Tuesday, July 9, 2013

This is why we need Viragos and Persephones

I came across this article today: "It's Frustratingly Rare to Find a Novel About Women That's Not About Love," in which writer Kelsey McKinney explains a bit of her own reading experiences and laments the fact that "great literature," when it features women at all, allots them only a one-dimensional role:

"While the male characters of literature built countries, waged wars, and traveled while smoking plenty of illicit substances, the women were utterly boring. The assigned, award-winning, cannon-qualified books about women were about women I didn't want to be. Jane Eyre was too blinded by her love for Mr. Rochester, as were all of the Bennet sisters in Pride and Prejudice. Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter was too maternal, and no one wants to grow up to be Anna Karenina. These women wanted to get married and have kids. They wanted to whine for 300 pages about a man who didn't want to be with them. They wanted, it seemed, to be supporting actresses in their own stories. Their stories were equally about the men who shaped them as what they themselves wanted. 

These female characters had love stories of heartbreak, but no stories of solitary self-discovery. Like many young adults, I didn't necessarily want stable. I wanted to drive On The Road and stop off in small towns and drink more than was probably appropriate. I wanted to question who I was and be my own Catcher in the Rye. There are no Jack Kerouacs or Holden Caulfields for girls. Literary girls don't take road-trips to find themselves; they take trips to find men. 

"Great" books, as defined by the Western canon, didn't contain female protagonists I could admire. In fact, they barely contained female protagonists at all. Of the 100 Best Novels compiled by Modern Library, only nine have women in the leading role, and in only one of those books--The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark--do the leading women strive to do more than find a husband or raise their children. Statistically, one percent of the Best Novels are about women doing something other than loving."

The solution to Ms. McKinney's problem is not as simple as saying, "You need to read more."  This writer is clearly extraordinarily well-read.  And she's right: within the confines of the traditional canon of classic literature, her complaints are entirely valid.  But someone needs to point out that these books she longs for, books by women about women with their own plots and characters, really do exist.  I read Viragos (and Persephones, to a lesser extent but, with the help of my library I hope to encounter more) because I too crave women's stories.  Not all of the books published by these two presses escape the confines of the woman-seeking-love plotline, but many do, and I thanks to these marvelous green and grey books, I have been treated to many examples of literary females struggling to find themselves or their place in a world that has traditionally subjugated women.  These are issues with which we women struggle even today in the era of post-modern feminism.  And it's important to notice, I think, that some of my favorite stories about women being themselves don't require that these women be unmarried.  As McKinney's article points out, women today want to be married, have kids, and have careers.  It's difficult to achieve all of these things, but one doesn't need to feel alone in this endeavor.  Instead, we are part of a tremendously ambitious line of women who dare.

This is why we need Viragos and Persephones.  I only wish they were better-known.


  1. I didn't go read her entire article but I don't really agree with her complaint, at least as quoted here. Realistically, for women of the class most of these novels focus on, marriage was the primary, if not the only, option. This is a problem often confronted directly by the novels themselves. It seems anachronistic and simpleminded for her to dismiss them on the grounds that the women of another era didn't follow the life plan she has for herself! And don't you find her snipey comments about Jane Eyre and the Bennet sisters painfully reductive? What else are Jane or Lizzie Bennet on if not voyages of self-discovery? Who says those voyages have to be solitary to matter?

    But having said that, I agree with you that we find a lot of other interesting stories in the Virago and Persephone collections -- though it's worth noting that these are almost all titles from later times when women had fought for and won more educational and vocational options.

  2. I thought the same thing when I saw this article. But then it occurred to me that many Ps and Vs I have read also focus on love and marriage as well. Maybe that is why I like them more than I like "mens" lit