Ian McEwen, author of “Atonement”, and his son collected some of the novels from their bookshelves and stood out in a square near their home in London trying to give them away. In almost every case young women were surprised and pleased to take one, while young men said, “Sorry, no thanks. Not me, mate.” His conclusion (expressed in a recent New Yorker profile) was that “When women quit reading, the novel will be dead.” My feeling is that the novel, which has been in existence for about 1,000 years now, is in no danger, precisely because it is a yin medium, fully expressive of the hidden, the unspeakable, the dangerous thoughts; in short of the interior, philosophical life which everyone has. For women this interior life has often been purposefully hidden, preserving difficult thoughts kept secret. The novel is the perfect, clandestine way to learn about life when you can’t ask questions as freely as you want to. This has been true since the time of Murasaki (975-1023 A.D.), one of the first great novelists.
Reading fiction is seen by many as a passive endeavor. People have told me that their families discouraged it, rewarding many other activities, such as sports and games and community efforts. Don Starnes (my partner) says that his parents were disappointed when he and his brother grew old enough to “always have your noses in books”. In truth reading fiction does sometimes indicate a desire to be living in some other world that the one around you, but it also shows a desire to find out about life beyond your immediate reach. People want their children to study, but only to the point where they will be successful in life. In America, in a culture which has only rather recently pushed to the limits of the continent, reading doesn’t get you much. New York Times editor Bill Keller explained why the paper has cut fiction reviews recently: “The most compelling ideas tend to be in the non-fiction world.”
But, like Ma in the “Little House on the Prairie” books, women have hopes for civilization, for staying put and having time to develop a social life, schools and traditions. The success of Oprah Winfrey’s television show and her book clubs points to women’s desire to improve themselves and those around them. For a while Oprah was ridiculed because all the books she chose seemed to have the same narrative line: young woman has trouble and problems, is victimized, but then triumphs through some ability she didn’t know she had. I was surprised to find, when I went to her website (http://www.oprah.com/entity/oprahsbookclub) recently, that she hasn’t chosen a book by a woman since 2004! Her current book club choices do not involve risky contemporary fiction.
Margaret Atwood said in a 1998 speech, “To trace the trajectory of the novel is to follow the struggle of the novelist—even, perhaps especially, the male novelist—to be taken seriously—that is, to raise the perception of his chosen form from that of a piece of silly frou-frou to the higher, more male realm of capital-A Art.” It has been a long time since an American fiction writer has had major cultural importance, perhaps not since the death of Hemingway in 1961, or Kerouac in 1969. On the East Coast, and in Europe, this may be less true, but in the Midwest and the West, contemporary fiction writers are not well known. One of the only ways a current author can become a celebrity is if one of their novels has been made into a film. Dan Brown, not a writer I would trust enough to read, is now well known because his incendiary books have been made into films. J.K. Rowling has become a household name all over the world because of her series of novels, and the subsequent films made of each, the story of one Harry Potter. But these books, with slight philosophical underpinning, may not have a great deal of staying power either.
Despite the wide cultural acceptance of the importance of movies, people continually wonder why there are so few good movies women want to see, so few women filmmakers, and so few good roles for women actors. Don, a gifted filmmaker, admits, “Movies are a yang medium.” The other evening we discussed this with Helen, one of Don’s oldest friends, a writer and filmmaker. We all felt that films can do much more than they are allowed to do right now. Helen and Don were part of a “front”, as Don called it, when they were student filmmakers at San Francisco State. The purpose of the front was to expand the limits of filmmaking, to humanize it, allowing stories to be told that are closer to everyday life as we live it. “What Hollywood seems to do now is film the pitch” (the one line with which writers and producers try to capture the attention of the people who control the millions of dollars now required to make an important film), says Don. “It makes for a very thin medium.” Chic flicks and guy flicks are partly the result of a push toward the isolation of markets. But market-driven movies don’t really make anyone happy.
I don’t think it has always been this way. Many of the great classic films have had wonderful women characters, and many genre films have had so much style to them that women as well as men love watching them. We are all humans after all. Good films have an inner coherence reflected in visible action. One thing we’ve learned in the last 50 years is that the body reflects the unconscious. Everything we think and feel can be seen in our physical presence. A great actor must use a transformative process to become a character, reflecting in the body the thoughts and feelings of that character. Nothing is more fascinating than watching thoughts pass over the face of a person, showing the changing weather of emotions. Film at its best has given us this possibility, something we hardly dare do in life due to courtesy towards each other. As in everything, the actions, the movement, the yang energy of good films, embody ideas and feelings below. Perhaps the truth is that we just don’t have a lot of great films at the moment!
Currently published fiction is certainly market-driven as well. Helen reports that in her writer’s group, most people are writing fiction for women, chick lit, with an expectation of selling their work. “What I’m working on is the story of a father and a son,” she says. “Not what people are looking for now.” Novels do need a story, movement happening out in the world to capture and hold the reader. But the strength of fiction is precisely the ability to talk about people’s interaction with the world, their inner aspirations and emotions, to help us direct the river of language which courses through our heads into the channels which most help us to understand this life we’ve been given. We choose the fiction we read, of course, reading in private, sharing when we can.
I just finished reading an extraordinarily intimate novel, which was a best seller all over India when it was first published in 1988: “English, August: An Indian Story” by Upamanyu Chatterjee. Nothing about it indicates that it should have been, as India has more spoken languages and more diversity than most countries. It isn’t about a young woman, but moves fluidly between the inner and outer worlds of a young, well-off Bengali (actually half Goan) man who is trying to settle down to his first job. He finds himself unable to calm his mind in the wide contrasts between Delhi and Calcutta, where he grew up, and the small provincial places to which he is posted. Agastya’s uncle deplores the fact that he knows so little about his own heritage, and so much about the West. The novel is terribly honest. A friend of his works for Citibank, and finds the westernized atmosphere at work unreal. “’I can’t explain …’” says the friend. “Agastya suddenly wanted to ask him not to. You feel even more naked and alone, he said silently, when you reveal yourself, a gratuitous act, for the strength and comfort that you look for, any of those last illusions of consolation, can finally be only within you.” It is exactly this kind of emotional insight, achieved by a well-loved character in difficulty, that we look for in the novel.