Erotic Parodies of Women

A writer and I were on the sunny plaza outside the Nobel Museum in central Stockholm and she was telling me about an erotic parody project she’d collaborated on. The project was called Fifty Shelves of Grey and involved a dozen or so British authors doing erotic rewrites of fifty classic books, all published under the pseudonym Vanessa Parody. However, amidst all that bodice ripping, partner swapping and heavy breathing, there arose a very real problem for those salacious scribes—finding works of literature that had two or more female characters that were not blood relatives. Though there were plenty of male/female and male/male relationships to uncloak; female/female relationships were almost exclusively between sisters, and mothers and daughters. The relationships of unrelated adult women are nearly invisible in literature. This absence is not only a hindrance for aspiring erotic parody writers, but is quite possibly a symptom of a larger erasure of the lives and experiences of women across literature.

Last year writer Nicola Griffith published a survey of the gender representation among the winners of half a dozen major literary awards. She looked at competitions from the last fifteen years and found that nearly two-thirds of Pulitzer winners were written wholly from the perspective of a man/boy, while zero were written wholly from the perspective of a woman/girl. The Man Booker fared slightly better with a total of two books of the last fifteen written wholly from the perspective of a woman/girl. So, it seems that stories that center on the lives of women are rarely elevated to the highest echelons of literary praise. It should then be of little surprise that relationships between women are nearly invisible in literary fiction.Continue Reading

Preserving Intent: What’s Lost in the Cinematic Translation of Mrs. Dalloway

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I like to follow up my reading of a text with its cinematic counterpart. After finishing Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, I rented the DVD of the same name with great anticipation. But after the credits rolled, I was unsatisfied: while the cinematic version of Woolf’s novel provides a touching and well-acted rendering of her vision, it fails to recognize and execute some critical themes from the hard copy novel.

In the film, the omission of a consistent concept of time was immediately recognizable. Yet, the novel is divided by eleven panels of time. The film occasionally shows Big Ben chiming the hour, but fails to highlight how Woolf saw the theme of time as absolutely critical to shaping the individual’s everyday experience. Entirely absent from the film is the concept of deep time, a reading of time that pre-dated conventional 24-hour time. One of her journal entries confirms her desire to produce such a concept in a work like Mrs. Dalloway: “I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters: I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, humor, depth. The idea is that the caves shall connect…” This primordial illustration shows Woolf’s need to portray a sense of movement that simultaneously spans the modern convention of time, yet remains timeless. Although the film does shift between scenes from Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway’s childhood and the present, this sense of “time before time” is absent.

The “beautiful caves behind her characters” in Woolf’s novel lack complexity in the film version. Poignant scenes are cut, weakening the cinematic version. As in the novel, there’s a film scene where Mr.Dalloway is shown trying to decide what to get his wife for her birthday. But the angst Woolf writes into his action—buying his wife red roses—is completely passed over.Continue Reading

Indigenous Taiwanese Lit: From One Island Comes Global History

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The deeper you go into reading indigenous literature the greater your understanding of the human condition. Such is the case with Indigenous Writers of Taiwan: An Anthology of Stories, Essays and Poems. In these contemporary and compelling pieces we see beyond skin color, religion, and geographic location by placing Taiwan at the center of our literary map.

Taiwan has nine indigenous tribes divided into eight mountain groups and one non-mountain group, we learn from translator John Balcom. Balcom, who co-edited the anthology with Yingtsih Balcom for Columbia University Press’s Modern Chinese Literature from Taiwan series, explains that their populations range from 4200 to 122,800 and they occupied Taiwan as far back as fifteen thousand years ago. As we progress into the book and discover similarities and differences among the tribes, we find work that ranges from the personal to the universal and contains truths that parallel myths and legends. We find ourselves pondering our own Natives while discovering how the Han Chinese, the Japanese, and Western imperialism have molded Taiwan.Continue Reading

Fiction Responding to Fiction: Anton Chekhov and Joyce Carol Oates

ocean-90054_1280Joyce Carol Oates’s story “The Lady with the Pet Dog” is a clear response to Anton Chekhov’s classic story “The Lady with the Little Dog.” Almost 75 years separate the two stories, and Oates, though her modifications, clearly modernizes the story, retelling the story through a feminist lens.

Chekhov’s linear story is written from the point of view of the man, Dmitri Dmitrich Gurov, who is having an affair with Anna Sergeevna, the lady with the dog. The point of view is relatively close to Gurov; we see the world and Anna through his perspective. There are moments, however, where Chekhov pulls back somewhat, so that we get a fuller perspective which encompasses both characters. This clearly happens at the end of the story, when the couple realizes that they wish to be together:

And it seemed that, just a little more—and the solution would be found, and then a new, beautiful life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that the end was still far, far off, and that the most complicated and difficult part was just beginning.

Oates tells the story through the point of view of the woman—Anna, as well—and responds to the circularity at the end of Chekhov’s story by employing a cyclical structure throughout her story. We begin at a concert—a point midway through the chronological story—where Anna spots her lover. We return to the concert two more times over the course of the story, learning and seeing a bit more with each return. From the start at the concert, we move back in time, to where the couple leaves Nantucket, where they have met, and then we move back in time again to when they first meet. The exact midpoint of the story is the moment that they meet. Throughout the story, Oates plays with this circular structure, often referring to it in the text, in Anna’s thoughts and words: “Everything is repeating itself. Everything is stuck.”Continue Reading

On Building Believable Characters in Fiction

bw-934485Before I picked up a copy of Offshore last month, it had been years since I read Penelope Fitzgerald, a British author who didn’t start writing until she was in her sixties. But the characters in this Booker Prize-winning novel caught my attention and I soon became completely emerged in Fitzgerald’s cleverly constructed world. Set on the Thames River, multiple houseboat dwellers share their stories of connection, loss, love, and confusion, all with a wry dose of Brit humor. This text might be nearing forty years old but the characters are dimensional and compelling. Reading through it, I discovered why they felt so contemporary: they were as present, conscious, and complex as real people are.

By the second page, a character named Richard reluctantly heads up a group of neighboring houseboat dwellers to discuss a communal problem. As the meeting is in full swing, Richard thinks, “Duty is what no-one will do at the moment.” The omniscient narrator’s voice in a following statement gives the reader details on why Richard might draw this conclusion:

Fortunately he did not have to define duty. War service in the RNVR, and his whole temperament before and since, had done that for him.

Later, when Richard has an encounter with a pushy associate who works in real estate, the narrator guides us once more:

Richard wondered why living on largish boat would automatically make him interested in small ones.

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Violence Against Women in Fiction

Four of us writers were critiquing each other’s novellas which all happened to have female protagonists. Three of the protagonists were victims of sexual assault, which then caused these characters to suddenly and completely change. One of those protagonists became mentally unbalanced and faded away, another was rescued by a man, and the third became a kind of vigilante, exacting revenge. These three characters happened to perfectly align with three tropes in fiction that I had recently been thinking a lot about.

According to Allison Graham-Bertolini in her book Vigilante Women in Contemporary American Fiction, the female vigilante is a relatively new character type. She says that in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries female characters who were abused and oppressed were relegated to mental illness or suicide, rather than revenge. Two notable examples Graham-Bertolini sites from this era are The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and The Bell Jar by Silvia Plath, both of which have female protagonists responding to systemic and individual oppression by slowly losing all sense of reality and all sense of self. My friend’s protagonist, who is raped and then begins hallucinating, seemed to speak directly to this first trope.Continue Reading

Clever Girl, Boyhood, and the Importance of Blank Spaces

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One of the greatest challenges of writing a novel is choosing where to begin it. Choosing where to end it is also important (or so I’ve been told). But even once a writer makes those big decisions, the novel is fraught with similar choices at the micro level. Where does each chapter begin and end? Where should the story pick up after a break in the chapter? And more to the point, is there any way to avoid the exercise of writing the boring parts and then cutting them out later?

Tessa Hadley’s novel, Clever Girl, provides a master class in choosing what to skip. At the end of each chapter a large amount of time passes—a year or two or four or fifteen. Some of the most dramatic events of the narrator’s life occur in the spaces between chapters.

I finished reading the book for the first time just before I saw Richard Linklater’s film, Boyhood, and I was struck by their similarities, though one begins with a boy in Texas in 2002 and the other begins with a girl in Bristol, England in the 1960s. Hadley covers forty-two years of Stella’s life in 250 pages, divided into ten chapters. Linklater spans twelve years of Mason’s life in just under three hours, divided into twelve sections.Continue Reading

Weathering/Writing the Storms

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In an episode of Master of None, Dev and Arnold walk home from a mostly uneventful night out at a bar. One remarks how cold it is. The other says it’s supposed to be nicer the next day. Dev acknowledges how cliché and potentially banal the topic at hand is when he asks, “you want to keep talking about the weather?”

The weather is often the subject we revert to when we don’t have anything to talk about, or when we don’t know someone well enough to know what to talk about. We are all effected by and threaded together by the weather. In my native New England, the skies are ever-changing, always fickle, and I’m finding the same in my adopted hometown in Oregon, where interactions with strangers almost always involves a conversation about the weather: Whoa, did you see it out there? Yeah, messy out there, isn’t it? But it was so sunny earlier!

In “Writers in the Storm,” New Yorker staff writer Kathryn Schulz deconstructs the presence of weather in literature, noting that, “as literary subjects go, weather has a terrible reputation. […] On the one hand, weather is widely regarded as the most banal topic in the world—in print as in conversation, the one we resort to when we have nothing else to say. On the other hand, it stands perpetually accused of melodrama.”Continue Reading

Fiction Responding to Fiction: Vladimir Nabokov and Lorrie Moore

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Lorrie Moore’s story “Referential,” published in The New Yorker in 2012 and included in her 2014 collection Bark, is a clear homage to and reflection of Vladimir Nabokov’s story “Symbols and Signs,” published in 1948 in The New Yorker and included in his collection Nabokov’s Dozen a decade later.

In Nabokov’s story, an older couple travels to visit their son in a sanatarium, bringing a birthday gift. They are not allowed to see him and they return home, where the mother reflects on the son through a series of photographs, and the father decides he wants to bring the son home. The phone rings twice, seemingly misdials, and the story ends as the phone rings for a third time.

Moore’s storyline is similar and yet modernized: a mother goes to visit her son in an institution, bringing the identical birthday gift: a basket of jams. She is with Pete, a man she had been with for years, but who has now largely removed himself from her life. Unlike Nabokov’s story, they are allowed to see her son, and they have an extended visit. When they return home, the mother considers the photos of her son on refrigerator magnets, the photos reflecting the same ages as the photos in Nabokov’s story. The phone rings, twice, and with the second call, the mother claims that the caller-ID identifies the call as coming from Pete’s apartment. We then learn that she lied, that she could not read the caller-ID without her glasses. The story ends with a third ring, and the mother answers the phone.

Moore’s title is so emblematic of her love of wordplay. While “Referential” obviously speaks to the connections between the stories, it is also reflective of the made-up illness that the son in Nabokov’s story is diagnosed with: “referential mania.” Moore revised the story for her collection, changing the first word in the story to “Mania” so that the title and the first word work together, much as in a poem.Continue Reading

Women in Refrigerators

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Fifteen of us were watching Colin Farrell talking fast and sweet at a woman who communicated almost entirely by lowering her head, raising her eyes, and simpering. This was a few months ago and I was in a playwriting seminar with a well-known playwright that I had never heard of before. Huh, I thought, Colin Farrell is doing all of the acting while the woman is being all of the scenery. After about ninety seconds Colin Farrell’s character punches the woman in the nose, robs her, and then gets chased by cops. The last shot we see of the woman, she is wide-eyed and covering her face with her blood-coated hand.

The well-known playwright paused the movie and turned the lights back on. We’d just watched the opening scene of 2003’s Intermission, and wasn’t it shocking, he said. He kept saying how shocking it was and how surprised we were all supposed to be. He was certain no one could see that punch coming.

But here’s the thing: if you’re like me, a woman, or maybe you are not a woman but you happen to believe that women are people, then perhaps you’ve noticed the way women are often deployed in fiction. Frequently they are victimized, killed, or otherwise depowered early in the story which then serves as both the inciting incident, and the emotional thrust, for a male protagonist’s journey. This pattern, called “Women in Refrigerators,” was first written about by Gail Simone in 1999. Though Simone was writing specifically about the portrayal of women in superhero comics, this trope is certainly seen in other genres and formats of fiction as well.Continue Reading