Books about women that are still about men

I’m still fuming over a nameless book I read earlier this year which I’ll leave unidentified so as not to pick at it entirely unfairly, although you may recognise it by its description. It is, shall we say, a story about a relationship between a heterosexual couple. One part of the story is told from the perspective of the man, and the other part is told through the perspective of the woman — the book itself was written by a woman.

This is a kind of narrative approach that seems deeply intriguing, which is why I picked it up. I like seeing stories told from many angles, and exploring many different kinds of experiences. Thus, storytelling that looks at relationships from both sides within the structure of a binary relationship would be deeply appealing to me, especially when it’s explicitly labeled as literary fiction — a bright glimmer of hope that perhaps women’s stories are finally being legitimised instead of being shoved into the corner as ‘chick lit’ and derided. Literary fiction tends to tell the stories of Important Men doing Important Man Things and it is terribly dull, I think we can all agree.

The section told from the man’s point of view was suspiciously predictable, so much so that I flipped to the back cover to confirm that a woman had in fact written the book, because it felt like a textbook middle class white guy writing a quasi-autobiographical novel with tedious self insertions. But this, aha, I thought, must be a clever metacommentary on this particular genre of fiction, the author biting her thumb at tradition. Surely she would reverse the narrative with a completely different style and tone in the second half of the book, an arch and biting indictment of this tiresome approach to storytelling.

I turned the page to the wife’s story, and lo, it was more of the same. The tone was identical, but more than that, the story still revolved utterly around him. We learned virtually nothing about her beyond a few passing mentions, and it was entirely structured as being the second half of a story about him, just told through her eyes. Very little of her relationship to herself, her own life, the structure of her own world. The scathing comments made in the first half of the book went largely uncontested, as she was simply a pale shadow, a reflection of her own husband. Her life seemed to pick up upon meeting him. It was infuriating, and it was either a metacommentary that went beyond my pathetic imagination or just another entry in a tired subgenre of literary fiction.

When literary fiction cannot be written by men about men, it’s written by women about men — women who want to break into the genre tend to have to work extremely hard to pull free of this issue. As soon as they start telling their own stories, they get slapped into a different section of the bookstore and flowers appear on their pink covers, because obviously, the narratives of women aren’t universal, not like men’s are. This was a book that had the potential to really poke at that, to explore it, to push readers outside their comfort zone and make them question the accustomed literary status quo. Instead, it seemed to enforce it, winning critical acclaim by nature of being the same thing that has gone before a thousand and one times.

I’m really tired of reading men’s stories. I really am. I’m sorry, men, many of you are quite lovely and many of you have very interesting stories! But I’m still tired of hearing them, because, I’ll be honest, the ratio of men’s to women’s stories is dismayingly low, and I’m pretty angry that stories about women aren’t treated as serious literary fiction. It’s unreasonable, it’s ridiculous, and it’s insulting. Literary fiction is about style, structure, intent, tone — not about the gender of the participants in the story. (And there is something sneering in the very term ‘literary fiction,’ a certain snobbishness to suggest that other sorts of fiction don’t really count — detective novels and science fiction and that sort of thing just aren’t really up to scratch.)

I get extremely frustrated when stories ostensibly about women and their own lives turn out to be about men. Like, I can’t even explain how annoying this is. If I wanted to read men’s stories, I could find ample opportunities to seek them out. When I pick up a book pitched as a woman’s story, I expect it to be about her, not about the men in her life — I expect to encounter a narrative in which she is her own person, not a reflective wall for the men who are suddenly the stars of the tale. Like, seriously, you guys? We can’t just let one woman somewhere tell her story unhindered by the burden of having to appeal to men?

We already live in a society where women are heavily defined by their relationship to the men around them, and that’s something I don’t need to see repeated in fiction. Is a woman married to a man a wife? Sure. But she’s also a lot of other things, and I’m not interested in reading a story where her sole characterisation is as Wife, but rather where wifehood is part of her overall story — she’s interesting to me as a human being first, as a wife second. Her relationship with her husband may be an important part of the tale, depending on what’s being told, but it’s not the all-consuming part, or, necessarily, the most important. We certainly don’t treat men this way, regarding them as Husband first and foremost and making their stories all about the women in their lives, so why is it okay when the gender dynamic is flipped?

Image: L, Flickr