Someday, when you have several hours to spare and there’s nothing but golf on TV, ask Jill and me to tell you how we feel about the differences between male and female writers. The very short version of the story is that Jill tends to favor books by female writers and I tend to favor books by male writers. But the real story, of course, is more complex and subtle and subjective than that.
I like old-fashioned storytelling. I like novels that are loud and in your face: epic, sweeping novels in which chance details from a character’s childhood end up resonating throughout each decade of his adulthood, where characters are haunted throughout their lifetimes by moral questions that are forever without answers, where events and actions lead to one another in plausible but surprising ways. And if the homeless guy in the doughnut shop in chapter two turns out to be the protagonist’s long-lost father, that is always a mark in a book’s favor, in my opinion.
At some point I started referring to a certain kind of book as a “woman book.” This epithet was not intended as a compliment. I was in my early twenties, and I don’t believe it is a coincidence that I coined this expression around the same time that the first selections of Oprah’s book club began to shoot to the top of the bestseller list. A woman book has some, many, or all of the following qualities:
• Short chapters and/or excessively frequent page breaks
• A tendency to spend a lot of time (i.e. more than 2-3 sentences) describing the protagonist’s daily routines (bathing, brewing a cup of tea just so, feeding the dog, etc.). Related: a tendency to say things like “Once a week I treat myself to real cream in my coffee.” In fact, the use of the phrase “treat myself” EVEN ONCE qualifies a book as a woman book, even if it is written by a man.
• Narration in the present tense
• Overuse of words that come from modern psychobabble, like “cope” and “pamper.”
• Nonlinear narration – narration that is guided by emotion more than by events
• A plot that is oriented around people who are still upset about someone not being invited to some party or being otherwise socially snubbed at some point twenty or more years in the past.
• A tendency to misuse the comma (cough – Joyce Carol Oates – uncough)
• Poor – or at least below average – evocation of setting, or at least a sense that physical setting is irrelevant to the novel.
A couple of sentences that epitomize the woman book for me are these from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale: “You can wet the rim of a glass and run your finger around the rim and it will make a sound. This is what I feel like: this sound of glass. I feel like the word shatter.” Now – there is nothing wrong with these sentences. They’re perfectly well written, academically and aesthetically speaking. But don’t they just pulse with estrogen? They’re practically lactating. Don’t you just want to walk on up to those sentences and call them sweetheart and try to charge them too much for car repairs?
Certain allusive patterns can be a mark of the woman book. Curiously, I do not consider the novels of Jane Austen to be woman books. However, any book written in the last fifty years that borrows characters or plots from Austen’s novels is automatically a woman book, regardless of the actual gender of the author. A possible exception to this policy may be made if one or more of the characters involved is a zombie. But only maybe.
For a couple of weeks during the summer of 1998, I was holed up at my aunt and uncle’s condo in Incline Village, NV having a reading orgy, and Jill and our mutual friend Michelle came to visit me. I had organized all of the books I had with me into two piles, and Jill observed immediately that the woman books were in one pile and the man books were in another. She knew instinctively that I was going through one of my periods when I felt guilty for not liking woman books more and had made some kind of rule that I had to read one woman book for every man book I read. I remember Michelle scanning the titles and asking, “Why is the King James Bible in the man pile?”
Jill and I looked at each other and shrugged. Where else would it go? We’ve always understood each other like that when it comes to books.
But all of this is an aside, really. What I really wanted to tell you is that I have found a woman book that I like. And it’s a woman book that is in some ways also a man book – a woman book for the twenty-first century; a woman book that kickboxes and fixes plumbing and sometimes doesn’t wear a bra.
Anouk Markovits’ I Am Forbidden bears many of the external trappings of the woman novel – especially the short chapters and frequent page breaks. Like many woman books, the narration is intense and almost breathless, paced as a series of sprints rather than a long Dickensian marathon. Its title also has a certain gynecological quality to it. Its point of view is omniscient – relatively typical of the woman book – but spends most of its time from the perspective of Mila, a Hasidic woman who grows up in Paris after World War II and then moves to New York to marry and raise a family. Both supported and constrained by her family, religion, and culture, Mila is both frightened and dutiful, anxious and responsible – a typical protagonist in what my younger self (and occasionally my current self) called a woman book.
(By the way… I referred to Mila in the last paragraph as “frightened,” and it is only as I write this review that I begin to think that fear plays an important role in determining a book’s gender. Fear is such an integral part of the human experience that I have trouble imagining any novel – or even a short story – that doesn’t portray fear in some way, but woman books are – I don’t know – more overt about fear? More willing to embrace a protagonist’s vulnerability? I don’t know… but I’m interested and will think more about this over the days and weeks to come. One thing I can say is that when I was in my early twenties and began to formulate my theory about the genders of books, I NEVER admitted to any kind of fear. So maybe I preferred books that sublimated fear rather than identifying it and looking it in the face? I don’t know.)
I am also thinking that man books and woman books handle irony in different ways. More on this a little later – I need to formulate some thoughts first.
So anyway – Anouk Markovits. This novel is about the extended family of Zalman Stern in the years following the Holocaust. Zalman Stern and his wife Hannah are spared from the Holocaust because their Jewish community in the Transylvanian town of Sibiu is never deported. Around the same time, a young boy named Josef Liechtenstein hides when soldiers from Romania’s Iron Guard kill his mother and sister, and is taken in, renamed, and protected from further attacks by the family’s Christian housekeeper, who comes to love him as a son. When Josef – renamed Anghel – is a young boy, he finds a Jewish family hiding in a shed near his home and protects this family’s little girl, Mila, when her parents are shot trying to rescue their family’s religious leader, whom they see – or think they see – sitting on the train. These three situations – initially unrelated to one another except that they all concern Hasidic Jews from the region along the border between Romania and Hungary during the early years of the Holocaust. For the rest of the novel, the characters from these three initial scenes intersect with one another in a variety of ways, sometimes relying on coincidences that are very characteristic of nineteenth century novels – a device that definitely marks a book as a man book.
In so many ways, this is a novel about exile. On the one hand, part of the tradition of the characters’ Jewish culture is the fact that their community is in a state of perpetual exile until the Messiah returns – a tradition that leads many of the characters in the novel to reject Zionism because the establishment of the state of Israel after World War II represents an attempt by humans to build a Jewish homeland – a task that should be performed only by God and by His Messiah. Furthermore, of course, the deportations and emigration – both forced and voluntary – create both physical and emotional exiles for all of the characters in some way. Grief itself is a form of exile too, as it separates the person who is suffering from the world around her. Marriage – intended as a unifying event that furthers community and tradition – becomes a breeding ground for exile when secrets keep husbands and wives and parents and children from fully knowing one another. Also, Zalman and Hannah’s oldest daughter Atara grows up questioning her faith and eventually leaves the Hasidic community, causing her family to mourn her and consider her dead – another form of exile.
The two primary plot devices in this novel are marriages and trains. The Hasidic community that these characters live in practices arranged marriages, a fact that allows Markovits to use marriage in the way it is often used in Shakespeare comedies and nineteenth-century novels – as a way to ensure safety for individuals and continuity of the community’s traditions. In Shakespeare’s comedies, marriage solves all problems. In this novel, the Hasidic community is determined to bear children and raise large, devout families in order to begin to heal after the carnage of the Holocaust. However, when Mila and Josef (yes, Mila and Josef end up married – one of the novel’s many Dickens-esque coincidences) are unable to bear children after ten years, they each plan their own way to take their fertility into their own hands, leading to an O. Henry ending of sorts. Except that it doesn’t come at the end of the novel. It comes in the middle.
Throughout the novel, trains serve as a powerful reminder of the Holocaust. The train that Mila’s parents saw moments before their death, from which they tried to rescue their rebbe, was not what it appeared. Mila and Josef learn much later that this particular rebbe arranged to have himself and his family taken to safety in return for his assurances that the rest of his community would cooperate with the authorities in all aspects of their deportation – in other words, he traded the lives of his entire community for his own life and those of his family, a terrible betrayal for the leader of a close-knit community of faith. And as the novel goes forward, trains are consistently associated with betrayal and lies and treachery. Nothing good happens in this novel around trains.
This is a very balanced novel, if that makes sense. It feels both European and American, both traditional and modern – and, yes, both “male” and “female,” whatever that means. And as I look back over what I’ve written here, I realize that the review I’ve written isn’t “balanced” at all. In fact, I really haven’t done this book justice at all when it comes to examining its characters and structure. I do think there’s a chance that I’ve interested you in this book enough to make you seek it out and possibly read it – and I hope you will. This novel is worth your time. I also know that I understand myself as a reader a little better as a result of writing this review, and I plan to think a lot over the next few days and weeks about the role of fear in determining the “gender” of a novel and also about the way male and female authors tend to use irony (a topic I really didn’t explore here at all, although I wanted to). And I hope you found these meditations and memories entertaining and thought-provoking, and not quite as self-indulgent as I fear you might find them. I also hope it’s clear that everything I’ve written about “man books” and “woman books” was subjective and more than a little tongue in cheek,” and while I’ve been truthful in describing my own reactions I don’t have any illusion that anything I’ve said here could stand up to much logical scrutiny. And if I’ve been irreverent about some writers whose achievements are worthy of more respect than I have shown them here, I hope at least it was clear that I was mocking myself more.
Have a good day, friends. Happy reading.
Bethany, I have read several of your essays/book reviews on this site and I have loved reading them. You and your writing amaze me. Keep on writing and I’ll keep on reading. Thanks!!! Mary Fran
Thanks so much, Mary Fran – your encouragement means a lot! I will definitely keep writing. I have also been doing some personal narrative/memoir-style writing on my other blog, http://sixmoreweeksofwinter.com if you would like to check it out. I’ve been bad about keeping that site up to date ever since Jill and I started this one, but I plan to change that sometime soon. I always appreciate your comments and love to hear from you and Tim. Hope all is well!
I will immediately order this book from the library! Your essay was very interesting, definitely going to think about my own book biases, and see if they follow gender lines. I certainly related to the types of books you prefer. I often wonder about men and women writing from each other’s points of view, and whether one or the other is better at it, but I have not done any systematic thinking about it.
Maria, do read it if you can. I think you would like it. Rereading my review, it strikes me that in summary this novel seems like a big thick Dickensian man novel, with multiple families and multiple generations and all the traveling, but when I was reading it I didn’t have that impression at all. It had the pace and the intensity and the intimacy of a woman book. Makes me think it would be an interesting project to take A Tale of Two Cities or Bleak House and retell it in woman mode…
I have just read this book, and it was very good indeed. Philip read it, in fact finished it before me, and thought it was very good. Since he reads very few novels, I consider that real praise. I don’t mind short sections. In this book, I was impressed with how much she could convey with few sentences. Having now read 4 books with hassidic jews in them, I feel much more informed. Philip says there is also an article recently in the New York Review of books
about Jewish collaborators, including those mentioned in this book.
I completely agree with your characteristics of “woman books.” The interesting thing is that even though I love books by women (generally–I have become much more amenable to reading books by men in the past few years) I really hate some of the things that make a book a “woman book.” For example, I hate it when books have overly detailed descriptions of the mundane details of a person’s life. I hate it when someone spends too much time describing an outfit. I loathe narration in the present tense. I find it intrusive. I don’t notice it as much as I used to, but when I notice it, I am annoyed. And I hate it when I don’t know anything about the setting of a novel. Yes, it matters where these people are! But I love short chapters/frequent page breaks. And I love it when people are still mad about stuff that happened in their childhoods. Because I, too, am still angry about some stuff that happened to me when I was a child.
I feel like Mary Doria Russell describes setting well, as does Alice Munro. But then I wouldn’t call them writers of “woman books.”
There definitely isn’t a direct correspondence between an author’s gender and the gender of his/her books. Barbara Kingsolver is another female writer who comes to mind who conveys setting really well and in general doesn’t write woman novels – although her novels are sympathetic to women and deal with “women’s issues.” Off the top of my head, I can only think of one male writer who writes what I would call woman books: Milan Kundera. But there are probably more.
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Maria – You hint at something interesting that I think is probably true: when the “woman book” technique is done well, there is so much implied in the details that are given that we feel as if we have read a “man book.” It doesn’t always happen that way, though. I’m glad that you and Philip liked the book!
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