In my October 14th post “What If Pynchon Had a Sister,” I speculated on the dilemma of the female writer of contemporary innovative fiction who is writing in a genre that is predominately associated with men. Given the obvious, namely that I am a man, I invited an Aimee Parkinson to share her views. Aimee Parkison is the author of Woman with Dark Horses and The Innocent Party. She is a Professor of Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Parkison is attending the 2014 AWP conference to speak on the issues of “Women Writing Violence” and “Contemporary Experimental Women Writers” in the anthology The Wreckage of Reason (both panels are described at the bottom of her post).
I’m grateful that Aimee Parkison agreed to be a guest blogger and to lend her talents and expertise to my website. I’m even more grateful that she writes and publishes marvelous fiction.
You can learn more about her at aimeeparkison.com
Innovative Fiction and Women’s Fiction:
Categorization and Identity Crisis for Women Writers of Innovative Prose
The idea of innovative, or experimental, writing and the question of representation of women writers in the area is complex because it involves the notion of categorization, which is directly tied to audience and readership. Unfortunately, we still live in a time when “women’s fiction” is a category that can be applied to everything from “chick-lit” to romance novels written for a female audience and even to any fiction written by a woman author, especially one who develops a narrative around a female protagonist. The idea of “women’s fiction” as a category has been around for decades, and seems to betray a certain marketing psychology about reading trends in the publishing world, including certain sexist notions about male and female readers dating back to a time when it was assumed that most men did not or would not read fiction written by women. (Recent events call into question whether or not we’re still living in such a time: case in point being David Gilmore, the Canadian Literature Professor who does not teach books written by women. “What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys,” Gilmour has said. “F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys.” Here’s a link to the now infamous story in the Huffington Post: David Gilmour
In questioning the reasons for the lack of representation of well-known and publishing women authors in the category of innovative writing, under-representation must be analyzed in light of the way the publishing industry categorizes writing and the mindset behind those categorizations, which are directly linked to target audiences and what the industry views as audience psychology.
Furthermore, in discussing the mindset behind categorizations, it’s important to realize that we’re really talking about readership, reach, and marketability, all of which are tied to accessibility. In general, the more accessible a work of fiction, the larger its potential audience. Look at the bestsellers list and you’ll notice that most popular works of fiction are firmly located in key categories of genre novels. Proven sales over long periods of time create imitators, and imitators, as well as the imitative works they produce, create genres in specific categorizations. When categories have become marketable, such categories exhibit elements of a “formula” that have developed over time. In the case of traditional genre fiction, the way a work follows the formula determines accessibility, which is linked to the reader’s expectation and the reader’s familiarity with genre conventions. Readers of traditional romances look for a specific type of love story, and readers of horror expect some violence as well as the notion of the monstrous in literal or figurative incarnations. Works of genre fiction become formulaic when they not only evolve from the tone and larger motifs of a category but also follow a plotted formula so predetermined that it confines characters to types. The reason for formula is marketability, as the more popular a work becomes the more it will be imitated. Once the popularity reaches its peak and the imitation is perfected, the formula is defined along with the audience.
In other words, just as people evolve, so does genre. When it comes to genre, the evolution of formulas is a science of audience, which can also be tracked through popular films and television shows, as the entertainment industry relies heavily on category to reach audiences in the same way publishing houses do. Think of the psychology of the audience, the reader at work. Readers who search for detective fiction look for certain predetermined plot points, motifs, and character types, just as readers who read romance, horror, or action-adventure are looking for a certain type of plot or character.
Recent innovative use of genre elements in cross-over fiction suggests that formulas are being tested and new audiences reached. While there have been some literary fiction writers who have recently adopted and then adapted certain elements of genre fiction, or category fiction, these writers have done so by maintaining their celebrated craft and style while creating works where plot and character are intricately linked, subverting certain aspects of the formula in cross-genre or hybrid forms. For this reason, the success and growing interest in cross-genre and hybrid works leads to cross-over mainstream works that capture both popular audiences and readers of literary fiction. The inclusion of select genre fiction elements (vampires, zombies, fairies, aliens, ghosts, treasure hunts) makes literary fiction more reader friendly, or accessible, to popular audiences, who hunger for such elements.
If genre fiction, or category fiction, sells well because it reaches a larger audience and the idea of the formula is tied to sales and readership, then very notion of the formulaic fiction is tied to accessibility. Therefore, what is marketable is easily defined. (This is even truer for film and television, where movies and series are sold by loglines, which must give the audience a sense of category and plot in as little as a single sentence. The more a work fits a formula well, the better it sells to the target audience who searches for elements of that formula.)
Given the above, it is clear why the audience for innovative, or experimental fiction, is often a much smaller audience than that of popular genre fiction, which follows a predetermined formula. By being innovative, experimental fiction automatically dismisses or subverts the notion of formula. It demands that a reader pay attention in a different way. This means that instead of escaping into the fictive dream, the reader is at times awakened to an unexpected state of mind as a result of the language taking the imagination to another place, a place where the writing cannot be taken for granted or the narrative conventions easily defined because the work does not fit the traditional expectations of a predetermined plotted formula. This explains why innovative fiction is often difficult to read, as the category of “innovative fiction” demands that something new is invited, something old is transformed into something new, or that something overused is reinvented in a new light that no longer allows us to take the elements of the narrative for granted. This newness can be as uncomfortable for the reader as it is for the writer. In a sense, innovative fiction must not only entertain but also awaken its reader by doing the complex work of evolving on the page, de-familiarizing the world of the familiar.
On the surface, the nature of the experiment seems seductive. However, the very quality that makes innovative fiction so seductive is what makes it less assessable and narrows its audience. Once the audience of an innovative work grows, the work is in danger of becoming no longer innovative but formulaic due to imitators. In other words, ironically, any innovative work that reaches a larger audience is influx, in process of no longer being innovative because as the readership of an innovative work grows, what was once new and innovative becomes imitated by other writers looking to capture the new audience. The more commercially successful a work of innovative fiction becomes, the more the writing becomes the opposite of innovative in the mind of future readers, who will start to see aspects of the innovative work imitated by other writers over time.
For an example of this and the way that innovative fiction evolves into genre fiction over time, look at Poe’s short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” which is arguably the first detective story ever written. On the surface, especially in comparison to Sherlock-Holmes narratives, “Rue Morgue” is a clunky piece of detective fiction that seems to fail the audience because of the way it betrays the formula of the mystery puzzle. The reason for this is that the formula of detective fiction had not yet been invented when Poe was writing “Rue Morgue.” In fact, because Poe’s work was at the time innovative, it became the original fiction from which the formula was born—a formula made classic by such popular best-selling writers as Sir Authur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie.
All of this notion of categorization and marketability seems rather harmless and even logical, until one examines gender as a categorization of fiction. Given the fact that any work within the category of innovative fiction is usually meant for a smaller audience due to lack of accessibility or a break with the formulaic conventions of category fiction, the notion of audience for women writers within in the category of “innovative fiction” becomes even more complex because of the categorization of “women’s fiction” as a type of work meant for a specific audience that does not include male readers. In a sense, as long as “women’s fiction” is viewed as a category within the publishing industry, the publishing industry will always send the message to male readers that fiction written by or for women is not suitable for male audiences.
The idea of gendered audiences is tied to gendered readerships in marketability as well as sales. This explains why many publishers are less willing to take a risk on publishing and promoting innovative writing by women authors.
In a sense the very notion of genre or category as linked to narrative in literature and film is complicated because of its gendered approach to audience. Case in point:
1.) Who is the general audience for a romantic comedy? A.) Male or B.) Female
2.) Who is the general audience for action-adventure? A.) Male or B.) Female
3.) Who is the general audience for a chick flick? A.) Male or B.) Female
4.) Who is the general audience for “women’s fiction”? A.) Male or B.) Female
5.) Who is the general audience for war stories? A.) Male or B.) Female
Answering the questions above and thinking about works of writing and film in the above areas will give one a sense of gendered narrative in category fiction.
When it comes to publishing, the notion of gender and audience is tied to marketability in a precarious fashion for women writers of innovative works. While there are some male authors creating works with female protagonists, these male writers are not automatically categorized as having produced “women’s fiction.” The same is not necessarily true of women writers who are writing any type of fiction, innovative or traditional, especially if the women are writing about women. The very notion that an author is female is often enough to confine her to the space of “women’s fiction.” This occurs because, in a sense, our society is evolving faster than certain categories of narrative. Often times, there is a gendered backlash in genre and audience when the act of reading is tied to the politics of sex and power. For instance, look at the many war stories that do not include significant female characters or the notion of a female audience, in spite of how many women are sent to battle in our wars.
Notice that men’s fiction is not even a category, as most literary fiction written by men is simply “fiction.” In spite of the relatively comfortable state of male writers in comparison to female writers in this aspect of categorization, the publishing industry has recently attempted to market fiction exclusively to male readers to create a more “manly” readership. To make the matter even more complex, Esquire magazine’s hyper-male assertion of “fiction for men” is revealed as part of the “art of manliness.” In this way, “fiction for men” is not creating “men’s fiction” as a category of limitation for male writers but as a category of exclusion for women readers dating back to the days of the literary boys’ club. In this sense, “fiction for men” is not meant for women audiences but for men who (for the most part) only want to read fiction written by and/or about men. This, of course, is another way to more deeply ingrain the category of “women’s fiction” in the publishing industry by further separating women’s writing from men’s writing and male readers from female readers. “Fiction for Men” separates women’s writing from the male readership by calling into question the manhood of any male reader who reads “women’s fiction” or who does not read fiction written exclusively by and/or for men. This is a genius marketing strategy in that is implies only manly men will read “fiction for men” and that reading this category of fiction makes men more male through reading. This same logic also introduces a frightening psychological notion possibly held by men who loudly proclaim they do not read fiction written by women (Hello, Professor Gilmore!)—the reading of “women’s fiction” alters the male mind, threatens a male reader’s manhood, and somehow makes him less male by immersing him in the world and work of a female author.
When one speaks of innovative women writers, one is actually talking about a number of authors who fit into two embattled categories—categories which are still being defined and are often deeply misunderstood. Because innovative writing has a smaller audience, fewer works of innovative writing are published and promoted than works of popular, accessible fiction that rely on formulaic conventions to succeed. This is because, in general, the more innovative a work, the greater the financial risk to the publisher. Because there is still a sense of “women’s fiction” being separate from “fiction for men,” women writers who are innovative have to skirt the boundaries of innovative fiction and of women’s fiction. In some cases, these boundaries are precarious and in direct opposition to each other in the mind of readers and in the mind of the publishing industry who markets the work. This narrows the audience of innovative women writers dramatically, as much of women’s fiction (or what audiences take for “women’s fiction” as a category) is assumed to be the opposite of intellectual or innovative, since society still equates the notion of womanhood to the romantic ideals of emotional love rather than the notion of the intellect. Thus, categorization creates an identity crisis for writers and readers of all genders. As long as works written by women may be defined as “women’s fiction,” that identity crisis will likely continue.
Descriptions of AWP panels
Women Writing Violence. (Aimee Parkison, Alissa Nutting, Gretchen Henderson, Lily Hoang)
Studies of violent literature often focus on the world of masculine literature, the so-called literature for men. But the trend of women writing violence is often ignored. This discussion of violent literature by women writers focuses on female violence in fiction and questions how violent literature by women compares to violent literature by men. In the trend of women writing violence, does the role of the victim change based on gender? Or, is it the reader’s perception that changes?
The Wreckage of Reason: Contemporary Experimental Prose by Women Writers.
(Aimee Parkison, Alexandra Chasin, Danielle Alexander, Cyndi Reeves, Nava Renek)
Writers from Wreckage of Reason 2, an anthology of contemporary experimental prose by women, discuss challenging traditional modes of storytelling, subverting narrative and language, and exploring provocative subject matter as they follow in the footsteps of Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, and Djuna Barnes at a time when experimental writing by women has been virtually shut out of the mainstream publishing market.