A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting in a Starbucks trying to get some work done when I overheard a man and woman talking about Little Women…presumably about the new film adaptation and its Oscar buzz. The woman was trying to explain “what” Little Women is – as in what it’s about – and was struggling a bit. “Well, it’s about four sisters…” To be fair, even if using the most straightforward way to describe the plot, it sounds a little homespun and maybe even boring: “Little Women follows four sisters as they grow up during the Civil War in the Transcendentalist hotbed Concord, Massachusetts.” And? So after the woman trailed off with the “four sisters” bit, the man replied, “But is it for men?”
No, sir, I’m sorry. Men not allowed. (Sheesh.)
There are a couple of things going on here. First, had the gentleman truly not heard of Little Women (either the book or the six feature films) in some shape or form? And also: I did not realize that things with “Women” in the title would mean that men could not partake. As another woman mentioned to me later: “How about No Country for Old Men? Of Mice and Men? Even Three Men and a Baby, for Pete’s sake?!”
How are we marketing books? And when I say “how are we marketing books,” what I mean is “What is the publishing industry telling us that we should like, particularly along gender lines?” Although I’ll concede that in general, a certain type of book may appeal more to a woman than a man (and vice versa), I have a real problem with the marketing machinations behind many popular books because, well, they’re lazy, slick, and ultimately a disservice to all readers.
Publishers to women: You want escapism and shallow black/white morality, probably some gossip and snarky parenting commentary – and definitely some swoon-worthy romance.
Publishers to men: You want James Patterson.
Then there are the books that live somewhere in the middle: They are much more skillfully written than typical Target-shelf fare, but nonetheless present a quandary to a population that likes to look at things as “for men” or “for women.”
In an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross in 2002, the year before she died, Carol Shields said: “When people say, for example, that I am a woman’s writer, I mean, what does that mean really? Does it mean I write about women? Certainly that is true. I do. Are my readers women? Well, yes. I think there are more male readers than there used to be, but I know that the readers of my fiction are mostly women of different ages. And so if that’s what it means to be a women’s writer, what I was concerned about is that women characters are so seldom placed as the moral center of the novel, and if one puts a male character there instead of a woman, the novel always seems to be taken more seriously…So I think it’s very hard writing novels seriously about serious women.”
In the past few months, I have read Unless by Carol Shields (actually, that was a re-read) and Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout. I read the Shields book toward the end of 2019 and the Strout book in January. Because I had spent the entirety of 2019 re-reading the “Shields Canon,” I was so struck by how much Strout’s work feels similar to Shields’. Both novels explore the idea of longevity and what it means to be near the end of one’s life. They deal with issues of acceptance, how to love people close to us who we don’t understand, and coming to grips with our own shortcomings. These aren’t new ideas or circumstances; they’re age-old conundrums.
Although Shields had a lot to say about being put forth as a “woman’s writer,” I don’t think Strout has totally fallen in this category. But for the sake of this blog post, I’m going to go out on a limb and declare that more women than men have read Elizabeth Strout’s work. (I was happy to see that it was a man – John McMurtrie – who reviewed Olive, Again in the New York Times.) With the exception of The Burgess Boys, her protagonists are women – ergo, the “moral centers” of her novels.
Maybe they’re relegated to the “woman box” because they’re not particularly “genre busting” or “revolutionary.” In my opinion, Kaye Gibbons – remember her? – lives there, as does the late Booker-winner Penelope Fitzgerald (she had a lot to say about this topic too), and maybe Anne Tyler and Ann Patchett too. Can I argue that our society’s general expectations for novels (and, well, everything) are the problem? In America, in particular, we value BIG INNOVATION and EXCITING DEVELOPMENTS. As a greater culture, we don’t place worth on small, quiet ways of looking at an issue differently. Instead, our eyes are too fixated on big whiz-bang circuses. (Might this explain our current political spectacle?)
Unless – which we can consider Shield’s “swan song,” as she completed the novel when she knew she was dying of cancer – tells the story of Reta as she tries to understand (and “fix”) her daughter Norah, who has decided to “drop out” of life and camp out on a Toronto street corner, holding a sign that reads simply, “GOODNESS.” The novel’s chapters are all titled with short, connecting words – I suppose they’re all conjunctions or conjunctive adverbs. You know, words that connect two clauses or ideas. But the words that Shields chose, however, also connote expectation or a suggestion that one is considering all sides: Otherwise, So, Once, Hardly. To me, these words show thoughtfulness and a willingness to live in a grey area, to ponder all sides before reaching a conclusion.
This 2002 novel is an exploration of what it means to go from a place of privilege – where nothing bad really happens – to an emotionally desperate place. Shields gives these words to Reta: “Two years ago I inhabited another kind of life in which I scarcely registered my notion of heartbreak. Hurt feelings, minor slights, minimal losses, small treacheries, even bad reviews [she is a writer]—that’s what I thought sadness was made of: tragedy was someone not liking my book.” Listen, not everyone has something crazy and ripped-from-the-headlines happen to them. But, sadly, everyone’s going to experience heartbreak at some point.
Strout’s book – a sequel, of sorts, to her Pulitzer-winning Olive Kitteredge – is marvelous. Olive, Again is a bit different than Unless; Strout allows more than a handful of male characters to reach center stage. There’s Christopher, Olive’s son who can’t seem to connect with his mother (or is it likewise?), Olive’s second husband Jack, and two brothers (Bob and Jim) who grew up in Maine and try to deal with a past family tragedy. Some chapters (you can almost think of them as their own short stories) don’t feature Olive at all. But Olive is the “moral center” of the novel – and therefore, according to Carol Shields, we might be inclined to call it a “women’s novel.” Is it because Strout leaves us with philosophical ruminating? “And Olive thought about this: the way people can love those they barely know, and how abiding that love can be, and also how deep that love can be, even when—as in her own case—it was temporary.” We’re not entirely sure what to think of Olive; some people in her orbit admire her (perhaps out of fear or confusion), but many more regard her as a cantankerous misanthrope. Her daughter-in-law, in fact, bandies around terms like “narcissistic personality disorder.”
Yet Olive is an observer and wants to understand…life: “From the corner of her eye she watched this girl [her daughter-in-law]—this woman—and she thought, Who are you, Ann?” Similarly, after an encounter with a one of her former students, now a former US Poet Laureate (an encounter that ultimately leaves her burned), Olive thinks, “Andrea [the poet] had gotten it better than she had, the experience of being another. How funny. How interesting. She, who always thought that she knew everything that others did not. It just wasn’t true…Who were they [her two husbands], who had they been? And who—who in the world—was she?”
If – by Shields’ definition – “women’s books” position women characters as the “moral center,” can we make the argument that these books are intrinsically “better”? This is tricky territory because I don’t want to imply that they are “good,” as in sweet or docile or gentle to the point of being placid and non-confrontational. But many books that I’d call “domestic novels” look at life as something that unfolds instead of erupts. They ask questions. They are comfortable not knowing the answers. Maybe this is a vantage point that more people – from readers to politicians – should embrace.
A few days ago, an exciting announcement was made. The Carol Shields Literary Prize – over $100,000 USD, which is a rather large literary prize – will award female novelists who are citizens of Canada or the United States. The prize was named after Shields, according to a New York Times piece, “because of her dual Canadian and United States citizenship and the way her work centered domestic life, something [novelist Susan Swan, one of the prize’s founders] said has often been wrongly dismissed as lightweight or unimportant by male critics.”
To the guy in Starbucks: I know it didn’t win, but did you realize that Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women was up for Best Picture at the Oscars? Or that headline after headline has declared that this movie (and the book) is “for men” or that it, unfortunately, has a “little man problem” (ba dum)? Little Women is in many ways the epitome of a “domestic novel.” So if you determine that it’s “not for men,” I’d like to point out that Starbucks’ mission is to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time. And one of its core values is: Being present, connecting with transparency, dignity and respect. This all sounds really lovely and – dare I say it – kinda “domestic”…hope you enjoyed your cuppa!
(P.S. I made my point, so now we can roll our eyes at the corporate speak.)
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A post on The Stone Diaries, by Carol Shields and The Body Papers, by Grace Talusan.
A post on Small Ceremonies, by Carol Shields.
An article in The Atlantic about people’s tendency to foist fact onto fiction, particularly when it comes to women writers.