Monday, 21 June 2010

Domestic fiction

It didn’t occur to me that I might be required to either excuse or apologise for my 'domestic' writing until I read Toby Litt’s and Ali Smith’s criticism of domestic writing in the introduction to 13, a collection of poetry, extracts from novels and short stories, published by Picador. Litt and Smith write: 'On the whole the submissions from women were disappointingly domestic, the opposite of risk-taking – as if too many women writers have been injected with a special drug that keeps them dulled, good, saying the right thing, aping the right shape, and melancholy at doing it, depressed as hell' (Litt and Smith, in Laville, 2005). The author Kirsty Gunn responded angrily insisting that defining domestic as dull ‘is a complete misnomer. This is where a large portion of our [women’s] lives are spent; there is no reason why the world should be loaded with such pejorative meaning’ (Laville, 2005).
In a subsequent interview Smith maintained: 'You know that made me so mad, it was such an out of context story. We had, Toby Litt and I, seven foot of unsolicited manuscripts and we were the only editors who read all seven foot. The things we were writing in the introduction were only about that seven foot. These are entries from people who aren't writers, who want to be writers. That's the context. I was disturbed and depressed for about two weeks, but then I stopped worrying about it.'
Domestic narratives came in for a further bashing in 2007 when Muriel Gray an Orange prize judge complained about women’s writing in a piece entitled ‘Women authors must drop domestic themes’'It’s hard to ignore the sheer volume of thinly disguised autobiographical writing from women on small-scale domestic themes such as motherhood, boyfriend troubles and tiny family dramas. These writers appear to have forgotten the fundamental imperative of fiction writing. It’s called making stuff up' (Gray, 2007).
This didactic way of addressing female writers is reminiscent of the paternalistic voice that Virginia Woolf mocks in A Room of One’s Own: 'That persistent voice, now grumbling, now patronising, now domineering, now grieved, now shocked, now angry, now avuncular, that voice which cannot let women alone, but must be at them, like some too conscientious governess, adjuring them, like Sir Egerton Brydges, to be refined; dragging even into the criticism of poetry criticism of sex; admonishing them, if they would be good and win, as I suppose, some shiny prize, to keep within certain limits which the gentleman in question thinks suitable – ‘female novelists should only aspire to excellence by courageously acknowledging the limitations of their sex.’ That puts the matter in a nutshell' (Woolf, 2000, p.75).
Gray’s relegation of motherhood to a ‘small-scale domestic theme’ is ludicrous: Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Winterson’s Oranges are not the only fruit and Carol Shields’s Booker nominated Unless all revolve around mother/daughter relationships without being ‘small-scale’ productions. Gray insists that women must ‘work hard’ to ‘escape from their own gender and circumstances’ (Gray in Feay, 2007). Must male writers also work hard to escape from their gender and circumstances? I suspect not.


  1. I don't know - it seems domestic life can be interesting. I think of Kathryn Stockett's THE HELP, which is all about the domestic lives of white and black women of the American South - and was nothing but interesting and provocative.

    Great post! BTW, I linked to it from my Facebook page that's devoted to the Orange Prize:


  2. Thanks Jill.
    Marilynne Robinson's 'Home' was my favourite book of 2009. It's a very 'domestic' novel with startlingly beautiful prose.
    Obviously some 'domestic' writing is boring, fatuous etc but it's a shame that 'domestic' is often used in a pejorative way. Helen Simpson's short stories are both domestic and sumptuous - I wish her output was greater!