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Essays & Reviews

"A Big Woman's Book"

Shortly after publication of The Conqueror's Child, my agent called to tell me that two mainstream fiction editors had called to express strong interest in seeing my future work; anything, that is, except science fiction (which is what I write). What they were looking for from me, specifically, was "a big women's book" (not, I quickly determined, a sly allusion to the fact that I am 5'8" and pretty solid).

To put this in context, let me say that (like most SF/F authors) I have hoped in the past to break out into the "mainstream" with my work. Generally speaking, mainstream authors make better money and have more readers and a whole lot more respect than most SF/F authors do. Here was an invitation — times two — to do that very thing, after 30+ years writing SF/F.

But good Heavens, why? The Conqueror's Child is the fourth and concluding volume of a massive futuristic, feminist epic, not only SF but SF that has from the beginning been tagged with the "feminist" label that the dominant culture has persuaded most Americans, particularly women, to fear and reject.

Granted, The Conqueror's Child is a "big" book, comprising some 428 pages in which several distinct cultures and three religions (four, counting the men's Bear cult) impinge on the characters' lives. Taken together with the three preceding books, it's even bigger. There are lots of women in Child too, but they are running their world overtly and with strength, not as the iron hand in the velvet glove. It's iron hand all the way.

It occurred to me that maybe what had happened was that editors had been reading (not books, they have no time to read books other than the ones they themselves publish) reviews, and in skimming some favorable reviews of The Conqueror's Child they had registered "bigness," as described above, and "women," although contaminated with SF cooties (not to mention radical feminist ones). They must have concluded that if I could be lured out of the offending genres, my writing's other qualities might sell in the mainstream "big women's book" market.

I was not at all averse to this program; in the course of my career I've said what I have to say in the radical feminism department about as well as I could, and repeating myself — about anything — bores me. There seemed to be no reason that a "big women's book" could not also be a very good book, one I could enjoy writing and be proud of once it was done and published. I had heard great things about A Thousand Acres, which my agent had suggested as a succesful example.

So I began reading.

What's required seemed to be a fat novel about a large family of several generations, told primarily through the viewpoints of its female members. One model is multi-generational enough to be a version of what used to be called "historical fiction" (immigrant Irish family struggles through heartbreak and triumph under the canny rule of a tough matriarch; or, immigrant Jewish family + same formula, etc. etc. through the many possible periods and ethnicities). Another, more contemporary model is narrower in temporal focus. The protagonists are a couple of young-matures and their parents and kids and maybe a grandparent or two; in this pattern, the focus tends to be on a Family Problem — suicide, alcoholism, a secret history of child abuse. But since the emphasis is on women transcending their problems, the tone is ultimately up-beat.

Sadly, I found that these books put me to sleep. I could no more write one than I could fly. For the most part, the the characters are dull and their lives are pedestrian beyond belief. Or, in the "romance" sub-genre, the family is engaged in some glamorous occupation — diamonds, racehorses, modeling, fashion design -- that's supposed to make them interesting. None of it helps; I think the author's creative energy gets used up in bringing the flashy background so lovingly to life behind the dreary forumula characters.

There was no getting around it: I just hated the damned things.

Sure, A Thousand Acres is a rewrite of King Lear. I never much liked King Lear, an irritating play about a stupid, spoiled old man who can't tell which of his kids are straight and which are bent (which argues a lethal degree of self-absorption), plus a "good" daughter who insists on cementing her father's error by not speaking up for herself. This is as maddening as those romances in which one simple question and answer (in place of all that prickly "banter") would resolve the whole plot-problem, if only anyone had the wit to ask it and if the author would quit interfering to prevent it from being asked.

Clearly, though (since these novels sell in the millions and King Lear is one of Shakespeare's greatest hits), I am in the minority here; something must be wrong with me. But what? I have given it a good deal of thought lately. I find that as a reader (and a writer) I need an element of mystery, of ambiguity, of the alien, the supernatural, the truly strange (by which I do not mean absurdly quixotic behavior imposed by the author in order to get a plot going). Otherwise, a story is unlikely to catch and hold my interest.

I can't tell you whether this is because I've been writing and reading fantasy and SF for decades and it's turned my brain, or whether I began writing fantasy and SF because my brain came already so turned that there was nothing else that I could write.

Anyway, my "big women's book" clearly was not going to happen (with or without Shakespeare) no matter how much these questing editors wanted it, my agent wanted it, and I myself wanted it. I resigned myself to disappointing everybody.

Instead, I started looking through some old material, a folder full of legal sized pages with typing on them (that's how old): scenes for a play I had once begun writing about my Dad and me. Pop was a painter, a hermit, a handsome self-taught intellectual and real-world failure who left when I was eight. Then, through unexpected circumstances, about twenty years later he came to live next door to my husband and me for the two decades until his death (Dad's, not my husband's).

He'd proven to be a funny, sour, brilliant and maddening man, and I'd thought that what we managed to make of our relatonship after that long interruption was of interest and, because Pop was Pop, entertaining.

So I began to make a book of those old scraps, filling in the blanks, ruminating a bit, and selecting excerpts from the 40 volumes of handwritten journals the old man left to me. You get an outside view and an inside view of the human enigma that was my father. Not exactly King Lear, but there are a father and a couple of daughters in it, and god knows the old man made at least one impulsively stupid choice in his life that had dark consequences.

There's even an upbeat twist out of left field. It has turned out to be a pretty good-sized book ("big"), and it's about a family (albeit a fractured one), and even though it leads inevitably to death, it's still positive and hopeful in the end.

Eventually, with the revised manuscript (completed draft #2) of My Father's Ghost, my first book-length venture into non-fiction, I sent it to my agent. When I saw her next in New York, she hovered protectively over the typescript in front of her on her desk and said with a smile, "I think you've got something here."

It seems that I've written a "big women's book" after all, in my own weird way -- which I find to be a very, very pleasing thought.

SMC
August 21, 2000