What Makes a Women’s Novel a Women’s Novel? Men Say Romance, I Say Alison Lurie’s The War Between the Tates

I love to sink into novels that capture the emotional and intellectual experience of women.  But what is a women’s novel?  How can I define it?   During a freezing week in February, I read  Alison Lurie, Daphne du Maurier, Alice Adams, Mary McCarthy, and Barbara Pym.  What do these writers have in common?  Not much.  And yet I refer to them as women’s novels, though conceivably men do read George Eliot and possibly Barbara Pym.

Last year, two men thought they could define women’s novels.  Ron Charles, editor of the Washington Post Book World, and  Robert Gottlieb, former editor in chief of Simon & Schuster, both wrote bizarre articles about the romance genre. And that struck me as deeply cynical.

“What do women want?”  Charles asked last August in  the opening sentence of his bubbly feature article in The Washington Post about a panel on romance novels at the bookstore Politics and Prose. “…The economic power of reading women was on full display Friday night…. The event was a welcome if late acknowledgment that romance accounts for a full third of all the fiction sold in the United States. If that doesn’t get your heart racing, you may be dead.”

It did get my heart racing–because I was appalled!  How about the economic power of the rest of us?

Robert Gottlieb’s article in The New York Times, a round-up of romance novels, is  witty and enjoyable, and mocks the stereotypical characters in romance and  the elements of soft porn in romance.  But I gathered that we women were not supposed to notice his contemptuous tone, unless we are the smart women, the ones in on the joke.  He divides his short reviewettes into witty snippets about the “He,” “She,” and “They.” The article begins:

He: Simon Arthur Henry Fitzranulph Basset, Earl Clyvedon, Duke of Hastings, whose face “put all of Michelangelo’s statues to shame” — “the perfect specimen of English manhood,” whose “opinion on any number of topics” is sought after by men and at whose feet “women swooned,” yet whose tragic childhood has left him determined never to marry and, above all, never to father a child who might suffer as he had.

Very funny, and yet the effect is weirdly alienating.  I despise romance novels, but (1) why is the very literary Gottlieb writing about them? and  (2),  Why is The New York Times reviewing romance novels at all?

Well, if marketing departments (do newspapers have marketing departments?), determine the content of book review pages, I am very unhappy.

WHAT WOMEN’S NOVELS HAVE I BEEN READING?  I loved Daphne du Maurier’s The Parasites,  a  dramatic novel that begins with Charles, a country squire, calling his wife Maria, who is a famous actress, her brother Niall, a songwriter, and  sister Celia,  “parasites.” Are they or not?  The rest of the novel explores the question. I think this is du Maurier’s best novel, even better than Rebecca.

But my favorite of the lot was Alison Lurie’s The War Between the Tates.  Lurie won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for Foreign Affairs, and is one of those writers who, like Mary McCarthy, must be due for a revival. In fact, she shares with McCarthy a taste for  academic satire:  several of her books are set in college towns, not unlike the one portrayed in McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe (which I wrote about here).

In The War Between the Tates, Lurie describes the breakdown of the middle-class Tate family in 1969, a year of upheaval and social change.  Lurie writes partly from the point of view of Erica, an unhappy faculty wife, and partly from the point of view of Brian, an arrogant, manipulative political science professor who has an affair with a student.  This absorbing novel is also a satire of life in a college town, with elements of Lysistrata.

The well-educated Erica, who took Greek in college but is now confined to the role of housekeeper and mother, is unhappy even before she learns that Brian is having an affair.  She  absolutely hates her teenage children.  And she knows that if they are obnoxious, it must be her fault.  All the publications say so.

Erica is in tears and has no one to talk to: Brian is at a conference. Lurie writes,

She is—or at least she was—a gentle, rational, even-tempered woman, not given to violent feelings. In her whole life she cannot remember disliking anyone as much as she now sometimes dislikes Jeffrey and Matilda. In second grade she had briefly hated a bulky girl named Rita who ate rolls of pastel candy wafers and bullied her; in college freshman year a boy with a snuffle and yellowed nylon shirts who followed her around everywhere asking her to go out with him. She had, in the abstract, hated Hitler, Joseph McCarthy, Lee Harvey Oswald, etc., but never anyone she had to live with and should have loved—had for years and years warmly loved.

Something is in the air in the late 1960s.  Her best friend, Danielle, is divorced, and involved in a group called Women for Human Equality Now (Brian refers to them as Hens.)  Students are protesting sexism and the Vietnam War.  And Brian has an affair with Wendy, a graduate student who works very hard at seducing him.

But when Wendy finds herself pregnant and abandoned, she goes to Erica to apologize before leaving town.  Erica deduces that Wendy is pregnant and throws Brian out of the house.   Erica tells Brian he must marry Wendy,  but he has other ideas.  And then  Zed, Wendy’s mentor and owner of the Krishna Bookstore, turns out to be Erica’s old friend from Greek class, Sandy Finkelstein.  She has some male support, though it is clear there will be no romance.

Lurie is a brilliant writer, graceful, sharp, and comical.  I was utterly absorbed in this and do feel like bingeing on all of her books.  This is a women’s book for women and men.  I do feel like recommending it to my husband.  He likes to read a certain percentage fo women’s books every year.  Even though there is nothing specifically called “men’s novels,” I read more women’s novels than men’s and he reads more men’s novels than women’s.  It seems natural, doesn’t it?

What are your favorite women’s novels?

14 thoughts on “What Makes a Women’s Novel a Women’s Novel? Men Say Romance, I Say Alison Lurie’s The War Between the Tates

  1. A good question and hard to answer. The two male critics obviously had no clue as to why women write and read them and they include the greatest novels and memoirs ever written. They have no idea the women’s novel and memoir has a particular structure (cyclical), typical characters who have nothing to do with romance, issues that speak to women’s condition in society (continual threat of sexual aggression, continual exclusion from the world’s goods and money, continual motherhood for most and coerced marriage still), metaphors and myth interpretations not found in men’s books (e.g., sewing, tapestry, the women who retreats for 16 years to give her daughter a place has lived a death in life), types (Dido, Arachne), problems caused their psyches and bodies by men.

    There are so many women’s books it’s hard to pick out a favorite: famous early great and important ones include Madame de Lafayette’s Princess de Cleves,Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Anne Bronte’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Sand’s Indiana, Eliot’s “Janet’s Repentance,” Gaskell’s North and South, Oliphant’s Hester, many of the Viragos at the turn of the century, Christina Stead’s The Man who Loved Children, DuMaurier’s King’s General, and to name a recent masterpiece I was looking at Iris Origo’s War Diary in Val d’Orca Italy, Jenny Diski’s Apology for the Woman Writing, Elena Ferrante’s earlier books, Christa Wolff’s Cassandra and 4 essays on War. I read English and am Eurocentric so I’ve left out much fiction and life-writing as well as the important literary criticism and histories of women’s books, like Elaine Showalter or Juhasz Reading from the Heart (about heterosexual and lesbian romance).

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    • Yes, when we talk about women’s novels, we are not speaking about romance novels. Charles is trying to sell papers, and Gottlieb was probably given the assignment by The New York Times. Both of these guys are way too literary for this.

      There are so many brilliant novels by women, and that is what book reviews should call attention to. This trash does not need reviews to sell it.

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  2. Is Anna Karenina a woman’s novel? Depends on your definition I suppose. I support everything Ellen has said above. I also nominate the novels of Margaret Kennedy (English, between the wars). She wrote The Constant Nymph, Together and Apart and more.

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  3. Gore Vidal – who no-one ever called sentimental – admired Tate’s novels.
    There are “women’s novels” – books aimed at an idea of “women” – just as there are “men’s novels, and there are novels by women.

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  4. Anne Tyler’s Back When we Were Grownups, brilliant on women and ageing. I recently re-read DDM’s My Cousin Rachel and I didn’t think it had aged well. Or maybe it’s me!

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  5. God, I don’t know! I hate definitions and genres anyway – I just want to read a book that moves me and makes me look at the world differently and remember it. Whether it’s written by a woman or a man doesn’t matter, although possibly it’s a woman (Woolf) who changed my worldview most. But anyway – I get sick of snarky male critics. If (some) women want to read romance, let them (although if it’s Mills and Boons stuff I wish they’d read a bit higher than that). And who decides whether a book is a romance anyway? You could argue that a large part of the Virago and Persephone catalogues could be called romance but does that invalidate them?

    Bloody snarky male critics.

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    • I don’t know why the book review publications are covering this genre at all. And these men seem very uncomfortable writing about them. We don’t have to lower our standards like this at blogs!

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  6. I’m not sure I can answer your question, but it did make me think about gendered writing, if there is such a thing. And it made me think of R.C. Sherriff and The Fortnight in September and Greengates (the only two books I’ve read by him) and how beautifully and accurately he captures domestic life. If the R was for Rebecca would it make a difference? Are they considered women’s fiction?

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    • Haven’t read Sherriff! Certainly some men write very insightfully about women, though I think of women’s fiction as being written by women.

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