On Mothers Writing About Sex

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On Mothers Writing About Sex

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Jun 23, 2014, 10:07am

Interesting post on BuzzFeed of all places: http://www.buzzfeed.com/ginafrangello/madonna-mother-whore

I don't tend to think of the authors I'm reading as anything but "authors." That is, I don't wonder if they are parents or assign them that designation or any other. I do think it's odd how many people get fiction confused with real life, as if the author cannot write about anything that she hasn't personally experienced.

Jun 23, 2014, 4:07pm

I would be interested to know if the people who are creeped out are mostly women, and I suspect the answer is yes. Men seem to have no trouble showing honest interest in sexual proclivities of all types and talking about them. At length and often in inconvenient places.

I suspect women share the same interest, but tend to be more circumspect in how, when, and to whom they show it for fear of sending "the wrong signals."

My freshman year in college, one of my suite mates showed us some porn she found in her boyfriend's flat. Everyone pretended to find it funny or mildly repulsive until Cindy, bless her, said, "I think it's pretty hot." And then people felt "safe" enough to say what they really felt.

OTOH, I don't know anything about Gina Frangello, and it could be that her books really are just creepy.

Jun 24, 2014, 11:58am

I'm not sure I understand the article, it sounds so alien. (Could be me!) Is it an American thing, a neo-conservative thing, or an artefact of these times in which there is an unprecedented contact of the reading public with the (living, obviously) authors? Or all that mixed up?

I don't have many examples to go on, reading mostly dead people, but meeting, knowing authors generally makes me uncomfortable. If I love the work I feel under the obligation to at least like the person whereas I've discovered it's safer not to know anything about them. And if I don't know, or dislike the work--that's even worse.

Otherwise, mums writing about sex, no matter how "wicked", means absolutely nothing to me. If I got over my parents having had sex, I can get over anything. :)

Edited: Jun 24, 2014, 12:05pm

>3 LolaWalser: I feel the same way, that I'd like to keep authors I like at a remove. I just like to think of them as the impersonal creator of a world/people/story I connect with. Perhaps that's why I don't make an effort to go to author readings or read interviews with writers.

However, I think other people tend to turn authors into celebrities and also to imbue them with a certain expertise/superiority over the mere mortals who don't write. They seem to think that authors are outside/above us. I know I got a hint of that when I was a working writer, and I was writing very pedestrian nonfiction tech-type books. Perhaps that is an American tendency--seems like it might be.

Jun 24, 2014, 3:47pm

In perusing the reviews for How to Suppress Women's Writing, I stumbled upon some nuggets that are germane to this discussion. This backlash toward mothers writing about sex fits neatly into two of the methods of suppression described:

Pollution of Agency (the topic chosen shouldn’t have been written about or can not be considered art)
False Categorizing (women are not artists, they are wives, mothers, lovers, girlfriends…)

In other words, a mother cannot write about sex possibly because a mother cannot also be a sexual being and/or a writer.

Jun 24, 2014, 5:01pm

>5 sturlington: Maybe this is tangential, but seems like we're back to feminist criticism and critics.

Russ offered really astute critical observations, but in applying them to the works of others (mostly to science fiction, which was her field of critical specialty as well as the genre in which she wrote), hardly any but her own books passed muster under her lens.

She bashed The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin in her article, "The Image of Women in Science Fiction," 1972. She didn't like the use of the male pronoun to refer to the androgenes on Winter, and she felt LeGuin ignored child-rearing practices. But, what seemed most unfair was that she claimed LeGuin presented stereotypical women that were just as bad as the ones men presented in sci fi.

That struck me than and now as beyond the pale. If LeGuin was whatever the female equivalent of an Uncle Tom is, then we're all doomed.

Jun 24, 2014, 8:18pm

>6 nohrt4me2: interesting. I've only just begin to read Russ, so I'm not familiar, but it is hard to imagine Le Guin being criticized as anti feminist.

Jun 24, 2014, 10:36pm

>7 sturlington: I think Russ is really worthwhile. Hope you'll talk about what you think. But her anger, like a lot of the feminist critics in the Second Wave, made her pretty unbending and doctrinaire. I guess she regretted that at some points, but women in higher areas of scholarship, particularly "popular culture," were often dismissed as lightweights, and the anger in some of them is palpable.

Edited: Jun 25, 2014, 7:30am

>8 nohrt4me2: I just read The Female Man and the anger in the writing really struck me, as did the cynical humor. Do you have any followup books you would recommend by Russ?

Jun 25, 2014, 10:23am

>9 sturlington: To Write Like a Woman is a good collection of Russ's essays. Extended excerpts are available on Google Books, so you could browse that to see if it's something you're interested in.

I haven't read some of the essays in that collection (the one on the aesthetic of sci fi sounds interesting), but should do: http://books.google.com/books?id=JTDajkJJA70C

Jun 25, 2014, 11:36am

>10 nohrt4me2: Added to the always growing to read list!

Jun 25, 2014, 2:14pm

>11 sturlington: If you want to chat more about Russ, I'll try to read some of the essays, too. You could start a thread or write me off-group with your impressions. Would be fun to take a re-look at her work after all these years!

Jun 26, 2014, 1:31pm

I don't know what Russ wrote about Le Guin so can't comment on that, but I read that Le Guin herself expressed regret about--vaguely, I don't recall exact words--her approach in the past, what she came to see as missed opportunities, failure to do etc. (I think this came up in one of the threads in Green Dragon--I can look around for reference if anyone is curious.)

I've read only three of her novels, The Left hand of darkness, The dispossessed and The wizard of Earthsea, and some stories, and that rather long ago (twenty years minimum), so the details are very vague, but I know I was then very impressed, in particular by The left hand of darkness, which I pressed on more people than any other book. That said, it wouldn't surprise me if I found things to criticise were I to read her now. For instance, possibly a minor point, but 20+ years ago I was less sensitive to reading constantly about male central characters or adopting male POVs or system of values etc. Well no wonder--I had 20+ years less of getting fed up with it! And this, as far as I recall, is something common in Le Guin's writing; so, although her attitude regarding the sexes was egalitarian, this was still conveyed mostly through men or male stand-ins.

I know why I liked her, but I could probably understand why she might be inadequate to the new generations.

>5 sturlington:

In other words, a mother cannot write about sex possibly because a mother cannot also be a sexual being and/or a writer.

Ohh, but that's an ANCIENT trope, antediluvian misogyny and sexism and nothing else. Shocking to see how well and alive it might be in a country like the US, on that basic level I mean. Cripes.

There must be tons of monographs on the whole virgin/mother/whore obsession... I wonder what are the candidates for "definitive tomes", if any...

I came across a good but short discussion recently in Edwin Mullins' The painted witch, referring specifically to depictions of women in visual arts--if it's not too long I'll copy it somewhere later.

Jun 26, 2014, 2:32pm

Just real quick, about Ursula K. Le Guin (from Wikipedia):

When asked, in a 1995 interview, what role the feminist movement had played in her writing, Le Guin situated The Eye of the Heron in the context of her development as a writer:

"I gradually realized that my own fiction was telling me that I could no longer ignore the feminine. While I was writing The Eye of the Heron in 1977, the hero insisted on destroying himself before the middle of the book. "Hey," I said, "you can't do that, you're the hero. Where's my book?" I stopped writing. The book had a woman in it, but I didn't know how to write about women. I blundered around a while and then found some guidance in feminist theory. I got excited when I discovered feminist literary criticism was something I could read and actually enjoy. I read The Norton Book of Literature by Women from cover to cover. It was a bible for me. It taught me that I didn't have to write like an honorary man anymore, that I could write like a woman and feel liberated in doing so."

The Eye of the Heron was published in 1978, about a decade after her more famous works that mentioned by >13 LolaWalser:, so I am sure that there was some evolution there.

Jun 26, 2014, 10:19pm

Thanks, very interesting--and rare--to see a great writer be so candid about her shortcomings.

Anyone have recommendations for the "later" Le Guin?

Although I'm having a difficult time getting into sci-fi these days (and fantasy would be worse). My current mind just won't adhere to those flavours of make-believe.

I've recently abandoned Tepper (Gate to woman's country or something like it), Carey (Kushiel's dart), Cherryh (Cyteen and Downbelow station), and Banks (Consider Phlebas).

The first three were first-time authors for me and I had no expectations, but Banks I kept comparing to the brilliant The wasp factory. The game is so much higher in the latter, I felt chronically disappointed.

I have Melissa Scott's Burning bright lined up (just so I could follow the group discussion) but I haven't yet found the time for the long session I want it to be.

Edited: Jun 27, 2014, 6:52am

You might try The Telling, published in 2000. The protagonist is a woman, and it is about suppression of religion vs oppression by religion, as well as storytelling. Not my favorite, but a decent read, and I was comparing it to her more complex earlier sci fi. I'd be interested to hear your views.

Edited: Jun 27, 2014, 12:09pm

Hope this is not hair-splitting, but I'm not sure that LeGuin is admitting "shortcomings"; she wrote consistently good science fiction, but as she wrote, she began to broaden her perceptions about female characters in her writing.

I think that women her age (she's in her mid 80s now) were in that Second Wave of feminism that began to address Betty Friedan's "the problem that has no name." To see the gradual transformation of their awareness ought to be a joy, but sometimes I feel that younger women simply scorn these efforts.

Also hope I'm not going "off the edge" here, but unless we can embrace these early attempts at gender equality in books by women, we fall prey to that stereotype promulgated by men: That women are their own worst critics, motivated as they are by jealousy and convention.

Edited to improve clarity.

Jun 27, 2014, 12:51pm

unless we can embrace these early attempts at gender equality in books by women, we fall prey to that stereotype promulgated by men: That women are their own worst critics, motivated as they are by jealousy and convention.

I don't understand this. If the implication is that Russ or whoever committed this "feminist criticism" of Le Guin was motivated solely by "jealousy and convention", I can't comment on that. But it's clear enough that Le Guin herself is making the same criticism of her earlier work.

As for "embracing", what exactly does that mean? Criticism doesn't mean wholesale rejection, in my opinion at least. But it seems to me obvious that criticism and re-evaluation there must and will be--the world doesn't stand still, views change and refine, young generations have different needs etc. This is why new books keep getting written.

Incidentally, here's one young reader's reaction to A wizard of Earthsea:


(Please note I'm using it as an illustration, not an invitation to polemicise with her.)

It's safe to say that when I read the book, decades ago (at an older age than this poster too), I took it for granted that men would dominate the story, be the only special people, and that women would be unimportant and "stupid". It ever was thus.

Well, it doesn't have to be like that now and in the future. If the young ones don't want to subject themselves to demeaning views, I'm not sure why they'd have to--but I'm sure they don't have to do it without criticism.

Jun 27, 2014, 2:04pm

>18 LolaWalser: I guess women readers have two choices: They can ultimately reject women's writing of the past as not meeting today's notions of emancipation and not worth the time investment. Or they can can value and enjoy it as a stepping stone to what we have now.

I don't think The Gate to Women's Country is deathless prose, but the ending had more depth than I expected.

I haven't read the Earthsea cycle; judging it on the first novel alone--it goes on for something like 10 installments--might be premature. But if somebody's really turned off by the first novel, it may be presumptuous to ask them to continue the time investment.

Thanks for the conversation. I'll quit being a thread hog.

Edited: Jun 27, 2014, 7:49pm

>19 nohrt4me2: I guess women readers have two choices: They can ultimately reject women's writing of the past as not meeting today's notions of emancipation and not worth the time investment

Somehow, whenever anyone says I have two choices, a or b, I always want to pick "c." :-)

But I think the past -- even the recent past -- can be read in context, and thus bear both our admiration and our criticisms.

(I loved the Earthsea Cycle, but my favorite book in the triology was the second, the Tombs of Atuan, which is told entirely from the perspective of a young woman. It is very creepy).

Jun 27, 2014, 8:15pm

To be fair to the poster whose opinions I linked to, she makes it clear she is talking about this particular book, not judging the entire cycle.

And I must agree with southernbooklady--I really don't see that we are limited only to two choices, starkly opposed at that, when it comes to evaluating the literature of the past.

If education has any purpose in reading, I think it would be fostering the ability to read literature in context as well as critically.

But when it comes to "enjoyment", a good part of it will always depend on some irreducible subjective givens--taste, experience, mood etc.