Monday, May 5, 2008

The domestic novel and the sensitive 20th century male author (like me!)

Interviewer: A couple of male writers have found it particularly valuable to write in a woman’s voice.

Sue Miller: In the nineteenth-century men wrote a lot from the perspective of women, if not in the voice of. Think of the really great novels of Flaubert and Tolstoy. Maybe in the nineteenth century, the writer’s life, Tolstoy’s and Flaubert’s in particular, was very domestic, very like a female life in some ways. They would have been comfortable writing women’s lives because writers used to lead what the world would have thought of as women’s lives.

I think American fiction in particular has fallen into the male-female division traditionally. It may be exciting now for American men to cross that line. They had gotten trapped for so long in what Leslie Fiedler proposes as a peculiarly American turning away form the domestic in fiction—the novel of the road or the sailing voyage or the trip down the river: leaving home was important in American fiction. The work of someone like Hemingway embodied this. It’s important for male writers in the past not to write domestic novels. Now they more and more are writing them.

Sue Miller is speculating here, so it’s far from gospel, and she goes on after this part to speculate some more on if most readers of literary fiction are female and if all authors—male or female—are catering to a market that has evolved from 40 years ago. Check out the rest of her interview in Master Class: Lessons from Leading Writers by Nancy Bunge. (University of Iowa Press)

This caught my attention when I read it because I was aware while I was drafting that my story is essentially domestic. And it’s a coming-of-age story. The setting has more in common with The Bluest Eye and To Kill a Mockingbird than it does with Huck Finn or Catcher In the Rye. i.e. With classic coming-of-age stories by female authors that are superficially at least more domestic in their setting.

(Another way of thinking about this that occurs to me since I first made these notes is inspired by Edith Wharton’s The Writing of Fiction where she says that all modern novels can be categorized as novels of manners, adventure stories or psychological novels. By no means do I accept the scheme, but using it for the sake of discussion, you might say that the male coming-of-age story in America has typically been an adventure story—e.g. Huck Finn. Arguably, To Kill a Mockingbird, while Scout has an adventurous tomboy spirit, is a novel of manners. My story more closely resembles that.)

That wasn’t a choice about markets at all. It simply arose from the story occurring to me and feeling that the story was powerful and interesting. And I wasn’t inspired by Tolstoy or Flaubert—they’re on my stack of reading to catch up on now. And I’m not deliberately avoiding the road story. I’d love for my second book to have more adventurous settings in it.

It is the case that I’ve always had a deeply ambivalent relationship to many 20th century American male authors. I’m thinking for example of On the Road and The Sun Also Rises. I must have written a half dozen papers on these books when I was in college and graduate school. On the one hand, I loved their style and form—I thought they were perfect examples of executing on a stylistic innovation. On the other hand, the masculine ideology of them drove me nuts. It wasn’t the macho persona of the stories, the characters and the authors so much as the dishonesty of those personae—how they were expert disguises for the same adolescent sentimentalism and outdated romanticism they pretended to be too cool for. In some ways, the amoral gloss of Jason Bourne stories is more honest.

This all makes me want to go back and read my Leslie Fiedler. I remember being influenced by Love and Death In the American Novel, Waiting for the End and The Return of the Vanishing American when I was in grad school, but I don’t remember what any of them said.

In any case, I’m intrigued by the speculation that more male writers are turning to the domestic. I can’t think of any example off the top of my head. No wait, I just thought of one. I think I mentioned that I recently read Richard Powers’ The Echo Makers. That’s one. Let me know if you think of some others.

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