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Mixed Messages

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One of the things I do when I’m writing–and yes, I’m writing something, that’s why I haven’t been around as much as usual–is to try to restrict myself to reading what helps me write and not what hurts.

I have, for reasons I don’t understand, very definite writing responses to many books.

Not all, mind you.  There are plenty of books out there that are neutral. I can read them and write, but they don’t spur the writing on in any particular way. 

The books that make it nearly impossible to write are not necessarily badly written, although books that are really, really badly written will stop me dead in my tracks. 

Others, though, are simple examples of narrative voices so strong that I can’t get them out of my head.  Stephen King is one of those writers.  I love nearly everything he does, but if I’m reading him, I start to  unconsciously imitate him when I write. 

And since my style and his are  not completely compatable, this does not work out too well.

There are other books, however, that are a positive help.  It’s like they give me a little push in the right direction, and I’m suddenly able to do more, faster and better, than I can on a normal day.

One of the books in this last category is a novel by Alix Kates Shulman called Burning Questions, a first person book-within-a-book, first published in 1975, that purports to be the autobiography of a women’s rights movement pioneer.

I have read this book several times, but it’s been a good ten years since the last time.  I picked it up knowing that it would be a spur-me-on book, because it always has been in the past.

And it is now, in terms of getting me to work well in the mornings.  There are other things involved with it, however, that are making me a little disconcerted.

Burning Questions is among a small collection of books that I think of as my escape module.  They were books that helped me find a way–envision a way, may be the better way to put it–to get out of the life I grew up in and into the life I wanted to live in.

Other people may have imaginations so active that they can do this without help, but I have never been one of them.  Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge–books provided the places I could escape to and some idea of how life was lived there.

A subset of these books provided something else:  a way to think my way out of what were then the prevailing requirements for the behavior of women. 

This was no small thing in my family then, and it isn’t now.  I am not sure what it is that makes some women feel they must police and restrict other women’s behavior, but I have known a lot of these women, and I’ve been related to them.

The men I was surrounded by did not seem to have this same need to box me in, or to box in the women in their lives, either.

The one exception to that that I remember, very strongly, was my mother’s demand that my mother not take a job because to do that would be to signal to the world that he was not making enough money to support her, which would not be good for his practice.

The incident is interesting to me on a number of levels, but first and foremost in its complete contradiction to everything my father ever said to me. 

When it came to my life and my future, my father was determined that I get into the best college, get into the best graduate schools or law school, and never let a husband tell me I couldn’t go as far as I wanted.  I think he thought, when I was a teenager, that I was going to end up running for office.  He would have been fine with it.

The first book I ever found that put a chink into the expectations of what a woman could do and how she could behave was a minor novel by Maugham called Theater.  It really is a minor novel, concerned with theatrical celebrities and their adulteries, but at the very end of it there is a scene that struck me forcibly from the very first time I read it.

In that scene, our heroine has washed her hands of her philandering  husband and taken herself out to dinner.  She orders herself a steak and some wine.  She eats and enjoys herself.  And then she goes home.

If this doesn’t sound like much in the way of a scene, I agree–it isn’t.

And I didn’t understand, at first, why it struck me so heavily.

I kept reading the thing and coming around to it and reading the thing and coming around to it, but it wasn’t until I’d read some of the standard works of Seventies feminism that I figured it out.

That was the first scene I had ever read where a woman went out at night all on her own, ate at a public restaurant all on her own, and never for a moment waited for somebody else or wished that somebody else was there.

It was a scene of independence.  And I loved imagining myself doing the same.

It took Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique to define the problem for me–another indication that I lack a certain amount of imagination.

I know the problems some of you have with Friedan and with the Seventies feminists in general, but the simple fact of the matter is that they were the only game in town.  If you were a girl in that era and you wanted out of what felt like a completely airless world, you had no place to go to find people engaging in ideas about the roles of women or analyzing the way society responded to women and what it valued in them.

I grew up, as I’ve said here before, in a world in which there were two kinds of women–women with men, or women without them.  A woman with a PhD and a stellar career who did not also marry was “compensating.”  And every woman was assumed to care first and foremost about whether she was legally hooked up, even if she was Marie Curie.

This is not to say that all women in the Fifties stayed home and did not have careers.  Of course some of them did.  If they hadn’t, we couldn’t have gotten here from there.

But this is also the era in which you can find Della Street turning down Perry Mason’s repeated offers of marriage by saying that she doesn’t want to have to leave her job.  He keeps telling her she wouldn’t have to, but she’s got a host of reasons why she would.

So I was looking for ways out, and these were the book that were presented to me–and Burning Questions was even better, because it was a fictionalized account of just that same thing.

It is, of course–written when it was written, and by the woman whom it was written by–a very political book, and a very left wing political book.  The women’s movement of the Seventies was in large part (although not totally) left wing. 

Most of the times I read and reread this thing, I passed over all the expected cliches of left wing writing without paying much attention to them–the quotes from Mao, the automatic assumption of the innocense of the Rosenbergs.

This time, these things are stopping me much  more often, mostly because they irritate the hell out of me.

But it brings me to a quesiton, which I think needs to be asked.

Why aren’t there other books, not-left-wing books, about women fighting for their independence,and getting it? 

Why aren’t there other books, not-left-wing books, about women fighting to define themselves in their own terms, and making that work?

There is nothing inherently left wing about believing that women are the intellectual and moral equals of men and should be their social equals as well.

There’s nothing about believing that women can be competent doctors, lawyers and even Presidents of the United States that requires you also to believe that there should be a widespread social welfare state or that Mao was a political saint.

There are plenty of women out there as we speak who hold no left wing ideas at all who still believe without question that basic tenet about feminism, that women deserve the same rights and opportunities as men.

If you look at women, rather than at activists, what you find is a lot of basic feminism and a lot of political disagreement.  Women who are feminists in the basic sense do and do not support legal abortion, do and do not support affirmative action, do and do not support the welfare state.

Why is it that it is only women on one side of that divide who write novels like Burning Questions?

Where, exactly, are those other books?

Written by janeh

July 23rd, 2012 at 11:37 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'Mixed Messages'

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  1. They’re on my shelves, and quite at home there.

    Hmmm. This is what you get for frivoling your reading time away on the High Culture. If you’d been hard at work on pulp, fantasy, SF and popular fiction, the Seventies would be much too late to look for non-leftist “female empowerment.” Morgaine, the expedition head in GATE OF IVREL (1976) passed completely unnoticed among the other powerful non-male oriented fictional women. Let me work backward a bit: 1969 would be James H. Schmitz’ DEMON BREED. The protagonist is a trouble-shooter for a biochemical firm: never the slightest hint that her job ought to be filled be a male, or that her life requires one. Hmmm. But even by the Sixties, that was a commonplace of SF. Let’s drop back a bit. I believe you’ve mentioned reading STARSHIP TROOPER (1959)? The viewpoint character is male, it’s true, but warships’ officers are as likely or more to be female. Maybe more women than men died fighting in Operation Bughouse. Of course in TUNNEL IN THE SKY (1955) we have Assault Captain Helen Walker, Corps of Amazons. It’s only as far back as “Delilah and the Space Rigger” (1949) that Heinlein writes a story in which his female character has to gain acceptance in a male-dominated field. Of course, she taught most of them, which helps. Mind you, following Heinlein moved me right past classic space opera and E. E. Smith’s LENSMAN books. The last three volumes are 1951-53. Ask an old space opera buff if Clarissa MacDougal, the Red Lenswoman, is not the equal of a man. Actually, Smith specified at one point that an acceptance of equality between the sexes was one of the hallmarks of Civilization–note capital C–as opposed to the hateful Boskone. Smith did not, however think men and women were the same, placing him, I believe, in the same camp with Susan B. Anthony. And that little diversion moved me past Poul Anderson, and, in particular Captain Virginia Greylock in “Operation Afreet” (1956) and its sequels. I don’t think her eventual husband ever got a commission. Of course, the real fantasy classicist remembers Jirel of Joiry, holding down her postage-stamp fiefdom in dark age France in a series of stories in WEIRD TALES from 1936-39. And if I bring up The Unique Magazine, I ought to mention Robert Howard’s Valeria of the Red Brotherhood (“Red Nails” 1939) cursing and asking “Why won’t men let me live a man’s life?” (Conan thought the answer was obvious.) And I can hardly mention Robert Howard without bringing up “The Shadow of the Vulture” (1934) with Red Sonya of Rogatino among the mercenaries defending Vienna, and among them as an equal–”no man’s light o’ love”–for all her claims that her sister was wife to the Sultan.

    This last, of course, moves me out from SF and fantasy into history and hence “mainstream.” Now over in mainstream, I can find you a book with a female protagonist the equal of any man and the superior of most–chief of operations for a transcontinental railroad and creator of the John Galt Line? You want a non-leftist discussion of the role of women? I give you Dagny Taggart and ATLAS SHRUGGED (1957.)

    You might want to re-read GAUDY NIGHT (1936) and BUSMAN’S HONEYMOON (1937) (“Peter insistent that wife’s work not be disrupted” ) while you’re passing through. Or THE HAND IN THE GLOVE (1937.)

    It is not my fault if you insist in looking in the wrong place and then can’t find what you want.


    23 Jul 12 at 8:05 pm

  2. I can add at least one philosophy book from the 1970s. “The Skeptical Feminist” by Janet Radcliffe Richards.

    And I’ll continue Robert’s list by going to fantasy.

    A series of books of short stories edited by Esther Friesner starting with “Chicks in Chainmail”.

    A series of novels about a fantasy country called Valdemar by Mercedes Lackey. Start with “Arrows of the Queen”.


    23 Jul 12 at 8:33 pm

  3. I hesitate to say it, but my impression of all the very strong non-leftist women whom I have known throughout my life, from my paternal grandmother through my own mother and her siblings among countless others, has been that what separates the non-leftists from the leftists is an almost total lack of “angst” among the former. They rarely if ever spend a moment’s time whining about their situation. Instead, they do something constructive about it. This means, of course, that unlike their leftist counterparts, they probably have little time to write books about it.


    23 Jul 12 at 8:33 pm


    I was NOT looking for .stories of female empowerment.”

    I was looking for

    1) stories of ordinary young women who pulled up stakes and moved away to New York or Paris or someplace else I was actually interested in living and made a go of it.


    2) an analysis of the actualities of being female that would help show me where the kinks were. I knew there was something wrong, I just couldn’t put my finger on.

    Dagny Taggart is not an ordinary you woman, and she doesn’t leave home and family to make her way in the world.

    Your other examples all seem to take place in places that don’t actually exist.

    I wasn’t looking for escape, and I didn”t want to lose myself for a few hours or days.

    I wanted to work up the courage to actually get up and go in my real life.


    23 Jul 12 at 8:36 pm

  5. I understand the point perfectly well. I’m just not much impressed by it. The characters and situations of a mainstream literary novel are, just like a work of fantasy, fiction. They may in fact be no closer to reality, though they are obviously intended not to require much imagination of the reader.If you can take encouragement and example from one fictional person, why not from the other? I seem to recall lectures on how a work of fiction demonstrated that it was possible to think in some manner or another. How is that not the case here? If an author demonstrates that the character can do this or that thing which women in the author’s time and place did not do, yet still be a woman–a breathing recognizable character–how does this not advance the cause?

    I can “lose myself” or “escape” in “realist” fiction as well. That’s why contemporary romance sells nicely. But what makes you think that this is the sole property of fantasy and SF?

    From here it looks like a prescription for my high school lit book: the setting has to look just like the school I don’t much care for, the female protagonist because it’s supposed to empower women and the big moment of the story is someone signing up for or not dropping out of a male-heavy math class. It’s not story-telling: it’s a sociology lecture with the footnotes deleted. Nothing left but for the student to parrot back the author’s point.

    Or, to follow you exactly, our heroine leaves the evil conservative town to go to the good liberal city where she makes a success of herself with males peripheral figures in her life. I liked the Mary Tyler Moore Show too, but I don’t think I’d care for it as a novel, thanks.

    And Dagny does go out on her own without her parents’ knowledge or permission. How closely does the character have to adhere to your self-image prefered career path and choice of estination to be acceptable?


    23 Jul 12 at 11:44 pm

  6. I didn’t read ‘Burning Questions’. I read a lot of Friedan, Greer etc. and was much influenced by some of it. I also loved stories about girls and women who succeeded against the odds – some of these were those mentioned above; others weren’t. I had a passion at one time for books about orphans and poor families – you had women struggling to succeed, but they were doing it in the context of a family, and Anne of Green Gables, could go to the big city, get and education and become a writer – even though she moved home and got married and had a family. Mostly, of course, these books didn’t continue that far; the heroine is left at the point at which she goes away for her education. Another type of book I read a lot of were those children’s biographies of the first female whatever – doctor, nurse, explorer, etc. All of these told me something about being female, kinks and all. The politically oriented ones, the non-novels, really spoke to me less in the long run than the others, I think because the nitty-gritty of daily life (real or imagined) was more interesting to me.

    Where are the non-leftist novels about women? Perhaps they’re the ones showing women making their place in the world without theorizing about it much.

    For me, it didn’t take courage to leave home. It would have taken more to stay. But I wasn’t headed for some single place I longed to live; I wanted to try some of the many different places I knew were available.


    24 Jul 12 at 8:28 am

  7. Michelle Magorian’s YA novel “Not a Swan” features a heroine who breaks free of her society’s restrictions during WWII. The writer was meticulous in describing the many ways that British society constricted women (and caused them to police each other’s behavior).


    25 Jul 12 at 1:40 am

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