Is feminism relevant to 21st-century fiction?

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As 'Granta' dedicates its new issue to the 'F word', Arifa Akbar asks authors about the sexual politics of storytelling

The year that feminism entered British literary fiction is a debatable one: some refer to the watershed moment in 1962, when Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook dramatised women's interior conflict between work, motherhood, love and sex as well as the hitherto taboo drama of the menstrual cycle. It broke such new ground that its author was labelled an Angry Young Man, in line with the literary movement of the day. It was, in fact, a prototype feminist novel at the vanguard of the Angry Young Women's wave of fiction that drew on centuries of unrecorded domestic servitude.

It is harder to pin down the year feminism left the field of fiction. Somewhere along the line, it was tacitly agreed that novelists had outgrown the narrative with its uneasy marriage between fiction and polemic.

Revisiting the debate on women's writing and feminism might now be considered a redundant exercise in an age where books written by women extend across genres and jostle for literary prizes and front-of-store positioning. The 1970s dictum of "writing by women, about women, for women" is certainly a historical anachronism. Philosophical arguments about writing the body are unfashionable with critical theorists and the question of whether women write as gendered beings is dismissed for failing to appreciate the governing role of the imagination in the writing process.

Yet questions, and imbalances, persist. Just when the annual debate over whether we need a women's literary award comes around again as the Orange Prize prepares to announce its winner next month, so Australia, ironically, begins to consider establishing a prize based on the Orange model, such is the lack of recognition for Antipodean women's fiction.

Against this backdrop, Granta magazine will publish The F Word (£12.99) next Thursday: an issue dedicated to reflections on gender, power and feminism, in which Lydia Davis, Rachel Cusk, Jeanette Winterson, AS Byatt, Helen Simpson and Téa Obreht, among others, write wide-ranging pieces on women's places in the world, the place of feminism within storytelling and shortfalls of the Women's Movement of the 1970s. John Freeman, editor of Granta, feels this latter aspect is a positive outcome: "I think political movements must always critique their own legacies - otherwise they become cults. Writers in the issue are doing what's natural after decades of believing in a cause - they are observing the victories and defeats, and taking stock of how this idea has infiltrated life and culture."

They also show, from the gulf between the issues that concern these writers and those that vexed their 1970s elders, how far women have come, in life and in fiction. Davis's short story, "The Dreadful Mucamas", is told from the perspective of a wealthy American who regards her foreign domestic help with concern but also bigoted suspicion. Winterson, reflecting on the love affair between Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas, bemoans the loss of romance in our post-feminist age. Helen Simpson draws a satire of a husband reflecting on the grievances of a reversed society in which men are the second sex in "Night Thoughts".

Yet even as Granta brings this issue to the fore, its title - The F Word - makes reference to a contemporary aversion to the term feminism. Many now regard it as problematic, limiting. Joyce Carol Oates is a writer constantly cited for her excellence in creating (often marginalised) female voices: her latest short-story collection, Give Me Your Heart (Corvus, £16.99), provides a perfect example. She says that she mines material from her imagination, not politics, and that the best literature endures beyond its political outlook: "Though I have been told by younger women - in fact, sometimes by men - that I have been a 'model' for them, of an imaginative sort, I had not felt this way about myself.

"In the short run, something like a 'political' vision seems essential; in the long run, it is probably irrelevant. One can sense, for instance, from a reading of Jane Eyre, that the author is both a revolutionary - (in the very trajectory of her tale of a young, disenfranchised orphan-girl's rise to the most extraordinary social position) - and a traditionalist - (the triumphant rise is by way of romantic love and its outward sign is a marriage in the Church of England): that is, Charlotte Brontë transcends both, in her literary genius. How many other women writers struggled to express these same goals, with limited literary success - their names unknown to us, now? A revolutionary political vision will attract attention - initially. But if the literary work is not enduring, the politics will soon become dated. That is why the most seemingly apolitical of American women poets, Emily Dickinson, reads as if she were our contemporary, while the feminist polemics of women writers of the 1970s and 1980s have lost their audiences."

The viewpoint is not dissimilar to Virginia Woolf's ideal of literary androgyny outlined in her 1929 essay, A Room of One's Own. "It is fatal," she wrote, "for anyone who writes to think of their sex." The essay suggested that women write as women, but not as women conscious of being women!

In contemporary terms, her androgyny might translate into a universality in subject, genre and tone that many writers, even those whose fiction was once allied to old-style feminism, now speak of as their guiding principle over a conscious political agenda. Margaret Atwood, for one, recently distanced herself from the 1970s literary feminism, of which she became an unofficial standard-bearer.

The Finnish writer Sofi Oksanen compares the politicised fiction of the 1970s to the removal of the Iron Curtain dividing Eastern and Western Europe, after which the former played a cultural catch-up. A necessary, if transitional moment, she suggests: "My mother was born in Soviet Estonia where speech was limited and when the Iron Curtain came down, the people from Eastern Europe wanted to catch up with the West. It [free speech] was new for them. If you are living behind the wall, it takes a while for you to catch up. It may have been the same for women writers of the 1970s."

Kate Mosse, founder of the Orange Prize, reckons that an older generation of women felt the burden to be standard-bearers in a way that the new generation does not. Their imaginations are "freed up" she says, to write fiction that goes beyond the social realism of the kitchen sink. "I know there are many black writers who have spoken of the burden. Andrea Levy, after winning the Orange Prize, felt people would be surprised if she started writing about the fairies at the end of her garden."

Toril Moi, a professor of literature at Duke University and author of the feminist classic, Sexual/Textual Politics, strongly disagrees. The imagination is not magically liberated now, and neither was it retarded by politics then. These arguments just testify to the great unease around the question of women's writing: "I completely understand that some women can feel cornered by the question 'are you a woman writer?' People hardly ever ask that question of men."

The statement "I am not a woman writer" need not be anti-feminist either, she says. It is, in many cases informed by the desire to escape from the "other" enclave.

Perhaps in refusing the label, the desire is to enter what is seen as universal territory in fiction. For Woolf, the domestic novel was an extension of women's limited lives: "All the literary training that a woman had in the early 19th century was training in observation of character, in the analysis of emotion. Her sensibility had been educated for centuries by the influences of the common sitting-room."

Yet there is a double standard. Novels by men - John Updike, Philip Roth - on marriage, family, domesticity are seen as both original and universal. There are no question-marks over the imagination. Mosse has seen, over the life of the Orange Prize at least, a marked increase in male writers dealing with domesticity and emotion. "There is a sense of the domestic becoming an area of literary concern. Yet when men write about domesticity, it's seen as great literature. When women do it, it's seen as women's issues."

Moi adds: "Roth writes as a male Jew from New Jersey, but no one calls his work domestic. It's the great American novel. The same for Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. Men's experiences are seen as universal."

There are still those who want to make a stand as "women" writers. Urvashi Butalia, who writes of the transgender hijra subculture in India in The F Word, says: "Whether you like it or not, your politics and gender follow you into the world of the imagination". Manju Kapur, whose latest novel Custody focuses on the effect of divorce on children, similarly positions herself against Oates's standpoint. She mines her stories from the world around her. Imagination comes into play in the development of that story.

Margaret Drabble, whose collection A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman (Penguin Classics, £20) is published in June and brings together short stories of women's struggles across four decades, chooses to write about women because "I write about what is important to me... I haven't felt a duty or a responsibility to write fiction about women, and nobody has imposed this on me. I have written about women because their lives are important to me. But so is social inequality and poverty.

Women's lives have moved on, expectations have changed, our horizons are wider, but not so much wider. My daughter's life is [yet] more free."

Perhaps this younger generation's approach to gender is reflected by Oksanen, 33. Her third novel, Purge (Atlantic, £12.99), straddles themes of sex trafficking, Estonian independence and the legacy of Stalin's gulag. She feels the debate on feminism in fiction need not be so strained. Some, if not all, of feminism's ideals have been ingested by authors, male and female, so that they are part of a "universal" outlook. "I certainly have feminist intentions in my novels, even though they are just one part of the whole novel. Many feminist values are universal values in the West now."

Taiye Selasi, whose novel in progress Ghana Must Go has already impressed Salman Rushdie and Toni Morrison, dramatises the powerless position of the women in a middle-class Ghanaian household in her F Word story, "The Sex Lives of African Girls". Selasi says that she has not made a conscious effort to create strong women characters. They just emerge on the page that way.

"I suspect [my mother's] feminism expresses itself in my work: my female characters speak their minds, their truths, however quietly. This always just sort of happens: the women appear on the page with a wisdom of their own. I'm not aware of writing with a political agenda, however obvious it is that I've inherited one. I write to write."

Emma Donoghue, whose latest novel, Room, is short-listed for the Orange and the Commonwealth Writers' prizes, says that she feels no obligation to represent women's lives. Yet a feminist consciousness remains: "I suppose to me a feminist novelist (of any gender) is one who notices gender.

"So you might say I am an obviously feminist writer in that my work often focuses on women's lives; I try to tell neglected stories and many of them are women's. But I would argue that I'm being just as feminist when I write about my male characters, because I just am as interested in how notions of manhood shape (and in many cases cage) them... I certainly don't feel as if I'm working within a distinct tradition of women's writing."

And, of course, there is no one single tradition. Ellah Allfrey, deputy editor of Granta, feels the diverse writings in The F Word testify to the relative definitions of feminism. "It means different things depending on the time and place in which a woman finds herself. Feminism has to be as complicated as women themselves are."

Writing as a woman – or a feminist?

Emma Donoghue

I know what it means to be a feminist in my private life and my political life. But as for my writing life... I'm less sure. Not that I'll ever reject the F word, but to say 'I am a feminist writer' sounds somehow as if I have a manifesto, as I begin writing a story, when in fact all I have are questions... There's a curious optical illusion when we read the work of someone from a 'minority' (including women); we notice the 'minority' aspects more. So we probably pay more attention to the black characters than to the equally brilliantly written white ones in Levy's 'Small Island'. I find that although I've had important male point-of-view characters in many of my novels and short stories, that doesn't get noticed because I'm seen as a woman-focused writer. The stories I tell are often very concerned with women, but just as much with the men in their lives: the grieving fathers, one-legged tailors, frustrated earls and bumptious boys. You could say I like to write about freaks and nobodies.

Joyce Carol Oates

Though I have been told by younger women – in fact, sometimes by men – that I have been a "model" for them, of an imaginative sort, I had not felt this way about myself. Each work of "art" is such a leap of faith, such a risk-taking, such an experiment... In the short run, something like a "political" vision seems essential (to writing fiction); in the long run, it is probably irrelevant. A revolutionary political vision will attract attention – initially. But if the literary work is not enduring, the politics will soon become dated. That is why the most seemingly apolitical of American women poets, Emily Dickinson, reads as if she were our contemporary, while the feminist polemics of women writers of the 1970s and 1980s have lost their audiences.

Taiye Selasi

I'm not aware of writing with a political agenda, however obvious it is that I've inherited one. I write to write. And the only "responsibility" I feel I have is to write about human beings beautifully and truthfully, whether those human beings be male or female, black or white. I know this can sound like a cop-out – another African woman writer refusing to accept responsibility for telling the African Woman's Truth - but I suppose that's why I'm in poetry, not in politics: my sense of truth isn't nearly so limited.

Jeanette Winterson

Women still have little power in the decision-making processes of government and industry. And the culture is punishing women as never before. We have to be smart, pretty, sexy, good in the kitchen, good at the office, good with the kids. Good in bed. Good at handling men. It is impossible. Older women are written off and teenagers feel they have to be sexually available all of the time. Hence the line in my story: Fucking is the new frigid. There is so little in the culture that helps us to love well, either ourselves or our partners. Love is a casualty of the upgrade culture but women just don't have time anymore to be in charge of love and that is everybody's loss.

Margaret Drabble

I write about what is important to me, and of course this has involved writing about women's lives. Many years ago I said my primary moral concern and interest was equality, and this includes but is not confined to feminism. This is still true. I haven't felt a duty or a responsibility to write fiction about women, and nobody has ever tried to impose this on me, I have written about women because their lives are important to me. But so is social inequality and poverty. Women's lives have moved on, expectations have changed, our horizons are wider, but not so much wider.

Manju Kapur

To look at women's lives from a feminist perspective is something I have been doing in my life for many years. I have been doing this in my novels, too, although I have approached the latter differently – there are the dilemmas of living in Delhi, concerns and constraints. I consciously set out to highlight these concerns. That's why I deal with the family to set my story. It reflects society, gender, patriarchal values, many in a big way. All my stories come from around me. There will be the people around me or my own extended family, so that's already 200 people! I could hear a story that would literally take one paragraph to tell, and I think how to tease it out, the cause and effect. That's when imagination comes into it. Jane Austen is using a small microcosm to reflect every issue under the sun. Often, women's fiction is called domestic or family-focused. It is a label that is not derogatory but a bit condescending.

To purchase The F Word, please visit Granta.com

Margaret Drabble and Helen Simpson will discuss short story writing at the Freeword Centre, London, on 26 May

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