he subject of almost all of my fiction so far has been the love lives of young women. For a long time, I found this to be both extraordinarily embarrassing and also something I couldn’t help. Throughout my twenties, sex and relationships were what I thought about most, what seemed most mysterious and urgent. If I could have chosen my subject — if I could have written about any subject equally well — I would have chosen something “serious,” the sort of fiction that would inspire people to ask not “Did this really happen?” but “So what are your thoughts on [X]?” Although I have always written about young women’s relationships, I have also always secretly believed that this subject was less important than other, stereotypically male, subjects.
If I could have chosen my subject, I would have chosen something “serious,” the sort of fiction that would inspire people to ask not “Did this really happen?” but “So, what are your thoughts?”
It is not difficult to understand where this idea came from. I began writing in the early 2000s. In many of my early fiction workshops, professors and fellow students derided stories involving girls’ periods/bodies/love lives, books with shoes and lipstick on the cover, and YA literature. At the same time, they praised fiction about the erections and affairs of John Updike and Philip Roth’s protagonists and considered books about adolescent boys — Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time — to be adult literature. (With a handful of exceptions, fiction by men and women of color was simply not mentioned). When fiction by women was taken seriously it was typically 1) about a middle-aged man (Bel Canto, The Shipping News) 2) an exception to be apologized for (“I certainly didn’t expect to like a book called Housekeeping”) or 3) fiction that asserted the author’s credibility through intertextuality, extensive research, or historical commentary (The Great Fire, Beloved, A Thousand Acres). In the rare instances in which authors who wrote about women’s love lives were recommended by male classmates and teachers (Lorrie Moore, Mary Gaitskill), their stories were almost always told in a distanced third person that indicated that the author was not simply more intelligent than the characters, but also making fun of them. Zoe Hendricks, for instance, the protagonist of Moore’s famous “You’re Ugly, Too,” is introduced like this: “She was almost pretty, but her face showed the strain and ambition of always having been close but not quite.” You could take a story about a woman’s love life seriously as long as the story itself appeared not to.
You could take a story about a woman’s love life seriously as long as the story itself appeared not to.
Some of this attitude was the simple narcissism of patriarchy — “stories about young women aren’t interesting to me and therefore they aren’t interesting” — but some of this was a more complicated blindness. If you have never been a young woman or tried to understand the experience of being a young woman, the drama of young women’s loves lives is illegible to you in the same way that walking through the United States as a person of color can seem uncomplicated to a white person. But falling in love as a young woman, especially perhaps, as a young woman seeking out men, often requires complex negotiations with power and a long period of learning and unlearning lessons about how to find intimacy without erasing yourself. How can you allow yourself to enjoy sex on your own terms without being punished for it? How can you find power and autonomy in a relationship without taking other people for granted? And how can you date/fall in love/exist as a young woman in America without encountering violence?
When I was first learning to write, I also had trouble accurately telling stories about young women’s love lives while also following the “rules of fiction.” Good stories showed instead of telling; interesting characters acted instead of reacting. But how did you show something that not everyone could see? And why was passivity such an unworthy subject for literature when, in my own life and in the lives of my friends, it so often undergirded nearly every dramatic encounter — not an avoidance of story, but the thing at the center of every story that had to be negotiated. Sure, a story about a person sitting alone in a room thinking was unlikely to be particularly engaging, but what about the story of a person in danger who feels too immobilized by fear to do anything?
Why was passivity such an unworthy subject for literature when, in my own life and in the lives of my friends, it so often undergirded nearly every dramatic encounter ?
Take, for instance, this story from my life in Tempe, Arizona, circa 2005. Late spring. A Sunday. I am walking through my neighborhood when a car slows beside me and the men inside begin catcalling me. I ignore them and keep walking. They follow me. At the next red light, I cross the street so that I am going in a different direction. They keep following me but now their flirting has been replaced by anger. I have ignored them. They call me names and continue to follow me. I eventually make my way to a gas station where I approach a parked taxi and ask the driver to get out of his car. The men idle beside me until the taxi driver, a heavy sweaty man who appears to be in a bad mood reluctantly steps out of his car and then they leave. The men are active characters and, therefore, by the workshop rules I have learned, interesting, but what about me? When I chose not to speak to them was this passive or active? How about when I asked a male stranger to intercede? As a general rule, passivity is boring because it avoids conflict, and yet, in this particular instance, true passivity — i.e. getting in the car with these male strangers, going wherever it was that they wanted to go, doing whatever they wanted to do — is the precise thing that would have introduced more tension into the story.
In a New York Times editorial published this past spring, Viet Than Nguyen argued that the “rules of fiction” that writing workshops teach are rules that favor the stories of white men. “As an institution,” he wrote, “the workshop reproduces its ideology, which pretends that ‘Show, don’t tell’ is universal when it is, in fact, the expression of a particular population, the white majority, typically at least middle-class and often, but not exclusively, male.” The edict against passive protagonists, I would argue, is also a rule that discriminates. To see action as the beginning of tension and to see passivity as the end of the story is a privilege. This view imagines the protagonist always as the actor, never the one being acted upon, and this, as the #metoo movement has shown, is still simply often not the reality for many women — especially young women seeking sex and intimacy with men.
The edict against passive protagonists is also a rule that discriminates. To see action as the beginning of tension and to see passivity as the end of the story is a privilege.
This dynamic is most noticeable in the wide collection of movies, books, television shows, and short stories about young women whose plots hinge upon the possibility of violence. In Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where are you going? Where have you been?” for instance, the real threat is introduced not because Connie is active but because she is paralyzed by fear and transformed from a self-confident, if somewhat narcissistic, teenager into someone no longer capable of protecting herself. But female passivity is also the engine of the drama in many stories by and about women that do not involve male violence. There are, for example, the stories of Alice Munro such as “Post and Beam” that are engaging because of a rich inner life and process of discovery that ultimately goes unspoken, and there are the countless female villains throughout life and literature whose crimes are ones not of action but of maternal neglect. The stories of female protagonists operate differently than male protagonists because the rules by which we live our lives are different.
Are things changing? The celebration of books like Emma Cline’s The Girls or Britt Bennett’s The Mothers and this year’s all-female 5-under-35 National Book Award list make me feel optimistic that they are, that people are not only more willing to read books by and about woman but are increasingly aware that a person’s story and the way she can tell that story largely depends upon her place in society. Even so, it’s hard for me to quiet that voice that tells me that while stories about the love lives of men have always been at the center of “serious literature,” the stories about the love lives of women are something else.
The feeling was embarrassment — not so much at being a woman but in writing and reading in a way that made my womanliness conspicuous to other people.
Recently, I visited a class of college students who had just read my story collection and a young woman tentatively raised her hand. The book had resonated with her and her female friends, she said, but she wondered if I had written a book only for young women and if this bothered me. “I mean, just look at the cover,” she said and pointed to the photograph of a young woman and the curling script’s pink letters. “I probably wouldn’t give this to one of my guy friends.”
I stumbled through an answer to the student. I think I said something about valuing female readers, particularly those readers who saw themselves in the stories, and then something about how it is a problem when men only read books by and about men and white people only read books by and about white people. I don’t remember exactly what I said — just that I wasn’t brave enough to admit that, yes, it bothered me if young men didn’t want to read my book about young women with pink letters on its cover, that I hoped she was wrong, that I hoped she was underestimating her guy friends, and that surely, some of the guys she knew who dated and slept with and befriended young women also believed that their inner lives were complicated and worth imagining.
I thought about this moment again and again. The student had seemed certain that, simply based on its subject matter, young men wouldn’t be interested in the book, and this made her feel sorry for me, as if something that was appreciated only by other young women like her couldn’t possibly be important. This sentiment was deeply familiar. It was the same feeling that had once driven me value the praise of male writers over female writers or to pretend to appreciate famous books by famous male writers more than I did. It was the feeling that still sometimes made me secretly long to write a wordy novel about war or to question my own experiences when they were unrecognizable or uninteresting to men. The feeling was embarrassment — not so much at being a woman but in writing and reading in a way that made my womanliness conspicuous to other people. Tackling sexism in the writing and publishing world is a big job with multiple and varied solutions, but one piece of the puzzle is as simple as confronting this impulse to embrace books we perceive as masculine and to distance ourselves from those we perceive as feminine.