Monday, November 29, 2010

Feminism, literature and the academy

This semester I studied a unit at university on Feminism and Literature. I read all the expected theory, including the French feminists who I hadn’t read before. We shared information about how the study was relevant to us, but the study was confined to literature, and didn’t really include broader issues of feminism. The lecturer said, at the end of the course, that these types of units are going out of fashion, and the course is likely to be replaced by a unit such as one on Literature, Environment and Animals, since there is little new theoretical work in the area of feminism and literature. She said that does not mean that she does not think it is very important, just that they may slip it into other units such as the one mentioned above for example, as ecofeminism.

I found that, although there isn’t much happening in theory, there is a lot going on in practice.

Women who write don’t want to be defined or restricted by gender. The conversation amongst writers is unresolved and ongoing.

Joyce Carol Oates noted that worthy content, in itself, does not make a serious work of art.
“For a practicing writer, for a practicing artist of any kind, ‘sociology’, ‘politics’, and even ‘biology’ are subordinate to matters of personal vision and even to matters of craftsmanship.”

Recently, in an interview with The Guardian, writer, A S Byatt objected to the Orange Prize as sexist, as it assumes there is a feminine subject matter. She appeared at the Edinburgh Book Festival, saying that women who write intellectual novels are seen by critics as strange and unnatural. (2010, online)

Jonathon Franzen, also quoted in The Guardian, says "The categories by which we value fiction are skewed male, and this creates a very destructive disconnect between the critical establishment and the predominantly female readership of novels," he says. "That's inarguable." (2010, online)

When interviewed on ABC radio Showalter said that women are still left outside the canon and suggested that women’s writing would be perceived more seriously if women did as men did in proclaiming themselves part of a movement or generation, thereby defining themselves as important writers. (2010, online)

There is much to consider here. And that is just amongst privileged white westerners.

It is difficult to discuss feminism and literature without broadening the terms of reference to politics. While women are paid less then men, fewer women hold positions of power, such as seats on company boards, than men, issues of domestic violence and sexual harassment remain, do we need to redress the balance with affirmative action? And what of issues affecting women in the developing world, such as poverty, lack of education, lack of medical assistance, the sex trade, living in conflict areas, and restrictions enforced by religion? Do the issues of gender equality apply in the literary world? Do women writers need to promote themselves, network, and ask for more pay in order to redress the balance? Or does behaving as if the issue doesn’t exist make it all OK? Will good writing, no matter who wrote it and under what conditions, always find an audience?

What do you think? Are we likely to come up with new theories of feminism and literature? What of Helene Cixous’ proposition that we shift the core of logocentrism and phallocentricism: ‘Then all the stories would have to be told differently, the future would be incalculable, the historical forces would, will, change hands, bodies; another thinking as yet not thinkable will transform the functioning of all society.' (93)

I am including the references here and the list of key concepts from the course. These key concepts are themselves a bit outdated. Are they concepts most practising feminists would be familiar with, or are they irrelevant?

A S Byatt interview

Helene Cixous. 'Sorties'. La jeune née (Union Génerale d'Editions, 10/18, 1975). Reprinted in New French Feminisms. Ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron. (New York: Schocken Books, 1981), pp. 90—98.

Oates, Joyce Carol, Is There a Female Voice? Joyce Carol Oates Replies’, Gender and Literary Voice, Eagleton, M. (ed) 1996, in Feminist Literary Theory: A Reader, Blackwell Publishing, Victoria, p 292

Jonathon Franzen interview

The Marxist Feminist Collective ,1989, ‘Women Writing: Jane Eyre, Shirley, Villette, Aurora Leigh’ in Modern Literary Theory: A Reader, Edward Arnold, London.

Showalter interview

Showalter, Elaine. 1978 (2009), A Literature of Their Own: British Women Writers, from Charlotte Bronte to Doris Lessing. Virago, London

Feminism - Key Concepts

Centre and periphery
Patriarchal society
The pen as a metaphorical penis
Cultural androgyny
Sexual difference
Judith Shakespeare
Sexualisation of discourse
Black feminist criticism
‘Ain’t I a woman?’
The metaphor of literary paternity
Politics of difference
Binary opposition
Sex/gender distinction
Feminist reading practice
Biological determinism
White ink
L’Ecriture feminine


Greta Koenigin said...

I believe the gatekeepers are mostly male, so male content gets approved more. Perhaps we need female publishing companies. I also find category names like "Chick Lit" not so helpful. What about "Dumb Ass Dude Books"?

Alex said...

I was interested to read your comments regarding your unit on Feminism and Literature. I am about to start a similar unit next semester at MQ as part of my Grad Dip in Women's Studies. I have not done much literature study at this level but hope to draw on the sociological units in gender I have already completed to compliment this unit.

When I tell people I am doing Women's Studies, I get some adverse reactions - it is as if the work feminism has become very dirty and alot of younger women dont want to associate themselves with it.

I would be interested to hear about the books you studied in the unit.

Motherhugger said...

Hi Alex. I find it interesting that young women don't identify as feminist, but they believe gender equality is important. So long as they walk the talk, I guess identifying with the label isn't so important.

In my course we studied what I consider to be standard feminist texts (or standard feminist writers): early feminist poetry (Aphra Behn etc),poems of Emily Dickinson, The Mill on the Floss, Jane Eyre, The Waves, Beloved. Theory was mostly from Mary Eagleton's Feminist Literary Theory: A Reader.

If you get a chance, let me know what you are covering, and the reaction of the students to the content. I can help with literary context. I suspect, though, that sociology units have prepared you well - it is all literature even if not 'creative' or fiction.

Motherhugger said...

Greta, I believe 'dumb ass dude books' are known as lad lit - much more jaunty. Shame women's novels don't have more elevated connotations. Can you grant us some new labels??

Elisabeth said...

I'm here from Rachel Power's blog. I started woman's studies in the early 1970s when the idea of feminism seemed finally to come of age here in Australia.

Now I think more along the lines of gender equality, regardless of gender and orientation, but how easily we get locked into old and traditional positions, simply by virtue of our gender.

As far as writing is concerned I think there is clearly a masculine bias that goes back for centuries. And I agree with others here, every writer has their own unique voice and yet those voices seem to get put into separate camps, gender being the first line of categorisation.

What sort of world would we live in where writers are writers first and foremost, regardless of gender?

I'm pleased to meet you here Motherhugger.