A voice of their own: contemporary American women writers

In ''A Room of One's Own,'' her classic treatise on women and fiction, Virginia Woolf warned that it was ''fatal'' for women to consider gender when writing. Never, she admonished, ''speak consciously as a woman.'' It's a statement that since its utterance in 1929 has baffled readers. For ''A Room of One's Own'' is to women's literature what ''Das Kapital'' is to Marxism: credo and cornerstone. It's as if Marx had suddenly urged forgetting about class. Significantly, it's the single, perhaps only, remark feminists omit when quoting Woolf's study.

Yet the issue remains. Should one consider gender? How important is it in shaping a writer's angle of vision? Since the advent of the women's movement, female writers have wrestled with Woolf's advice with particular self-consciousness. The creative mind, as she stated, is by nature androgynous. Could the willful insistence on gender - by either sex - produce high quality fiction? Or would it, as she feared, exclude male readers much as Kipling, Conrad, and Hemingway did women? Perhaps. But judging by the sizable body of writing - fiction and nonfiction alike - by women this last decade, gender for many isn't a lock but the key to their voices as writers.

From the caustic wit of Margaret Atwood to the biting social realism of Joan Didion and the tough humanity of Alice Walker, women have infused a new realism into fiction. Sparked by the women's movement, writers have translated women's quest for personal authenticity into a literary one. If Betty Friedan's ''The Feminine Mystique'' got women out of the kitchen, writers like Alice Munro and Anne Tyler have shown us the rich emotional life within it. Indeed, the most important literary trend of the 1970s-'80s is women claiming their fictional territory, what Mary Gordon calls ''the radical closeness'' of daily relationships. In stressing emotional realism, the heroic of the everyday, women have redressed what's deemed ''significant'' in literature.

The so-called Post-Feminist '80s boasts a canon of writing by women that's subtle, varied, powerful, and often disturbing. Paralleling the movement itself, women have shifted the novel's focus from self to society. In doing so, their writing has taken on a necessary universalism, the very quality Woolf urged in her 1929 tract. In widening their social canvas, however, women never relinquished the eye that make that perspective unique. As writers, this is their real success: seeing the universal through the optic of their own experience.

With this literary maturity, women have truly come of age. Consider the statistics alone. In 1983, for example, women garnered the top literary prizes - the Pulitzer Prizes for fiction and drama (Alice Walker's ''The Color Purple,'' Marsha Norman's '' 'Night Mother''); the American Book Awards for fiction, first novel and biography (Walker's ''Purple'' and Eudora Welty's ''Collected Stories, '' Gloria Naylor's ''The Women of Brewster Place,'' Judith Thurman's ''Isak Dinesen''); the National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography (Joyce Johnson's ''Minor Characters'').

Between 1980-'83, according to the American Book Award Association, 91 women have been nominated in its six categories. And yet despite these accolades, for many, women's novels still translate as ''novels my wife reads.'' The problem is the term itself. ''Woman'' writer: hybrid or half-breed? It's a dispute that rages in ''First Person Singular,'' an anthology of writers on their craft. Its editor, Joyce Carol Oates, objects to women's unnecessary ghettoization of their work. Implicit in her title ''(Woman) Writer,'' is that gender is parenthetical and, inevitably, isolating to a writer's vision. Yet in the same pages novelists Anne Tyler and Mary Gordon stress a point that's echoed repeatedly in another anthology, ''The Writer on Her Work.'' True, it's experience, not gender, that is a writer's creative legacy. And yet, concludes Gail Godwin, gender not only shapes experience but how to write about it.

In fiction, as in feminism itself, the polemical shout has been supplanted by the inner voice. And in 1984 it's stronger than ever. It's impossible to survey library and book shelves without confronting the sheer number of first-rate women writers. Skilled storytellers like Tyler, Godwin, Oates; consummate stylists like Didion, Morrison, Hardwick; serious moral thinkers like Walker, Gordon, Ozick. In number and popularity, their success suggests that writing, not political clout, may be the most socially significant dividend of the women's movement so far.

It's a dubious joy to see how many gifted writers I had to omit. In concentrating on North American authors, I had to bypass vanguard writers like Britain's Lessing, Drabble, and Murdock, South Africa's Gordimer, Australia's Stead and New Zealand's Hazzard. Until a decade ago, their work evidenced a greater capacity for social realism. Issues of apartheid, class, and political strife inevitably became part of the feminist construct. By the late '70s, though, American writers not only had caught up but deepened that tradition. In tackling the social exigencies of class and race, the woman's novel began breaking out of its self-absorbed, self-referenced middle-class mold.

Instrumental in this is the powerful emergence of the black and Asian-American writer. Novels like Toni Morrison's ''Sula,'' Walker's ''Meridian ,'' and Maxine Hong Kingston's nonfiction ''The Woman Warrior,'' explore the complex legacy of racial heritage. Slavery, poverty, and patriarchy are illuminated with trenchant if poetic realism. What sets these writers apart from , say, a social realist like Didion is their creative use of fable and legend in shaping narrative. In Morrison's ''Song of Solomon,'' folktale, dialect, and song are woven into dialogue. The rawness of the subject matter - rural poverty, crime, illegitimacy - is balanced by the lyricism of the writing. For the ethnic writer, language is the vehicle that conveys what tradition has denied her: power and richness.

In drawing upon their cultural roots both the ethnic and the Southern writer have created fictional mythologies as intricate as Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha. Exemplary are Mary Lee Settle's ''Beulah Quintet'' novels which chart generations of political injustice in a single Virginia county. Civil and human rights are the narrative focus in the work of Marge Piercy and Grace Paley. Like their Southern counterparts, these writers use a feminist perspective to show the sources of powerlessness in society at large: the poor, the infirm, the discriminated. In giving voice to the vicissitudes of human experience, the woman's novel is beginning to affirm a world long unsung: the so-called ordinary.

What these writers have introduced is less a feminine aesthetic as a new realism in fiction. Rooted in the daily sphere of home, family, and relations, its stress is our capacities for commitment. What fascinates women writers are its rites. In Gail Godwin's ''A Mother and Two Daughters,'' life's continuities - childhood, marriage, birth - as well as its discontinuities - divorce, abortion, death - are minutely examined. Often the large social rite is revealed in a small domestic detail. In ''Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant,'' for example, Anne Tyler uses the simple but potent narrative refrain of a family unable to complete a meal together to show selfishness and disintegration. In ''The Color Purple'' a quilt serves as a narrative Epiphany absolving a woman of adultery. More, it's a literal patchwork of memory allowing two women to retrace their disjointed histories. For these writers, their fascination isn't with domestic objects per se, but our existential relation to them. Like Proust, they know that objects are freighted with the novel's concern: time, memory, deeds.

The domestic, then, are props the woman writer uses to get at a deeper fictional reality: The consequences of daily acts. However cleverly disguised, make no mistake about it, the woman's novel is preoccupied with the making of moral character. Indeed, what unites these writers is their perspective: the psychological probe of the moral self. And from Atwood to Piercy the literary realization is the same: identity - not biology - is destiny. The theme characterizing all these novels, therefore, is taking responsibility for oneself.

In this, the real revolution is literary not just social. Women writers have linked to the great themes of their 19th-century models. Jane Eyre's themes of mentors and selfhood, for example, are enlarged in Gordon's ''The Company of Women.'' Laurie Colwin's ''Family Happiness'' updates Jane Austen's theme of love and vocation, love as vocation. But the real literary link is George Eliot. Today all women's fiction begins where Middlemarch's Dorothea Brooke left off: contemplating the conjunctions of the private and public self, grappling with the social responsibilities inherent in both. For characters and authors alike, the motto is that of Ibsen's heroine Hedda Gabbler: Free and responsible.

Out of this has emerged a new heroine. Who is she? She may be the illiterate sharecropper's daughter in ''The Color Purple,'' the identity-haunted Canadian in Atwood's ''Surfacing,'' or even the author herself like Joyce Johnson whose ''Minor Characters'' depicts her life with Jack Kerouac. Plucky, vulnerable, still too eager to please, she's ill-equipped for life but proceeds with cautious determination. Her confidence, like her luck, is brittle. Like the heroine in Diane Johnson's ''The Shadow Knows,'' she's probably coping with divorce and dissertation while protecting her children from the muggers that menace her building.

Interestingly, for all the push for job equality, no first-rate novel tackles our glacial corporate age. The new heroine isn't a woman MBA diagraming flow charts. Rather, she's still a caretaker: a daughter like Isabel Moore in Gordon's ''Final Payments'' or a niece in Marilynne Robinson's ''Housekeeping.'' Most likely, though, she's a single parent. The new heroine isn't a trendy single, an update of the 19th-century spinster, she's a single mother. Her prevalence in women's fiction supports critic Elizabeth Janeway's contention that motherhood has replaced marriage as the adult rite of passage in the modern novel.

Indeed, for both sexes, children are the final rite into adulthood, the conscious commitment to others. Novels like Gloria Naylor's ''The Women of Brewster Place'' are eloquent rebuttals to Isak Dinesen's remark that only when women are done with the business of being women will they let loose their strength as writers. Unlike their 19th-century counterparts, this generation of women writers not only is having children but writing about them with authority. Like Didion's ''A Book of Common Prayer,'' about a mother and her missing daughter, children are depicted as that difficult but necessary primer: the education of the heart.

In this, children have taken priority over men in testing a heroine's capacity for commitment. Yet it's men, not children, who need coddling in these novels. In Johnson's ''The Shadow Knows'' a wife finds her husband sleeping in a crib; in Atwood's ''Life Before Man,'' a lawyer prefers making toys in his basement. While authors like Tyler have created engagingly eccentric men like Morgan in ''Morgan's Passing,'' men often emerge as sullen powerbrokers. With biting wit, Alice Walker shows us the trapdoors in men's speech; how they can disappear standing right in front of one. In the novels of Francine du Plessix Gray, it's emotional verbal evasion that's examined. Weary of sexual battle, characters grapple with the real question of what constitutes intimacy between the sexes. If this is the central question to the new realism, then its answer lies in the lesson learned from children: nurturing.

In women's fiction men have been upstaged by a new character: the female friend. Witty and common sensical, she's negotiates her moral obstacle course. Their pairing is as satisfying as jane Austen's sister couples. Like Jocasta in Atwood's ''Bodily Harm,'' she doesn't supplant men so much as decode them. She's our best source for what the sexes are really feeling since the women's movement: men's confusion, women's loneliness. If the heroine is how women would like to be, the friend is probably closer to what is. Yet her function is broader. In shoring up flagging confidence, spelling babysitting and housework, she's the herione's new extended family. She's but one of many characters who will emerge soon out of the fictional holocaust of the nuclear family.

The thematic evolution in women's fiction is most apparent in the work of Canadian writer Margaret Atwood. Her first novel, ''The Edible Woman,'' uses the structural conceit of a narrative shift from first to second person as a bride loses her identity. In ''Surfacing,'' about a daughter searching for her missing father, the heroine's inner identity surfaces with raw power. The multiple identities that plague the heroine in ''Lady Oracle'' ar splintered into three characters in ''Life Before Man,'' a study of commitment in relationships. In ''Bodily Harm'' a life style journalist recovering from illness gets emeshed in a Caribbean revolution only to discover what being alive really means.

Like Atwood, the women here are grappling with the question of what constitutes the heroic in literature. If Thoreau went out in Nature to be alone, for these women writers the heroic seems to be staying inside with others. The heroic is the heroine of Tillie Olsen's ''Tell Me A Riddle,'' a woman coping with children and dying parent. It's the black women in Naylor's ''The Women of Brewster Place'' as they salvage dignity within a tenement.

Ours, these women know, is the century of holocaust: of surviving and witnessing. The deeper realization of the new realism is the lesson of the single mothers: surviving is predicated on sharing, on nurturing one another, acting against the selfish dictates of the self. It's a clear-eyed refusal to be seduced by abstractions. Like the heroine of Atwood's ''Bodily Harm,'' it's the imperative of seeing what's in front of you. The lesson is Blake's: In the daily resides the sacred. As these writers show, to lose contact with the daily and its rites is to forfeit continuity of spirit and tradition. As Walker shows in ''The Color Purple,'' it's only in the daily that we find that difficult grace called love, and with it its powers to redeem the most object of human conditions.

The significance of women's contribution to fiction this last decade is widening the acces to the heroic in literature. While Cynthia Ozick's ''The Cannibal Galaxy'' is a fusillade of philosophical ideas, the quiet lessons found in the short stories of Alice Adams and M. F. K. Fisher may be more radical. Like all the writers here, they have made an art form out of a single misconception: theat women's lives are art without product. In their depiction of children, relationships, and domestic life, they've revealed the human richness of what has hitherto been deemed ''minor.''

This isn't to suggest that women are hostage to domestic themes. But, like Woolf, I too concur that by sitting inside all these generations women's walls ''are permeated by their creative force.'' I suspect the great writing on nuclear menace, for example, will come from women. Who else better understands what it threatens? Just as Tolstoy knew to define war in the small detail, so women writers will tackle the Large Idea as it manifests itself in glance and gesture. Only in the juman can we warn of the inhuman. And as poet Louise Bogan once wrote. ''No woman should be shamfaced in attempting to give back to the world, through her work, a portion of its lost heart.''

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