textures of these novels are a stream of cliches. Novels described include Judith Krantz’s Scruples (1979), Shirley Conran’s Lace 1982), Barbara Taylor Bradford’s A Woman of Substance (1980), Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale (1992), Fay Weldon’s Life and Loves of a She-Devil (it differs because she mocks the cliches, but also uses them, 1983).

1990s. The Aga-Saga and the Domestic Romance. Up market female protagonist at the center of her community, drenched in home environment, the post-marriage romance. Novels described include Mary Sheepshanks’s A Price for Everything (1995, hers is living with a man she is bored by), Joanne Trollope called ‘the queen of the aga-sage, and her The Country Habit (1993), The Rector’s Wife, A Village Affair (a woman has an affair with another woman), The Choir. They are about problems of middle aged women so we have Elizabeth Buchan’s Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman and The Good Wife, Kathleen Rowan’s Between Friends (1992, woman so anxious to save her marriage she tolerates her husband having an affair which humiliates her), Phillipa Gregory’s Perfectly Correct. Some rise to tragedy: Anna Shreve’s Where or When (a kind fo American Joanna Trollope) and then there’s Alice Hoffman’s Here on Earth (shows parallels with Wuthering Heights). The safe haven is no longer a refuge but the wife supports her man ‘in his rough work in the open world.’

1990s. Shopping for men, the single woman novel. A subtype of this is the chick-lit book. The epitome Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary. Masculinity is a spectacle and the woman is shopping for men as a commodity to be measured by how close he comes to buying and wearing the "right" things. Consumption the great measurements; Bourdieu often quoted in this chapter. Novels described include Freya North’s Chloe (1997), Laura Sigman’s Animal Husbandry (1998), Robyn Sisman’s Perfect Strangers (hero perfect because never there, just his things), Jane Green’s Mr Maybe, Caroline Knapp’s Alice K’s Guide to Life (this idiotic novel manifests solemn anxiety over the "’dating’ process"), Kathryn Flet’s The Heart-Shaped Bullett. These are "jaunty" books. I’ll bet they’re jocular too.

2000. Resentful daughters: post-feminist books. Books where the writer is angry at the mother very intensely; filled with bad mothers, women who didn’t stay in the home and devote themselves to the child, living an utterly conventional life. Some of this is archetypal hostility, some an inability to tell an appearance in social communities from realities at home and in the mind and real daily life. Daughters see their mothers as childlike and not grown up. Novels described include Martha McPhee’s Bright Angel Time, Janet Fitch’s White Oleander, Rebecca Wells’s Divine Secrets of Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Kathleen Tessaro’s Elegance (2003). A life-poisoning kind of relationship is described, with the daughter having no forgiveness for the mother who is ambitious. A Booker Prize short-listed one belongs here too: Astonishing Splashes of Color by Claire Morrall (2003, epigraph from J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan).

As I wrote the other day, the great flaw in the book is Philips excludes feminist and feminine mysteries & detective stories and the gothic. These are an important subgroup of related books many women buy, read and apparently enjoy.

In my previous I also said Philips shows how 3/4s of the readership that keeps novels in print are women, and yet women’s books are as a group (high culture too) marginalized or erased still when it comes to academic and high culture studies of 20th century literature. This pushes those who write about women’s books to overpraise them uncritically. We also don’t begin to know what people read for real. A certain type of socially admired and accepted book is chosen for book reading groups (e.g., Reading Lolita in Teheran). The kinds of books women (and men too to some extent) like to read that’s more pop or middle brow or clearly about issues that are painful and complex is not admitted to and not chosen for such groups to read together.

There is a good deal about the real literary marketplace. She tells of how up to the 1970s there was an unacknowledged "gentleman’s agreement" that British publishers would not publish to the US and vice versa. A suit against monopoly practices and globalization changed that in the 1970s and she talks of the rapid interaction between US and UK and Canadian and other English rooted novels. So that’s why I never read Sue Barton books and English women have usually not read Cherry Ames or Judy Bolton books.

Philips is so refreshingly candid. She says studies of what readers get from these books fall down because readers don’t tell the truth (so much for Janet Radway’s naivete in Reading the Romance), and it’s simply true that little is written about private experiences of books. Interestingly people are much more willing to discuss films; she suggests that’s because films being publicly experienced (like plays) make community values trump the individual.

She has an excellent bibliography too. But I can’t type that out.

Yes, Harriet, a book is a private conversation between the woman and the heroine who is written up in direct plain language so it feels like a letter to you. Now when it’s not just fiction, but claims to be non-fiction, or autobiography, then you get more active in the creation and dialogue.

Girls by a Fountain by Mainie Jellett, cover illustration for Virago edition of Jenny Wren (1932) by E. H. Young (1880-1949)

But that’s for another evening.

P.S. If only listservs were places for really sharing deep experiences of books together, imagine what a listserv for reading Virago books by women could be.

Posted by: Ellen

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  1. Ellen, I haven’t read many of these books recommended by Phillips, though I love Monica Dickens and Storm Jameson and will look for the titles she mentions.

    Bizarrely I’ve read all the 60s novels, which I used to classify as "’60s bachelor-girl lit" rather than "single-mother novels." I mixed them up with ‘60s novels about sexually active single women who were not mothers (Edna O’Brien and Isabel Colegate wrote some of these). In the ‘80s I submitted an essay on ‘60s bachelor-girl lit to a newspaper for which I reviewed books. The newspaper had no room for pop-culture "think" pieces, alas (new book reviews only) and I’m sure I lost the essay long ago.

    I never really got into the "chick lit" thing, though Bridget Jones is very funny. My favorite contemporary writers of the ‘80s and ‘90s included Alice Adams, Alice Munro, Gail Godwin, Angela Carter, and Margaret Atwood. Does she mention them? Lately I’ve been reading Jane Gardam, Valerie Martin, Sarah Waters, and Katharine Weber.
    Kathy    Sep 28, 4:58pm    #
  2. Dear Kathy,

    I enjoyed the book enormously partly because I’ve not read most of the books, and this spares me reading the bad ones and helps me towards those I might like. I found for me the preference was the "Aga-sage" and "college-, or group-novel." I'm a little old for the latter (too late), but not the former.

    I have read a number of the authors though: Storm Jameson wrote an autobiography I loved: Journey from the North. I’ve taught Mary McCarthy’s Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood a number of times and lover her The Stones of Venice. Marge Piercy I’ve read one novel (not the one cited) but her Sleeping with Cats is now important to me and I’ve bought and taught her powerful poetry. As to Isobel Colegate (not mentioned by Philips) I haved loved and read three novels (Sporting Party, Winter Journey, The Summer of the Royal Visit [historical novel of Bath). Valerie Martin is another writer whose novels are what I’ve loved.

    I asked on WWTTA for some advice about Alice Walker (American black), but got none.

    I too have written to an audience which doesn’t exist. I find by putting things on the Net I spare myself losing them.

    I’m thinking that films, good films and film narratives for young people who don’t have the training in patience, much less imaginative experience thorgh words are replacing novels as the way of making visible
    important conflicts and turns in culture.

    The book helped me as a history of what women are dialoguing with so until the end where I'm suspicious women's books are again becoming more of what they were in the 19th century: engines of repression and anti-feminism which can speak to the intelligent woman only indirectly. It's so hard to study culture. There is such hypocrisy, silence, and so many wastelands.

    Sylvia    Sep 28, 11:19pm    #
  3. I told people on Booker Prize @ Yahoo about "Secret Mints" and the blog there that compared E. H. Young as a literary person and her books to Woolf for style and to Austen as another writer who stands for a certain kind of woman reader:
    I see Austen as a referent for several centuries of obscured women novelists. In England alone one thinks of the mass of amazing work from, for examples, Aphra Behn in the 17th century & Eliza Haywood in the early 18th through E.H. Young in the early twentieth (and has to wonder why Hollywood doesn't -- do we really need another Moll Flanders, Reese Witherspoon in Vanity Fair, etc? Let's be a little more adept, people! And I do mean you women who've managed to direct).

    Young has some sentences absolutely as beautiful, resolute, and perceptive as Virginia Woolf (Jean Rhys, Katherine Mansfield, Djuna Barnes, Zora Neale Hurston, Mary Butts, Dorothy Richardson...), and was her (their) contemporary. I picked up Young's book Jenny Wren for a quarter at a library book sale earlier this summer, thanks to the green of its Virago Modern Classics cover, which I can never resist. Its sequel, The Curate's Wife, is even better, and I've just got the Oakland Library to dig out the original Harcourt Brace edition of her 1930 novel, Miss Mole, with all its lovely due date stamps from ages past.
    I wrote:
    I loved this comment. It's such a cliche that this or that woman writer is great because she's just like Jane Austen. It's almost (not quite though) contentless. The content is how genteel, nuanced, woman's book &c &c

    I'd prefer (if we must have cliches) to see Woolf acknowledged as a central influential woman writer since the beginning of the 20th century. Instead of isolated as she usually is by commentary.

    And I do think the influence is in the style, the sentence.
    So Bekah on Booker Prize @ Yahoo responded:

    "Well that’s pretty interesting, Ellen. I’m sure that Austen was a "referent for several centuries of obscured women novelists" because they probably read her works and were inspired (at least unto the 80s when our heads apparently turned to men and shopping). (g)

    About your blog – that was more interesting than Treadwell’s, imo. It even makes me kind of want to read the book but you pretty well summarized the major points, I think.

    I read the books of the ‘70s but nothing else in those lists (except that I, too, saw "Poor Cow" lo these many years ago). I consider myself to be pretty well read but I don’t consider those other books to be books I would buy. They sound like it’s all "chick-lit" stuff – the lowest common denominator and a take off on "the worst of Oprah." Am I so out of the marketing loop? (I hope so?) (g)

    But what happened to Marilyn French and Erica Jong and Susan Sontag and Joyce Carol Oates and Ann Tyler and Barbara Kingsolver and Toni Morrison and Marilynne Robinson and Anita Shreve and Jane Smiley and Amy Tan and Maya Angelou and Sandra Cisneros and Laura Esquival and (there are many more, I know).

    Sylvia    Sep 29, 7:02am    #
  4. Gwyn copied out part of my posting telling of "Secret Mints:" "By chance I happened on a blog which connects E. H. Young to Austen and to Woolf. It’s called Secret Mint," and she wrote:

    "Thanks for this, Ellen. It is so good to see E.H.Young being discussed, as I said before! I have read all the books that Virago printed by her in the ‘80s, sadly there is only one – William - in print now even in Virago. If enough list members bought it perhaps it would encourage Virago to publish their backlist….....

    The Deborah Phillips book does sound very interesting indeed, have just looked it up on amazon.co.uk and think at the price of it it will be another one I will have to order from the library!

    Regards, Gwyn"
    Sylvia    Sep 29, 7:04am    #
  5. Merilee:

    "Bekah wrote:

    But what happened to Marilyn French and Erica Jong and Susan Sontag and Joyce Carol Oates and Ann Tyler and Barbara Kingsolver and Toni Morrison and Marilynne Robinson and Anita Shreve and Jane Smiley and Amy Tan and Maya Angelou and Sandra Cisneros and Laura Esquival and (there are many more, I know).

    Merilee writes:

    Susan Sontag is dead…but, did any of you happen to read a recent excerpt from her journals in the NYTimes? They were fascinating.
    Such a brilliant mind, and as vulnerable and insecure as the rest of us. And then, this week’s Newsweek has a cover story on Annie Lebovitz’s new book of photographs and it turns out that she and Susan S. were an item for many years. Who knew? I can only say, good for them, two incredibly talented women … but not completely free to be open about their relationship.

    I think that Anne Tyler has a newish book out (If Morning Ever Comes – haven’t read it yet). Just read Robinson’s Gilead and
    absolutely loved it, despite my total lack of religion. She really captures the male voice. I kept having to remind myself that the book was written by a woman. I have her Housekeeping out on a pile. Would love a new Kingsolver. I never did like Marilyn French’s fiction. I agreed with her ideas, but The Women’s Room came across as a tract to me, many years ago when I read it."
    Sylvia    Sep 29, 7:16am    #
  6. Teresa:

    If Morning Ever Comes is Tyler’s first book and one she wishes was never published, I read somewhere. I’m an AT fan—my absolute favorite of hers (and one of my favorite books period) is Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.

    Sylvia    Sep 29, 7:18am    #
  7. Bekah:

    "I read The Women's Room in about 1978, or when it first came out and it was brand new and funny as hell back then. But I imagine that it was dated within 2 years because of imitations and the new wave of feminism breaking loose. Feminism is having to regroup around gains made and inequities still suffered.

    I forgot to mention Cynthia Ozick but I don’t think she’s written
    anything feminist.
    Sylvia    Sep 29, 7:20am    #
  8. Thanking everyone for their interesting comments.

    Yes the Philips book is outrageously priced ($85 for less than 200 pages). So are many of these literary critical books published by commercial publishers and written in genuine readable English. I got it through Interlibrary loan and wrote the blog partly as notes to myself to remember its content. I’ve sometimes volunteered to review a book for a journal in order to get a copy I can own.

    On the blog: the writer was perhaps wrong about dating since the Austen cult (her fame) didn’t begin until after her nephew published his sentimental biography. Austen was published in Barbauld’s series of 18th century novels, but she was not widely read until later, and then the Janeite cult itself formed in the early 20th century with all its vibes and nuances about retired spinster, quiet, obscure, "gentle romances" and the like. What I liked was how the blogger connected Young to Woolf as well as Austen, and pointed to Woolf’s style as faciliating Young's feminine style. She wanted to deny that Young is seen the way Austen supposedly was. I see Austen’s ronic stances as leading to Young's.

    I own used copies of Jenny Wren, The Curate’s Wife, and Miss Mole. I’ve read only Miss Mole and that late at night. I’d like to reread it, and then CW. My books are old with have lovely early 20th century illustrations, mostly by women artists. I buy used books on the Net so don’t care what’s in print that much. I often don’t notice that.

    I like Anne Tyler very much. I have two articles somewhere comparing her to Austen (especially Persuasion). I was much moved by The Amateur Marriage, cried a little at the end :)

    I’ve never read The Woman’s Room nor many of the books mentioned. I tend to read memoirs and autobiographies and letters so I have read books by the authors often, but it’s usually an autobiography (Jameson’s Journey from the North is beautiful and moving and thoughtful and all the good things one wants from a book), or say travel books (McCarthy’s Stones of Venice and Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood). Philips did not mention my favorite novelists, e.g., Isabel Colegate, Susan Hill (but not the mysteries), Valerie Martin. I enjoy Anita Brookner’s novels and art criticism very much too.

    As I wrote on the blog I thought the earlier types were better books, and these later ones dumbed down and actually anti-feminist. Philips argues most of the books women buy avoid the word feminist and issues of what is feminism, but the books nonetheless reflect all the issues and thoughts that go with today’s world.

    As I wrote Gwyn, had I time and energy and more enthusiasm for lists (I’m tired nowadays) I’d open a list for reading Virago books by women. I love them and often I’ve been able to read wonderful books by women I’d never come near because of them. Just now I’m reading Harriet Martineau's powerful and vivid autobiography. A couple of months ago I was into Elizabeth Taylor and read her Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont in a Virago. Very touching. And oh did I love Elizabeth Spencer’s Light in the Piazza. I wrote about that on my blog.

    Philips avoided the sheerly literary sort of book Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth Spencer write. Now I love them.

    But enough, Booker Prize books do include these women’s books, and also men’s versions of them (like Ishiguro's melancholy Remains of the Day and wildly imaginative and desolate When We Were Orphans, both of which I intensely enjoyed)

    Sylvia    Sep 29, 7:39am    #
  9. "Ellen, if you particularly like Virago books and the like, I think you’d enjoy the Dovegreybooks list which you can join in the usual Yahoo manner.

    It came from a love of Persephone books, though Persephone soon made it clear they didn’t want to be too associated with it. It used to be a wonderful list but several active members have fallen in love with blogging so it isn’t as active as it was, but is definitely the place for the sort of women’s writing the Phillips book seems to have been dealing with. I think you would be a very welcome injection of new blood. Clare."
    Sylvia    Sep 30, 6:54am    #
  10. How do I join the Dovegreybooks list? I’ve typed it in at Yahoo and it doesn’t come up. Is it an invitation-only list?

    Kathy    Sep 30, 5:47pm    #

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