Whether the festive season fills you with humbug or goodwill, there is a Christmas story or poem for every mood. Anne O’Neill selects 11 works that capture its spirit.
In 1928 Virginia Woolf was asked to give a lecture at Girton College, Cambridge on the topic of women and fiction. Her first line was “But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction- what has that got to do with a room of one’s own?”
This important feminist polemic explain the difficulties of a woman equally as gifted as Tolstoy and Shakespeare in writing great works of literature. Woolf explains that poverty and domestic shackles have always limited women’s capacity to contribute to the canon and that “women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time. Women have had less intellectual freedom than the sons of Athenian slaves.”
Modern woman has the financial freedom not alone to write fiction, but can dictate her own reality and occupy and enjoy not only a room of her own, but an entire house of her own. She also has the power to both write and live by a narrative of her choice. She is the woman celebrated as the heroine of Destiny’s Child’s song Independent Woman. The house I live in / I’ve bought it / The car I’m driving / I’ve bought it / I depend on me.
The question of how a woman moves through the world alone is explored with bold candour by Kate Bolick in Spinster, described as a triumph by Malcolm Gladwell. This polemic for our time is a marvelous meditation on what it means to be female at the dawn of the 21st century. The cover of the book shows the author sitting on a sumptuous gold velvet sofa sipping tea from a porcelain cup. She is glamorous and smiling, the photographic antithesis of the archetypical spinster. Bolick wrote the book as she approached forty and was ruminating on whether she could spend her life alone and still be happy. Bolick states that the dual contingencies of “whom to marry, and when will it happen” impact on every woman’s life regardless of where she was raised or of her religious background, and continue to “govern her until they’re answered, even if the answers are nobody and never.”
She believes that the single woman has always been stigmatized and reviled. Social psychologist Bella DePaulo coined the word “singlism” to describe this bias and discrimination against people who are single. Bolick notes that the single woman stereotype is continually evolving and perceptions of her have fluctuated wildly over the decades. From the cat-loving spinster of the popular imagination, she can be perceived to be selfless like Florence Nightingale, a charming eccentric à la Mary Poppins or Holly Golightly or as a powerful icon as Joan Of Arc.
The author structures the book around the lives of five female authors, weaving their experiences and struggles with her own narrative path. These writers become her “awakeners”, female spirit guides didn’t conform to societal demands and proclaimed the joys of freedom from domestication. These women were all true pioneers, women who secured the freedom and range to develop lives independent of home and family. Her awakeners are the Irish writer Maeve Brennan, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edith Wharton, Neith Boyce and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Bolick’s book was inspired by her “spinster wish,” which is her shorthand for the extravagant pleasure of simply being by herself, it is a sensuous vision of solitary self-care and self indulgence.
The terrain of the modern single woman is explored with psychological depth in Other Hood by Melanie Notkin, A Life Of One’s Own by Ilana Simons and Rocking The Life Unexpected by Jody Day. These new books are blue prints for living a single life with confidence, they put a new spin on spinster and rebuff the taints of singlism. In the words of Sylvia Plath they encourage single women to take a deep breath and listen to the old brag of the heart “I am, I am, I am”.
Nobel laureates Faulkner, O’Neill, Hemingway and Steinbeck were alcoholics, as were Brendan Behan, Dylan Thomas, Jean Rhys and many more. Anne O’Neill explores why
Writers such as Philip Roth and more recently Will Self have predicted the death of the novel and have written its obituary notice with Roth declaring that he “was finished with fiction” and that in a few decades the novel will be as irrelevant as Latin poetry. In a recent Guardian piece Self writes that “the omnipresent and deadly threat to the novel has been imminent now for a long time.”
There is a trend over the last few years for a new type of fiction, a genre that molds memoir with biography to form a literature that feels fresh and hyperreal, a type of reality fiction for the modern reader. Sheila Heti, Karl Ove Knausgaard and Rachel Cusk are the disciples of this new strain of writing which channels the stream of consciousness of the post-moderns with a fiction of the everyday in depicting quotidian reality. The subjects described can often be banal but with these writer’s talent and skill the writing outshines its often plot and artifice driven competitors. David Shields presaged this new trend when in his 2010 “manifesto” called Reality Hunger he advocates a return to the “real” in literature and he rails against conventional plot-driven fiction in favour of the lyric essay and the memoir.
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s opus Min Kamp or My Struggle, which has been one of the publishing sensations of the last few years, is a perfect example of the fusion of memoir with essayistic discourse. Frustrated by the confines of the novel to write about his father’s death from alcoholism he decided to write a real account which was unconcerned with literary niceties such as structure and plot and he invented his own language “the banality of the everyday. ”Part of what makes My Struggle so thrilling and hypnotizing is the evocation of the everyday such as diaper-changing, washing the dishes or going for a hair cut in a flat, almost conversational tone. This poetry of the prosaic is exemplified in Karl’s writing and no subject is deemed too secret to divulge. This truthful selling of his soul is very liberating for the reader, almost as if the baring of his secrets to us frees us from the shame of some of our own.
Rachel Cusk’s new novel Outline is narrated by an English writer who has flown to Athens to teach a writing workshop and writes of her encounters on the plane, in the classroom and observations made during evening meals with other writers. It is essentially plotless and imbued with greatness through Cusk’s ability to conjure up these vignettes with her characteristic stylish prose. She said in a recent Guardian interview that “autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts” and that description and character are “dead or dying in reality as well as in art.”
Zadie Smith wrote that she awaited the next instalment of Karl’s volume with all the longings and cravings of a crack addict. The modern reader clearly has a hunger for depictions of reality unsullied by the filters of fiction. The lure of such work is evidently potent and perhaps truth will become more popular that fiction.