Gillian Beer: Women are writing about more than love

From a speech given by the Orange Prize judge at the Hay on Wye festival
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The Independent Online

What happens when women aren't at the mercy of love? When men's erotic drive isn't central to a novel? And when women turn to other subjects? Where's passion then? – not vanished, certainly, but triggered with new freedom.

What happens when women aren't at the mercy of love? When men's erotic drive isn't central to a novel? And when women turn to other subjects? Where's passion then? – not vanished, certainly, but triggered with new freedom.

Reading at large among the hundred-odd novels submitted for the Orange Prize this summer, I've been struck by how comparatively rare as the controlling topic of the works has been sexual love, or lust. Rare, that is compared to the reputation – and the tradition – of fiction. Neither the wan urgency of Flaubert's Madame Bovary nor the acrimonious fervour of Lawrence's Women in Love – classic representations by male writers of obsessional love relations between the sexes – seem a preoccupation for the women we've been reading.

Instead, these novels range across the fierce and sometimes funny experiences of individuals caught in much larger networks, caught into wars, families, national change, terrorism, history: Stevie Davies' The Element of Water (postwar Germany); Kathy Page's The Story of my Face (religious extremism); Elizabeth McCracken's Niagara Falls All Over Again (the last days of American vaudeville).

The fictions women are writing now range far beyond the domestic or the miniature. Women writers have found the freedom to explore fresh plots, often on a large scale, or with the power of intense recollection across communities. The reader's fever, falling in love with the book, is proving to have appetites that can be provoked and satisfied by other stories, released from the oppressive presence of Don Juan and the oppressive masochism of Dona Anna.

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