In Reluctant Defense of Women’s Fiction

Eight years ago, Carlene Cross advised writers to read one hundred books in the genre in which they wanted to write. I read one hundred memoirs, posted them on this blog, and five long years later Plicata Press published my award-winning memoir, A Long Way from Paris.

Writing a memoir is hard, excruciating at times, so I wanted to follow it with a “light” book. Perhaps a light mystery? When I finished my draft, however, my editor told me I had written women’s fiction.

“Women’s fiction?” Arrggh! I balked. Why not plain FICTION, rather than women’s fiction? There’s no corresponding “men’s fiction,” right? Of course, most fiction is men’s fiction. Or, certainly used to be. I honestly don’t have the stats.

I began a year-long investigation into “women’s fiction”- which I’ll refer to as “WF.” After my study, I concluded:

  • The label women’s fiction (WF) is an umbrella as broad as “creative non-fiction.” That is, so large it’s nearly meaningless. Traditionally, perhaps, women’s fiction meant fiction for, about, and by women. Its reputation, its branding, however, identifies most often with romance –superficial and light; about love, marriage, family or lack thereof. A mighty commercially profitable genre, by the way. Other WF delves into the loss of relationships and can be utterly depressing. I’m sorry, Jodi Picoult, you write extremely well, but sometimes I can’t stand to be any more miserable.
  • What could WF be? A satisfactory definition for me would include men’s works, novels and plays, about women and the issues they face. Have you read The Doll’s House or Hedda Gabler recently? Brilliant works by men about women feeling confined, women desiring independence, women wanting more than convention offers. I would absolutely include them in WF.
  • What should WF be? Do we need a genre, WF? Tell me the last time you saw Saul Bellow or Philip Roth write about menopause, or menstruation, or any other purely female issue. Yes, we do need the genre, and I’d love to see its image changed. How often do men walk away from the women’s fiction section of a bookstore? The truth is, WF runs the range from commercially romantic to intensely literate. It runs the gamut from George Elliott and Gertrude Stein to Joyce Carol Oates and Nora Roberts.

I studied this illusive “women’s fiction” genre to help clarify my own intention with my next books. In addition to the plays mentioned above, I resonated with the fiction of  Attica Locke, Joyce Carol Oates, Maria Semple and Anne Tyler. Blonde and An Accidental Tourist stuck to me like fly paper through 2017.

I also loved Lianne Moriarty’s books before Big, Little Lies became a smash hit because she writes in the new “up-market” category, stories which humorously touch on love, work, families, and affairs, but which then veer off into deeper issues once you’re hooked: spousal abuse, pre-natal depression, rape, class prejudice, and so forth. Add to my list, the jackpot. I recently reread Pride and Prejudice for the third time. Jane Austin gives WF prestige and satisfaction, with thoughtfully written books, funny, and profound. Yay, to all those Jane Austin fans who recognized this long before I.

In my search for the book I want to write, I decided upon a mash up of Joyce, Moriarty, Locke, and Tyler with a bit of Daphne du Maurier (Rebecca) thrown in. For four years, I’ve struggled to write the book that works for me –and then, hopefully, my readers. Finally, I am closer to a solution: I want to write a book that holds a mixture of fun and insight into women’s issues which, I believe, are the characteristics that helped make my memoir, A Long Way from Paris, become a success. So, readers, hold on to your seat. In a year of three, this light-hearted, thoughtful novel may appear on your favorite bookstore’s shelves.

 

Why would anyone write a memoir?

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I sometimes wonder why on earth I wanted to write a memoir. Why would anyone want to delve into personal tragedies, pain, struggles. Or, be honest. Be vulnerable. Who wants that?

When I first pitched my story about living off the grid in the mountains of southern France, an agent said, “Oh no. It must be more – how you grew; what you learned from your experience; what it meant to you. So I dug and I dug and today, six years later I am so sick of this f***memoir.

So, again, why write a memoir? Purging is no reason. Information dump is not a memoir. At the very least, hopefully, one can grow from another’s experiences, learn from other’s mistakes, and feel a sense of empathy from another’s words. And aren’t we all figuring out that empathizing, the “walking a mile in another’s shoes,” is about as important as anything we can do?

“Was it worth it?” my friend Pam asked. “Reading one hundred memoirs in one big surge?”

Absolutely. Mostly, because the project led me to stories I’d never have read otherwise. Take, Tobias Wolff’s Pharoahs of the Army, a collection about war. But, actually, it’s not about war; it’s about people. People who react humanely in an otherwise inhumane setting. It’s about people with war all around them.

Like every school child who grew up during Vietnam, I watched the nightly television news and saw gruesome images of severed arms, bloodied legs, napalmed children. I did not wish to read about war. Any yet, I can’t recommend Pharoahs more strongly.

  1. The Voices in My Head by Emma Forest
  2. The House of Sky by Ivan Doig
  3. My Life with My Brother by Nicholas Sparks
  4. Finding Grace by Donna Van Liere666
  5. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson
  6. The Road to Lost Innocence by Somaly Mam
  7. Boys in My Youth by JoAnn Beard
  8. I’m All Over That by Shirley McClaine
  9. Crashing Through: A True Story of Risk, Adventure, and the Man Who Dared to See by Mike May
  10. The Sparkled Eye Boy by Amy Benson
  11. My Reading Life by Pat Conroy
  12. A House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
  13. Drinking by Caroline Knapp

One Year Later

self portrait 2flowers on side     I’ve reflected on the most powerful memoirs, the ones that stick like oatmeal, those memoirs I’ll always remember.  I loved discovering new books for this project, like my new favorite author, Geoff Dyer. His memoir, which only loosely fits the genre, is Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with DH Lawrence. I like Dyers wit, and in fact, his wit and insight carry the reader, since he often skips over silly devices like genre and plot.

I wouldn’t have read The Jaycee Dugard Story, the gut wrenching saga of a young woman raped and kidnapped, and then freed because of a keen eyed security guard at UC Berkeley. The story cried tabloid press to me, fodder for voyeurs reading her story in People magazine at the checkout line at Safeway. But I read it, skipping most of the rape, and finally, I understood that this tragedy, being stolen off the streets, could happen to anyone, at anytime. Anyone of us can intercede as well, if we look sharply enough at a situation which seems “off.” That’s all the security guard had for evidence to start the investigation: “Things looked off.”

A more poetic memoir, The Sparkling-eyed Boy by Amy Benson, moved me. Awarded at the Breadloaf Writers conference, this lyrical story tells of a girl who becomes a woman, entwined with summer friendship, summer romance, summer confusion. It’s beautifully written, and I felt myself rise and fall with the narrator who tries to understand what was and is her life.

But when it comes to beautifully written and gut wrenching, no one compares to Joan Didion. Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking is unequaled in its brilliance as Didion figures out how to accept the sudden death of her husband and the illness of her only child. We, readers, befriend her in her grief, and yet, keep just enough distance to breathe, plow through, and feel empathy, yet not get bogged down in it. I know of no memoirist who surpasses Joan Didion.

  1. Hippie Boy by Ingrid Ricks
  2. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by bill Bryson
  3. There is Nothing in the Book I Meant to Say by Paula Poundstone
  4. Travels with Charlie by John Steinbeck
  5. The Olive Farm by Carol Drinkwater
  6. A Piano in the Pyrenees by Tony Hawks
  7. Hell or High Water by Peter Heller
  8. Life with Mum and Pup by Christopher Buckley
  9. The wilder Life by Wendy McClure
  10. Seriously, Just Kidding by Ellen de Generis
  11. Plan B by Ann LaMott

Stepping into the Morass: MFA vs. non-MFA

Cape Cod Pochet boardwalkMemoirists in blog: Nestor, Sparks, King, Conroy, Patchett, Grealy, Beard

Now that I’ve  Read 100 Memoirs in order to write one, I’ve begun to understand the range of memoirs in America’s literary world. I’ve also seen divisions, a blurred definition of “literary,” and people asking if memoir has any value as a genre at all.

Some cite St. Augustine’s Confessions as the first true memoir. My own introduction was Theo Nestor’s hopeful How to Sleep Alone in King-Sized Bed, which begins when she puts a chicken in the oven for a traditional family dinner. By the time she takes it out, her world has turned upside down. Not only is King-Size Bed  a must for anyone going through a divorce, it engages readers with its easy slippage through time. We’re  moved by Nestor’s life, but also inspired, that we can overcome our own challenges and crisis’ in a topsy-turvy world. This, I believe, is what the best memoirs should do.

Though Nestor has an Masters of Fine Arts , she writes a compelling story. “Though?” My premise is that many writers walk away with their MFA not knowing how to write a story. There is a split in the literary world between MFA and non-MFA. The question, does a writer need to earn an MFA  to write compelling stories, has been covered in a slough of articles – (http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2010/11/mfa_vs_nyc.html by Chad Harbach; http://www.thereviewreview.net/publishing-tips/mfa-or-not-mfa-question Robin Black; http://dismagazine.com/discussion/32434/brad-troemel-mfa-critiques/ Brad Troemel, for example. Many articles were written in 2010. Is that when people woke up with a jerk, realizing they were $40,000 in debt with no job in sight? And that the $40,000 wouldn’t go away? It would grow over time?

Anelise Chen compared–again, in 2010 –the authors admired versus those who actually sold books. http://therumpus.net/2010/10/on-blowing-my-load-thoughts-from-inside-the-mfa-ponzi-scheme/ Anelise Chen

New York Times Hardcover Fiction Top Five -2010-Week not identified

  1. SAFE HAVEN,      Nicholas Sparks — No MFA
  2. FREEDOM,      Jonathan Franzen — No MFA
  3. WICKED      APPETITE, by Janet Evanovich — No MFA
  4. THE GIRL      WHO KICKED THE HORNET’S NEST, by Stieg Larsson — Swedish, therefore, No      MFA
  5. THE HELP,      by Kathryn Stockett — No MFA

Versus New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 List with Age and MFA Breakdown

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 32 — Johns Hopkins
Chris Adrian, 39 — Iowa
Daniel Alarcón, 33 — Iowa
David Bezmozgis, 37 — No Writing MFA
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, 38 — Iowa
Joshua Ferris, 35 — UCI
Jonathan Safran Foer, 33  — No MFA
Nell Freudenberger, 35  — NYU
Rivka Galchen, 34 — Columbia
Nicole Krauss, 35 — No MFA
Yiyun Li, 37 — Iowa
Dinaw Mengestu, 31 — Columbia
Philipp Meyer, 36 — Michener Center
C. E. Morgan, 33  — No MFA
Téa Obreht, 24 — Cornell
Z Z Packer, 37 — Iowa
Karen Russell, 28 — Columbia
Salvatore Scibona, 35 — Iowa
Gary Shteyngart, 37 — Hunter
Wells Tower, 37 — Columbia
My own addition: Tao Lin, 27 — Disowned by NYU

Clearly, the literati are drawn to MFA’s and Iowa and Columbia in particular, while the general population prefers something else.

As a result of my Don Quixote quest to Read 100 Memoirs, I read many books I wouldn’t have glanced at ordinarily. Takes, Nicholas Sparks, #1 on this list. I read Sparks memoir, Three Weeks with My Brother, having never actually read a Nicholas Sparks novels in my life.

Besides being entertained and moved, I learned of Spark’s his absent professor dad –absent  first, because of night school and work, and second, absent staying late grading papers. I also discovered how Sparks succeeded as a writer. He worked at his meaningless day job to pay for food, rent, shoes for the kids, as well as therapy for his child with a disability. And he wrote at night. Like most writers, his first book landed in the garbage. His second book was a collaboration, and his third book, his first published with sole authorship, hit the big time. The Notebook  became Sparks first published book.

Consider Stephen King. Again, I don’t read his books ordinarily, or the horror genre, but I devoured his memoir, Memoir on the Craft of Writing.  I’d recommend Sparks and King’s memoirs as inspiring for writers as well as interesting reads. How did Sparks and King become best-selling authors? They wrote, wrote, wrote, wrote, and read, read, read, read. They fed their kids. They did not get an MFA

Why discuss MFA versus non-MFA? Because many of the memoirs I read scream MFA in that they don’t have a story. One of my favorite writers, Pat Conroy, wrote in his memoir, My Reading Life, that we live in an era where books do not need to have “story.”

I hate to dis any authors because we have all worked so hard and many of us have failed to write the book we wish we’d written. A moving voice does not a story make. If the purpose of a memoir is to like the author, to empathize with her, to feel her feelings, I am left cold. I like Pat Conroy’s stories “better.”

Am I saying I like men’s memoirs better than women’s? I hope not! I loved Ann Patchett’s story of her relationship with Lucy Grealy in Truth and Beauty. And Lucy Grealy’s memoir about her own disfigurement in The Autobiography of Face. Patchet and Grealy were both roommates at –yes, Iowa! The MIT of writers. So I’m not against either women memoirists or MFA’s or the best of them all, Iowa. I’d just like to keep “story” in my books. You know—wonder what’s going to happen next? Be emotionally aroused? Laugh, cry, think deeply. And for that, you need to write well-not earn an MFA.

Life in the South of France

ECM_Goats_Eating photoTo my new readers, this blog reflects my reading 100 Memoirs as an exercise in writing one memoir. “To write well,” my instructor stated, I should “read one hundred books in my genre.”  I’ve completed my memoir currently titled, On the Mountains of Languedoc, which I revise and revise.  In the meantime, my reading continues.

I’m up to eighty-three memoirs. The more I read, the more categories I discover. Some memoirs ooze with raw, painful, honesty while others hop and skip with irony and humor. Some offer clarity and insights while others reflect chaotic memories with shallow musing. Some memoirs are worth reading. Some are not.

Since my book is set in Southern France, I’ve read three memoirs with this setting. I’ve learned it is not “Southern France,” however. It’s “the South of France,” which apparently conveys more spark, romance and pizzazz.

1.) The Bible of “life in the south of France” is A Year in Provence (1989). Named Best Travel Book of the Year (1989) by British Book Awards, it turned Provence into the world’s most exquisite destination overnight.  Peter Mayle was named Author of the Year (1992), and for this and other books he’s written about Provence, the French government named him Mayle a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur (Knight of the Legion of Honor). Impressive. But wait! There’s even a TV series, A Year in Provence.

Does the book deserve these accolades? Yes.

Many adventurers write memoirs because they’ve lived an “interesting” life, even though they’re incapable of writing a compelling memoir.  Mayle is an exception. Emerging from the advertising world, he writes with skill, talent, and passion.

Mayle’s book fascinated me –here’s the writer in me—because there’s virtually no plot. Does a memoir need a plot, if indeed, it’s all about setting? Mostly about setting? Apprerently not. You move to France, you spend a year building a house, you meet some true characters, and that is all. Yet, Peter Mayle’s strong writing pulls it off. We become armchair travelers, smelling the lavender, growing the garden, impatient that the house building continues ad infinitum. Mayle’s characters endear me; his descriptions mesmerize, and his tiny bit of plot intrigues me. As a reader, I live with him and his wife and his French neighbors, and that is enough.  The book testifies to great writing, neither mawkish nor overly sentimental, but light, fascinating, and fun.

2. Tony Hawks, a comedian and actor from Britain writes mischievous e-mails to fans who mistake him for the famous skateboarding Tony Hawk of video games.  A Piano in the Pyrenees, Hawks memoir about buying a house in the south of France, meeting locals, and trying to dig a swimming pool, zips along, as though its humor will carry the readers. Rather than being effusive about the surrounding beauty, he brushes over it with lines like, “The scenery from my window-Did I say the scenery?” Although I like Hawks, as he tells his punchy story at racehorse speed, I wonder if I’d read the book if it weren’t for my goal of reading one hundred memoirs. No. Am I reading this only because the topic is the south of France? Yes. Not as funny as say, Bill Bryson, or as descriptive as Mayle, it’s hard to recommend.

3. British actor, Carol Drinkwater, writes about the south of France in The Olive Farm, the first of a series.  If you love scenes and setting, if you like being an armchair traveler, if you’re wondering about visiting Provence, this book shimmers in that lush and lovely world.

Like Mayle, Drinkwater purchases a dump, which she scrubs inside and out to discover the proverbial diamond in the rough. Always a world traveler, she decides to settle down, to make this her permanent home with her lover, although work and finances tear them away most of the year.

How do you differentiate between the Olive Farm and Provence?  Like with any book, we must fall for the protagonist, the memoirist. As a woman, Drinkwater is more reflective, especially about her relationships. Provence feels lighter to me, a little happier, and a bit stronger. The books are similar enough, I’d bet if you like Mayle, you’ll enjoy Drinkwater as well.

Honest

We Came to Say 2So many books, so many superb memoirs. I recently read two classics, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers, a Pulitzer finalist, and In Pharaoh’s Army by Tobias Wolff. Both men write with clear, distinctive voices which most writers dream of acquiring. Both have a subtle sense of humor; both are earnest and self-effacing. A third memoir that seeped compassion from my bones is The Boy Who Loved Tornadoes by Randi Davenport. Though raw, painful, I felt privileged to read this crystal clear, honest book.