The Books of My Numberless Dreams


Posted on: March 21, 2007

I don’t think I feel comfortable having Guardian Book blog on my blogroll any more. For every interesting, thoughtful, fun post there’s about four pointlessly “controversial”, foolish ones. That this was penned by an Orange Broadband judge…I don’t know, hasn’t this sort of thing been argued and dealt with already? It’s too bad that she buried her reasonable point beneath a half-witted conclusion.

Women authors must drop domestic themes

If this year’s Orange Prize longlist were a benchmark of women’s literary health then we would have little to worry about, as it demonstrates that women authors at the top of their game have no trouble thinking big, inventing and dreaming. 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.

Judging by the increasing lack of inventiveness and imagination amongst too many, though not all, women authors it would seem that we have either been persuaded to stay within a narrow experience in order to be “taken seriously”, or more worryingly we are cautiously self-censoring because we are afraid of the gathering forces that are threatening feminism both domestically and internationally. As a judge in this year’s Orange prize, it’s hard to ignore the sheer volume of thinly disguised autobiographical writing from women on small-scale domestic themes such as motherhood, boyfriend troubles and tiny family dramas. These writers appear to have forgotten the fundamental imperative of fiction writing. It’s called making stuff up.

As you read on you’ll realise that the real problem for Muriel Gray isn’t the theme but the “memoiritis”, as I called it in comments. One could very well “make stuff up” about home life. Of course artists don’t have to do anything. And it’s not big news that most of anything is crap.

Yep. If I link to the Guardian book blog anymore it will only be to the good ones that grab my interest. Don’t hold your breath.


8 Responses to "Sigh"

I must admit I’m not too interested in semi-autobiographical fiction either. If it’s a really good story, make it an autobiography. If it’s not that good of a story, why write it?

Ooh, this is annoying. I HATE the implication that the domestic is “narrow” or “small-scale.” Where do people who say this sort of thing think we live most of our lives? What do we spend most of our time thinking and worrying about? But I get your point too, that the real problem this person has is with semi-autobiographical writing. I don’t get that criticism either. As far as I’m concerned, fiction doesn’t have to do be purely about “making stuff up.”

Sylvia I share your aversion to semi-autobiographical fiction, which is pretty much why I usually avoid memoirs too, but I would present that as a personal preference rather than an objective ideal of what great fiction should be. If a book is done lazily I’d say that the author wasn’t stretching herself, not that the theme she explored was, in and of itself, limiting.

Dorothy so do I, so do I. I do value more obviously imaginative writing, but I agree that that’s not the end all and be all of fiction. I don’t understand why people sometimes limit fiction in that way.

I get so frustrated with the implication that if a story is about family or relationships or some other “trivial” matter that it’s necessarily autobiographical or semi-autobiographical. If the fact that it’s autobiographical gets in the way of it being good fiction, yes, I think we can criticize and even demand something more creative, something that makes us THINK, in the same way we would if the story was not autobiographical and simply poorly written. But I don’t necessarily think that one equals the other. I sometimes wish we didn’t know anything personal about any writer, that everyone published with a pseudonym, so we would only be able to judge their books on the writing. Sigh. Now i have to go and read the whole article – what does she want women writers to do instead? Write science fiction or court room thrillers. Even most male literary fiction deals with ‘trivial’ domestic issues 🙂

Okay, now I’ve read the whole thing. I could argue vociferously with her main premise that “These writers appear to have forgotten the fundamental imperative of fiction writing. It’s called making stuff up. ” I think we could debate this assertion – fiction isn’t necessicarily about making stuff up but about writing about people, events, history, life in a way that presents it as new, that gets at a larger ‘truth’. Fiction is about playing with language and making it work to support story. I would say that fiction is less about invention than it is about creation and recreation.

Oh, Imani, you’ve clearly got my attention this morning! Thanks for posting the link.

I agree completely that she loses herself in a half written conclusion, because I get the sense that what is really upsetting Gray is the quality of the writing (because she even goes on to say that greater novelists have extensively drawn on their own experience for their work) and she’s using this idea of autobiography because it’s a safer one. Her claim that a lot of it is “thinly disguised autobiography” goes directly against the idea that “Indeed, several authors on the Orange long list have drawn deeply on their own life events, but they have used them to create bigger, ambitious tales, that speak louder than lazily fictionalised personal anecdote could ever do” This is a criticism of skill, not inspiration.

Sorry for the long winded comment – I’ll get back to work now 🙂

Back-up for Imani on “not big news that most of anything is crap”: “Among this host of would-be writers, the majority have no literary gift. This is not surprising in itself. A marked gift for anything is not very common.” –W. H. Auden

There, the old guy with the wrinkles is behind you!

Slight deviation, but your post reminds me of this quote by Chekhov:

“After all, in real life, people don’t spend every moment in shooting one another, hanging themselves, or making declarations of love. They do not spend all their time saying clever things. They are more occupied with eating, drinking, flirting, and saying stupidities. These are the things which ought to be shown on the stage. A play should be written in which people arrive, depart have dinner, talk about the weather, and play cards. Life must be exactly as it is and people as they are…Let everything on the stage be just as complicated, and at the same time just as simple, as in life. People eat their dinner, just eat their dinner, and all the time their happiness is taking form, or their lives are being destroyed.”

verbivore that is why it makes no sense to me when people put these restricting limitations on fiction. The fact of the matter is that if the writer has the skill, she can make just about anything work, whether she is “inventing” or “recreating”. If there is no talent, no gift, no real inspiration she is as likely to smear the big canvas as the small one.

I cannot overemphasise how amazed I was that such a poorly thought out idea–it’s those darn domestic novels!–was expressed by an Orange prize judge. Yeeeeeee.

Marly I think we both read that Timesonline article in which Auden shared his opinion on “creating writing”. That’s precisely what was behind my inelegantly expressed my crappy pov. 😀 Here it is for those who haven’t read it : So you think you can write?

Dark Orpheus it fits very well into the discussion. Thanks for posting it!

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