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On the back of Tessa Hadley’s The London Train, you can read this quotation from The Independent’s review: “Hadley shows, with dizzying aplomb, that the distinction between ‘literary’ fiction and the best domestic fiction is spurious.” This baffled me for a second. I hadn’t been aware of “domestic fiction” as a genre like crime or sci-fi that is usually thought of as non-literary. The book - which I must point out, I haven’t read - is about two people whose personal lives are falling apart, and the story of their affair after they meet on a train. It is, I suppose, about the domestic sphere: families and home and relationships. I had been under the impression that anyone who considered these unsuitable topics for literary fiction was either long dead or delusional, but apparently not. The subject matter that is acceptable in the hands of Jane Austen, the Brontës, George Eliot, Henry James, D.H. Lawrence, and in recent years Jonathan Franzen (of whom more later), is apparently unacceptable in others. Maybe I am merely proving that critic’s point: the “best” of domestic fiction is great literature, distinct from the commercial majority. But to make this distinction given such broad subject matter still doesn’t make sense. After all, you wouldn’t say that Joseph Heller shows, with dizzying aplomb, that fiction about war can be literary, despite the likes of Andy McNab. Why should domesticity be non-literary by default?
The answer, if you haven’t guessed, is that “domestic fiction” is a broadsheet euphemism for “women’s fiction,” something made even clearer in the Guardian review of Hadley’s latest book of short stories, Married Love:
Tessa Hadley’s previous novel, The London Train, featured a scene in which the male protagonist considers the stack of reading material on his wife’s side of the bed: “Novels which seemed to him pretty interchangeable – what people called ‘women’s fiction’.” A volume of short stories called Married Love might seem to belong in the same pile; though if Hadley writes within a domestic frame, she is also a colourful ironist…
As a colourful ironist, perhaps Hadley would appreciate this patronising assurance that her work doesn’t belong in that pile. Perhaps not. To write “within a domestic frame” is apparently synonymous with “writes women’s fiction” for this critic, but he’s willing to assure us that Hadley has talents beyond those limits. “Women’s fiction” presumably means fiction written for women by women, which definitely exists, just as there is a lot of commercial fiction written by and for a male audience. I’m not going to go into the rather archaically gendered way these books are marketed - the difference between a Sophie Kinsella cover and a David Rollins cover speaks volumes - and I also don’t think it’s bad and wrong that women and men like different kinds of books. But Hadley is not trying to write for a specifically female audience. The critics and her publisher should not feel the need to tell potential readers that they are not picking up trash - and this need wouldn’t cross their minds were Hadley male.
Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner made this point very well last year following the publication of Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. Both are very successful commercial authors who write fiction that is largely read by women, and their comments in the Huffington Post interview that I’ve linked to above are very perceptive. Their charge of sexism against the New York Review of Books was misrepresented by some as resentment that their books don’t receive highbrow critical attention. If you actually read what they say, neither of them claim to deserve that kind of attention. What they do point out is that a) the literary establishment is more likely to take notice of genre or commercial fiction written by men like Lee Child or Nick Hornby than that written by women, and b) in Weiner’s own words “it’s a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that when a man writes about family and feelings, it’s literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics… it’s something unworthy of a serious critic’s attention.” They are specifically accusing the old white men who run NYRB, but it’s not just old white men: the first review I mentioned was written by a woman. Clearly this assumption is widespread.
It also underpins the publisher’s decision to place that quotation from The Independent on the back of Hadley’s book. I think they have decided to market her novel to a unisex audience: the similarity of the paperback cover of The London Train to that of Sebastian Faulks’ Charlotte Gray shows that they are trying to reach a similar readership, and both men and women read Sebastian Faulks. While no one thinks an extra effort needs to be made to get women to read Faulks, Hadley’s publisher clearly thinks it will do her sales figures good if they find a way to say “Men! Don’t just give this to your wife, you’ll like it too!”
Underlying all of this is are some very old and very ugly prejudices. Men can write “literature with a capital L” about feelings because men, with their superior intellects, are better at writing proper literature anyway. Even though feelings are generally a woman’s territory, they’ll just get sentimental when they try and write about them. They don’t have the objective gaze necessary for great novelistic insight. Their work is good enough as a bit of entertainment for other women perhaps, but it’s not Literature. Of course, I’m not suggesting that critics and publishers consciously think like that, but this mindset is still at work. I used to think that in the literary sphere at least, women no longer had anything to prove. It seems I was wrong.