Angela Carter: Glam rock feminist

Angela Carter's playful retelling of fairy tales and her witty feminism won her legions of fans. But 14 years after her death, is she still essential reading or has the world moved on? Michèle Roberts reassesses her work and legacy
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The Independent Culture

Angela Carter was one of the most original, radical and stylish fiction writers in English of the 20th century, delighting readers with her fierce, witty and jaunty tales, short stories, novels and essays. Strongly influenced by surrealism, by the Situationist cultural activism of the 1960s, with its stress on theatre and absurdity, and by sexual libertarianism, she unpicked the myths that compose and sustain western social and sexual relationships. In her view, male desire dominated the popular imagination. Accordingly, female desire got squeezed, denied, warped and twisted.

Carter was critical of conventional femininity, which she saw as a blend of masquerade and of "male impersonation". She mocked savagely all the cultural and literary clichés which kept the power imbalance rolling along. She started off, in her earliest novels, by writing a form of realism, but, with The Magic Toyshop (1967) was already producing her own distinctive brand of hallucinatory symbolism. With Heroes and Villains (1969) she tried out gothic fantasy, and in The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffman (1972) and The Passion of New Eve (1977) mixed fantasy, science-fiction, intellectual speculation and satire. Her late, triumphant novels Nights at the Circus (1984) and Wise Children (1991) show her in celebratory mood, revelling in a heritage of music hall, pantomime and Shakespearian comedy.

If Carter kicked against the pricks, she kicked over the feminist traces too. She certainly was a feminist but never a goody-goody or a prig, well able to imagine women as flawed and imperfect, necessarily so given the misogynistic world in which they lived. She did not see women in any simplistic sense as victims. She raised some feminist hackles by re-reading and celebrating de Sade in the light of contemporary thinking about violence as a form of freedom, and imagining a hypothetical "moral pornographer" who would "use pornography as a critique of current relationships between the sexes". In similar vein, over-theoretical as it may seem to us now, she declared that she was pro-prostitution, as the pornographer and the prostitute are engaged in a reciprocal relationship. Carter does not particularly move me with these eulogies, which have more to do with the lofty dreams of the intellectual in her study than the struggles of working girls on the streets.

Times have got nastier since Carter wrote. Much as we may want to champion women's "free" choice to sell their bodies (do we?), we may think twice before defending traffickers' "rights" to exploit women as commodities. It is one thing to sympathise with poor de Sade locked up in jail writing out his fantasies about power and potency, in which the word "woman" seems merely an abstract term in an angry debate about morality, but quite another to condone the violence done to flesh-and-blood children in order to produce pornographic computer images for male consumption.

Likewise, some of Carter's earlier novels seem too coldly clever to me, spinning abstract ideas rather than embodying them in human beings. More earthy, sensual and passionate was her groundbreaking collection of re-told fairy tales The Bloody Chamber (1979), in which she celebrated the power of female desire to re-imagine the world and turn it topsy-turvy. This, and her other collection of stories Black Venus (1987) seem to me the works which best demonstrate her genius. Since her tragically early death at the age of 51, all her works have been collected and published. The Collected Short Stories is the volume to which I most frequently return, relishing Carter's poetic compression, oblique perspectives on history, astonishing and uncanny insight into human desire.

When men asked her "why is there no female Shakespeare?" Carter replied: "There was only one Shakespeare, dammit." In fact she is like Shakespeare. She is the playwright. She is the stage manager of marvellous effects. She influenced a whole new generation of writers. For example, it is impossible to imagine Jeanette Winterson writing without Carter's groundbreaking permissiveness ahead of her. Winterson's two beautiful early novels, The Passion and Sexing the Cherry, seem inspired by Carter, and particularly by Carter's own invention of fantastical-historical forms. Where Carter mocks religion, though, Winterson sometimes emerges as a born-again prophet.

Alongside Carter we find other women writers engaged in similar enterprises to her own: Marina Warner, Sara Maitland, A S Byatt and Emma Tennant (to name just four) have all gone on experimenting with fairy tale and the re-telling of myth. We cannot celebrate Carter's achievement without putting her in context and celebrating the achievement of her peers too.

Has Carter's work lasted? It would appear so. Only a few months ago, Nights at the Circus was staged to enraptured audiences at London's Lyric Hammersmith as magical, enchanted burlesque. Students at universities across the country continue to write dissertations and theses on Carter, often hailing her as a fore-runner of queer theory and its declaration that gender and sexual differences are no makers of destinies. Virago, who have long published her, certainly go on valuing her and have just reissued six of the books, smartly re-jacketed to appeal to contemporary audiences.

Who, among the general public, reads Angela Carter these days? Does the twentysomething generation appreciate her work? I telephoned an assortment of younger friends and acquaintances (all under 30) in order to find out.

Helen said: "I've read lots of her books. She was a pioneer who created imagery about female space and female storytelling. She's not just a magical realist. She was female and used magical realism for female purposes. She opened doors for me through which I could walk to enter a new space and own lots of bits and pieces of culture. For example, she took the music hall tradition and delighted in how women could own that and play with it. Sarah Waters must have been inspired by Carter. She couldn't have written her novels without reading her first. "

Rachel was similarly enthusiastic: "I read most of her stuff when I was 15 and 16. I really liked The Magic Toyshop for its symbolism, and the way she used language, for example in Wise Children. She was unapologetically writing about women but not in an exclusive way. She's seductive. I like the feeling of slight looniness you get, and possibility, and the way she stretches and pushes the possibilities. That's refreshing!"

Alec said: "Oh, that gothic stuff from the 1980s. Has it got anything to say to us now?' Martin recalled reading The Bloody Chamber. He sounded cautious: "She's not someone I'd be interested in reading a lot of. I saw The Company of Wolves and thought how well the work translated into film. I do admire her beautiful language, her symbolism, the otherworldly flavour of the tales, and I like the way they are quite frightening too, but I'm more interested in realism. The female writers I like are realists, like Laurie Moore, Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty."

Gemma, who teaches drama, argued that her male students love Carter precisely because she shows the dark side of femininity. Carter did seem to appeal more to young women readers, though. Why should that be? Time and again I meet young male writers and readers who do not read books by women, whereas young women have a more generous and open attitude, reading men's books with curiosity and pleasure. Is it just that men continue to have higher status in our culture and so don't feel obliged to be interested in women's minds? Rachel had a kinder view: "Men often assume that women write for women, whereas men write for everyone. But men only think that because they have a slightly hangdog attitude. They see women as having it more sorted, so they feel they have to hang on to whatever they can, and they can say of literature: this is ours, at least all the great writers are male." Whereas, all of us agreed, they are not. But the clichéd, out-of-date version of the canon has it so. Helen was adamant: "Carter offers young men a great opportunity to get inside women's minds, to find a different way of playing with language and imagination. The Bloody Chamber isn't just another re-writing of fairy tales. Carter pulled out something different. She reveals men to themselves."

One of Carter's distinctions was not to win any of the major literary prizes. She was too quirky, too original, too avant-garde, too subversive (a similar fate today has befallen the wonderful Hilary Mantel). Our culture only makes space for one woman writer per generation to be hailed as avant-garde. We seem very uncomfortable still with the idea of women as intellectuals. Carter didn't fit into the middlebrow slot reserved for women writers. She writes in a European rather than an American tradition, drawing on writers as diverse as Italo Calvino on the one hand and Georges Bataille on the other. Today, as we watch revivals of the 1970s in fashion, pop and art, we can remember how 1970s feminism, in its carnivalesque incarnation, co-existed with glam rock. Carter's literary style is similarly exuberant. We can relish her as a linguistic dandy, a mistress of the baroque, up there strutting her stuff alongside David Bowie and Van Morrison.

Her subject-matter is not outdated. Her take on sex, for example, still has something to offer us. Even as we see a return to the sentimental-domestic ideals of the 1950s, sex saturates western culture as never before. Sex on whose terms? Sexual freedom remains problematic. Freedom on whose terms? Women have been offered the chance to become the makers and users of pornography. Women who decline are labelled prudes.

The debate hots up over how to represent desire, whether sex should be so firmly split from memory and feeling, whether we should continue to acquiesce to being plugged into infernal desire machines. Thanks to our mobiles, we can work for our employers wherever we are. We can work longer hours than ever before. Sex becomes something to be bought and rapidly consumed like a hamburger. Young men routinely visit brothels as part of stag-night celebrations. Carter would have had plenty to say about all that.

'Wise Children' (£7.99), 'Nights at the Circus' (£7.99), 'The Bloody Chamber' (£7.99), 'Love' (£7.99), 'Burning Your Boats: Collected Stories' (£9.99) and 'Expletives Deleted: Collected Journalism' (£7.99) are all published by Vintage. To buy copies (p&p free), contact Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897

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