I’m borrowing my title from the extraordinary seminar for women biographers to which I’ve had the good fortune to belong for two decades. Their website outlines goals not limited to the writing of biography and reinforces the always-endangered belief that we women writers have a field that is by rights our own.
We also own a unique point of view that I’m calling, simply, OUTRAGEOUS.
Too rarely exhibited in public, it’s the revolutionary, refreshing point of view we all hear when things open up in groups of women. All you have to do is mention a hidden word like “vibrator” and the humor and the outrageousness burst out.
Yet we’re often circumscribed, as writers by ideas of what used to be called decorum but might now be defined as fear-induced conventionality: fear of being called tough, or persistent (vide Elizabeth Warren) or aggressive or assertive, all synonyms, it seems, for being unlovable.
As writers, we must take that risk. Readers won’t like us, let alone love us, if we write what we know as the truth. Readers of our fiction will find the characters “unlikable” if they show any of the above traits. But since when has literature concerned itself with likable characters? Dostoevsky certainly wasn’t creating them, nor has Philip Roth made likableness central to his characters. An argument can be made—and I’m making it—that men writers don’t worry much about creating likable characters—or taking up agreeable ideas in their non-fiction.
But we women seem stuck with it—the desire to be liked.
And therefore our writing, whether fiction or not, may seem muted, and reviewers may apply adjectives such as “jewel-like” or “poetic”—which can be translated, simply, as “small.”
The writing we women are best at is not jewel-like, or poetic or small—more like an explosion at the bottom of the sea, sending up tidal waves.
But examples, currently, are few and far between. My biography of Doris Duke, nearly finished and to be published in October 2018, is such an explosion, sure to create waves of criticism, which may be why my editor keeps trying to cut back on my political opinions. The title, alone, is enough to cause at least a minor upheaval: Doris Duke: The Invention of the New Woman for a woman most people (who never knew her and never knew anything about her except alt-facts which should be called gossip) view as a playgirl.
But then one of the ladies in my book group said she thought D.H. Lawrence was a playboy. How are the mighty fallen!
But where, now, are the women writers we could call “outrageous”? Never numerous, they have become rare, weeded out by mainstream publishers uninterested in creating waves and unsupported by readers more interested in “romance”—that obnoxious word, hovering over us like a cloud of poison gas on this Valentine’s Day.
We have to look back a few years, to Rosemary Daniell’s Sleeping with Soldiers—her terrifying account of her attraction to “macho men”—or Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, both published on the crest of contemporary feminism and neither likely to be published today.
We can’t make a living as writers, so why are we even looking at mainstream publishing as a possibility for our outrageous work? Maybe we’ve reached the point where we should be handing around manuscripts. Or posting on the internet. Or self-publishing. But whatever method we chose, we can’t use “likability”—for our point of view, or our narrators’—to govern our choices.
Ladies, where is your rage?
I guess we better decide, now, that only women feel that passion.