Where we delve into the themes behind the writing
Welcome to A Narrative of their Own, where I discuss the work of 20th century women writers and their relevance to contemporary culture.
This week, I’m trying something new. I thought it might be interesting to return to some of the themes on my Sunday newsletters, as I often get some thought-provoking comments and questions, as well as suggestions for further reading and research.
With this in mind (and in line with my ongoing research into women’s narratives) there often feels like more to be said on a theme, text, or writer.
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My Sunday newsletter this week on the work and activism of Tillie Olsen threw up some interesting themes: Does it matter if a writer uses some ‘poetic license’ within their writing lives, as it seems that Olsen did? Do we automatically trust an author with their words - whether writing in fact or fiction - or do you see reading as a more collaborative experience, designed to entertain? And what about the ongoing theme of mother/writers?
“Tillie Olsen’s legacy leaves behind confusion and controversy. Though a lively and humorous speaker, she appears to have fabricated some of the issues she writes about in her essays.”
It could be argued in the case of Olsen, for example, that her ‘fabrications’ may have been a necessary aid to the work she was later able to achieve. Further, as I suggested towards the end of my essay, it may be that she simply colluded in the ideal others projected onto her:
“Many of the books she professed to be writing also likely did not exist, however, it has been suggested that some of this was down to the projection of her adoring fans, who looked to her as a feminist hero who had overcome adversity. Critics have suggested that the collusion amongst the public led to Olsen’s acceptance as a heroic figure, and that she in turn readily accepted this part.”
I have discussed before this issue around feminist icons and our expectations of them in my essay ‘The Right Kind of Feminist’, discussing the work of Simone de Beauvoir and Susan Sontag. Sometimes, perhaps as readers or ‘fans’, we may look to such writers as an authority on the ideas we hold dear. In this way, we expect them to uphold the values we feel they represent (and therefore which are presumably important to us as readers) at all costs, often overlooking the very fact that they are human, and that it is perhaps this human-ness which drew us to them in the first place.
“Her interest in the lives and work of neglected women’s writing was to go on to inspire the introduction of academic programmes into women’s studies in the US.”
In the case of Tillie Olsen, her writing, talks and ideas influenced the 1960s and 70s women’s movement, led to the reassessment of women’s writing, and the inauguration of the original feminist press. Without her work and discussions around the roles of women and mothers, as well as the poorest within her community and racial prejudices, we may not have seen the introduction of neglected women’s writing on academic programmes into women’s studies.
One subscriber commented: “What an amazing look at the way a life’s struggles can lead to great writing, if motivated with a cause,” and perhaps this is one way of sifting through the possibilities that whilst some of Olsen’s ‘details’ (such as her father’s non-existent job in a meat-packing factory) may have been fabricated (deliberately or not) to add emphasis to her working-class, immigrant upbringing, she may have felt she required the added gravitas of this to forward the cause of the poor amongst which she lived.
Turning to one of Olsen’s other defining themes - women’s difficulties in writing or working when burdened with childcare and domestic responsibilities - within her story ‘I stand here ironing’ she brings us a visceral example of the difficulties and shame around these issues.
“The story explores the limited childcare options for a working class woman who needs to work, something which is still discussed as an issue today. The story featured in Olsen’s collection Tell me a Riddle in 1961 and became one of the foremost pieces of work for which Olsen was remembered.”
I explored some of these ideas in my earlier post Wife. Mother. Other as well as within my discussion with Dr Kathleen Waller on The Matterhorn podcast. Within these discussions we come back to the idea that the societal expectations put on mothers are often quite different and apart from the ones placed on fathers (though both can have detrimental expectations).
Many contemporary writers are still debating these ideas, including Zadie Smith, Lauren Sandler and Rebecca Mead, and I believe will continue to do so within a culture which favours paid work over caring responsibilities and the domestic labour that so often (still) falls to women.
There was also an interesting comment from one subscriber who felt that, having grown up in the 1950s, something had perhaps been lost by women returning to work during the pre-school years, whilst also acknowledging that this wasn’t always a choice. As someone who has experienced both stay-at-home mothering and combining work with childcare, I am sure that this is a debate that we will continue to have for many years to come.
What do you think about the ideas here? Do you have anything further to add, either about your feelings on ‘truth telling’ by writers, or the way women’s writing or choices generally are often held to deeper scrutiny? I’d love to hear in the comments!
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