Wednesday, May 24, 2006

What makes a book tick

That old conundrum - where's the line between proper literature and erotica. Or porn for that matter. I found a collection of Barbara Kingsolver's essays in the library - beautiful and very human. One of them is detailing her exploration of sex in a book she is or was working on: 'Taming the beast with two backs'.

She seems to find herself strangely unsettled by the fact she's going to add sex in her book, rather than 'spacebreak sex scenes', (to paraphrase). Why is this more intimate than writing about strong emotion? She quotes, and notes, the names of a few (male) greats who've included full-blown sex in their books - Miller, Updike, Roth. I love these writers, and their vivid, searing scenes. There's a pushiness about all three of these writers that I find entrancing. And they lay open sex in graphic, masterfully crafted ways.
What none of them have done - at least, in my memory of their stories - is showed any much tenderness. Searing confessional style is respected. Ripping the guts out of a scene, laying bare the author or narrator's weakness, looking at it under a magnifying glass and musing on the historical resonances. Fabulous writing, yes.
But what you take from Kingsolver or Carol Shields is a different kind of honesty. I'm treading the line here of the old man-woman debate. I'll be careful. These writers will admit to warmth, to compassion, to a humanity.
Is writing always flavoured by sex (as in gender)? Are we just more squishy, more emotionally involved, weaker? What you resist, persists. The only way to join in properly is to take up a pen and make - more iconic characters who are female and many faceted, with strength and weakness. To try and avoid a knee jerk reaction or merely an emulation of the male way of doing things.
Is this turning into a manifesto?
I ought to be writing the synopsis of the next book. In order to do that, I need to work out A) the meaning of life and B) my characters. I feel for the heroine. She's got a lot to live up to. I don't presume to aim for the same high ground as the previously discussed authors, nor even anywhere near. But what they do and have done affects this girl.
She'll have to work hard.


Anastasia said...

I'm not entirely sure if writing is flavoured by gender but with the male authors (you mention), their characters' sexuality is independent of their lifelong goals (within the characters they create), they may crumble with love/lust, but they don't require an ultimate destination, relationship wise. The characters tend to think more about their place in the world ('male world? maybe) rather than their place in relation to a woman.

Sometimes I also think it's difficult for many female readers to embrace this type of female character, because in mainstream romance there's the constant dominant (male) characteristic but within that dominance, there's also the expectation of tenderness and this is what's presented, and it can be unrealistic, whereas Roth and Miller, are closer to the angst of the male or male struggle.

I've yet to come across men who reflect any character that's portrayed in popular romantic literature, whereas I've experienced the type of males that Miller/Roth have described in their works.

In literary fiction, however, sex hardly features or if it's featured, it isn't seen as an important act (in current novels) or it's really lacklustre and doesn't really grasp raw emotion/desire (within male or female characters).

Nikki said...

first off, hello and thanks for your comment. I'm not sure if I reply to it here if it will magically send it to you too, so I'll send one to your blog too. Please excuse my ignorance, I'm still learning this blog thing, bit by bit.

The 'flavoured by gender' issue is one of my favourite ponderings. I do think it's unavoidable, that one's sex would influence one's writing. As you say, the characters of those particular male writers inhabit a very male world - but not only that, the authors are starting off from a totally different footing. The heritage of writing is mostly male. Any male writer has a ready catalogue of 'voices' preceding them - most of which are male.

I suppose we got the Tale of Genji in there first, and there's Sappho and a few maverick females we can look back to. But people like Virginia Woolf, or even the Brontes were writing into a silent place where few women had been before.

(Qualification: Perhaps this is old hat in the sphere of literature or even feminism - I'm not an academic, I just love reading...)

And yes, female readers, that's an interesting point. I believe most readers of fiction are women, but I find myself listing mostly males as my favourite authors. I think women in general (oh, here comes a huge generalisation) tend to think more in terms of relationships and other people than 'them against the world and god' - as these writers we're discussing tend to see things.

As far as tenderness goes - there's a difference between ''romantic' strong-but-gentle tenderness, which def can be suspect and unrealistic, and the kind of human empathy that I was thinking of when I used the word. I meant more - a feeling for fellow humans.

I might be getting lost in the discussion here, Anastasia. But I enjoy mulling it over...

Anastasia said...

It was late last night (but it was 1am, and my connection died) that I woke up, because I was thinking of it in regard to same gender, not opposite but even so, I then thought about the changes over the years concerning gender. A man (or woman) today, is different from a man a hundred, or even fifty years ago, in terms of pastimes, education and general hobbies even.

I tend to veer toward women thinking in terms of relationships and other people, whereas male thinking (in literature) basically concerns them, their place in the world, they (male characters) don't tend to think of themselves in relation to another female.

There is a difference between contempory literary fiction, in terms of character/gender/personality, and fiction of generations ago. The things may be small, but characters in some literary novels (not all, but a few) don't seem three dimensional and it can make it difficult, reading wise. Whereas, in mainstream genres, the characters are more straightforward (and maybe some generalisations exist).

The most recent example I can give, is the work of Michel Houellbecq, and his male characters, and how they tend to walk the same straight line in each novel, and I'm not sure whether it's a gender thing, or whether it's a social thing, or even something that is more influenced by media (the idea of what a male is supposed to be like, in relation to his characters).

But it also depends on what the author wants to bring forth, what issues surrounding the character are to be emphasised in relation to the story.

Good point, though because I've never stopped to think about this aspect before.

(oh, the notification came through via email, but it was cut off)