Arifa Akbar: Books column


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The Independent Culture

A personal first this week. I found myself in partial agreement with Martin Amis. While his views on class (versus money) may have sparked the usual hullabaloo of opinion and counter-opinion, it was his aside on the sexual fantasy of “ravishment” in literature that I found myself pondering, and not roundly dismissing, to my surprise. In a Radio Times interview, he said that, in the time of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, “the only way a heroine can have sex is by being drugged and that ties in with fantasies, female fantasies of being ravished.”

Amis is not wrong when he talks about the limited sexual agency of women in some 18th-century novels (it wasn’t called a bourgeois literary form for nothing) which couldn’t show “good” women having sex – desiring it, initiating it, keenly

responding to it. Even in later centuries,

those women who dared to have desires and act on them had to be punished in the end, mainly by dying, as in the case of Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary. This may not be what Tolstoy or Flaubert wanted for them but it is perhaps what societal norms demanded. Sexual satisfaction for women had to be punished, even in the fantasy realm of literature.

Then again, there is a counter-tradition that Amis perhaps forgets – that led by Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, the 18th-century novel about a roguish heroine who is in control of her sexual – and economic – destiny. Admittedly, Moll is not the gentrified woman of fiction that Amis refers to (he sees a class distinction that allows some “below stairs” women to bypass the no-sex rule).But Defoe’s book is part of a broader, parallel tradition which includes the works of Edith Wharton, the Brontës and Jane Austen in which sex is spoken of, implicitly or by innuendo, but spoken of all the same, and in which central female characters are making their own sexual choices.

Women having sex in fiction is no longer a dangerous, taboo fantasy now, of course. Writers such as Anaïs Nin did wonders for the cause, as did the failed obscenity trial against DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. It no longer marks a fictional woman’s virtue in the way that it might have Clarissa’s. So where does that leave us with Amis’s ravishment fantasies – the idea that they tie into historical taboos and the suggestion that these fantasies are primarily women’s? Of course they’re not. Literary rape has long been a male fantasy, from medieval literature in which knights first fight each other and then ravish maidens, onwards.

I don’t think the fantasy can or should be eliminated from fiction. To write it in is not to endorse female violence or abasement. It can be used to subvert and critique instead, as was done by Angela Carter. The Bloody Chamber encompasses both female fantasy and male sexual violence. Bluebeard, in the opening story, is a dangerously alluring man who regards his young wife’s naked flesh, when it comes down to it, with the cold eyes of a “butcher”. But while he is observing her thus, she is observing him too. Her viewpoint is what matters to readers, and her desire.

To return to Amis though, he goes on to say: “I talked to women about this and they said: it [ravishment] is a good fantasy, especially when you’re young, because if you enjoy it, it’s not your fault.” Here I wouldn’t agree. Women now don’t say “no” when they mean “yes” in order to fend off sexual guilt. If only Amis had left it at Clarissa.

The korean author who dreamed she could learn to read

Korea is the country of focus for next month’s London Book Fair and among the intriguing novels set to feature is a massive Korean bestseller,  The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, by  Sun-mi Hwang.  Copies continue to fly off the shelves, despite the fact that it was first published  14 years ago.  A novel with a hen as its central character, it reads as a fabular allegory of motherhood and individuality. On publication, it remained on best-seller lists for a decade and inspired the highest-grossing animated film in Korean history, along with a comic, play and musical. That is not what is remarkable about it, though. Its author, who has published over 40 books, was born

into poverty and was unable to attend middle school as a result. It was thanks to a teacher who gave her a key to the classroom that she was able to go to school and read. A case of wasted talent, narrowly averted.