woolf, the bechdel test, feminism, and fiction

Today I finished reading A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. I can’t say that I loved it, or even that I thought it was particularly relevant to women today, or that it was sensitive to working class women (because she says many times that working class women cannot have talent, let alone develop it). But there are some things she said that made me think.

I believe that for the most part, good writers don’t sit and think about how the thing they’re writing will be taught in an English class. They don’t sit there, perfectly constructing symbol after turn of phrase after metaphor, thinking about how their story perfectly exemplifies a certain theme and makes a statement about this or that. But sometimes that might become clear in the writing process, or there may be certain goals a writer has in mind while just sitting there writing whatever comes into his/her head. Since I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about my writing and very little writing of my writing, I’ve had a lot of time to work out more of the story and develop the characters, and some things have become clear. But I’m not the kind of female writer that Woolf would want me to be.

It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that; and how little can a man know even of that when he observes it through the black or rosy spectacles which sex puts upon his nose….it remains obvious, even in the writing of Proust, that a man is terribly hampered and partial in his knowledge of women, as a woman in her knowledge of men.

I think I kind of do that. Whether it’s just my own preference or my unconscious socialization into white heteropatriarchy, I don’t really follow Bechdel’s rule, even though I consider it really important. The two novels I’m working on feature a male and female duo as main characters–in one story, the female is the narrator and protagonist, in the other, the male is the protagonist. Is that awful? Or is it just how these stories need to be told? Authors always say that characters tell them what to do, not the other way around, and that’s certainly true how these stories have developed. But what is wrong with me that I don’t find myself wanting to write about women in relation to other women?

Suppose, for instance, that men were only represented in literature as the lovers of women, and were never the friends of men, soldiers, thinkers, dreamers; how few parts in the plays of Shakespeare could be allotted to them; how literature would suffer!…literature would be incredibly impoverished, as indeed literature is impoverished beyond our counting by the doors that have been shut upon women.

I think my personal interests, and the things that pop up again and again in whatever I write, are issues of culture, socioeconomics, popularity, and sexual tension (in no particular order), and that’s maybe more important to me than feminism, at least when it comes to writing creatively. But I feel like the fact that I am concerned with feminist issues when I am being a scholar means that I should have some inclination to do something with it in what I write. I mean, I’m also concerned with diversity, and that definitely comes up in my writing. So why do I not know how to write two women with a relationship based on something other than sex or a guy?

Women are hard on women. Women dislike women.

Okay, so there’s that. I’ve never had one best friend who was my total confidante, who knew every single aspect of my personality, and about whom I knew the same. My guy friends have remained steady, if casual, while my girl friends constantly change. My favorite friends are the ones I don’t see very often, because I get sick of people easily, and because I have trouble finding people who understand all parts of me. And since you write what you know, maybe that’s why I don’t write about groups of women. Then again, it’s not like I’ve never had a conversation with another girl that wasn’t about a guy. I have. But somehow it never comes to mind when I’m writing. And I hate that.

She wrote as a woman, but as a woman who had forgotten she was a woman, so that her pages were full of that curious sexual quality which comes only when sex is unconscious of itself.

Then again, if you go back to the idea that most of what you write is unconscious, and it’s just the mark of a good writer that all the cool literary devices are there. So perhaps I do write as a feminist.

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One thought on “woolf, the bechdel test, feminism, and fiction

  1. I’m really not a fan of Virginia Woolf’s writing, though I can see that her stream of conciousness style might be useful for a writer who is struggling with a blank page. I’m always really suspicious of anyone who names her as their favourite author- it always seems like a pretention as I can’t see why the writing would merit it.

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