Saturday, February 21, 2015

Sickly Sweet: Wildly Successful Female Narratives

Whether it’s called chick-lit or mommy porn, narratives written for women are treated with grave disrespect by the publishing industry and the wider public, especially erotica. Erotica written exclusively for women is rare, and when it exists it’s pink-i-fied, covered in vanilla and perceived to be much harder to create than it actually is; a Red Velvet Cake if you will.

Erotica written for men is Victoria Sponge of course; totally vanilla, lots of cream, the tiniest smear of delicious red jam. Heterosexual male erotica is so mainstream prizes could be given out at Rural Fetes for the best out of an array made from a completely standard recipe.

In a world of written and visual erotica that does not care to cater for our desires nor our gaze, women are adept at sustaining a sexual imagination by living off erotic crumbs that fall from the table of male-centric literature. In fact, everyone whose sexual practice is not that of a heterosexual male is trying to live off erotic crumbs.

Reductive and derogatory genre labels aside, narratives written by women for women are stereotyped from the start of a reader’s education to the moment a reader lays eyes on a book written by a woman. Literature’s problem with women starts because the classics of literature, as taught in the school and university curriculum, are oriented almost exclusively around male authors, characters and narratives.

Hosting a Perth Writers Festival panel today, Aviva Tuffield, one of the founders of The Stella Prize, explained that the prize was set up because female authors were underrepresented on the school literature curriculum across Australia. Two of the three Stella Prize long listed authors on the panel, Maxine Beneba Clarke and Alica Pung, spoke eloquently of writing diverse female characters they wanted their child, and indeed all children, to read and recognise.

The Stella Prize also seeks to correct the under-representation of female authors in the literary magazines, given that books by women were being reviewed less and given shorter reviews. On another panel at the Festival, Georgina Penney discussed the industry conventions of marketing any book written by a woman that contain a love story as a romance, not matter what the literary style of the book.

In a world of readers brought up on male literature and ghettoised female authors, there are still female narratives that break all the rules to become bestsellers. The problem with wildly successful narratives that reinforce old stereotypes while breaking others, however, is that one exceptional example of a diverse genre is then seen as the exemplar of that genre.

When a book by a woman for women becomes a best seller, it is assumed that the women buying it want exact replicas of the successful formula that broke the glass ceiling. Two such juggernauts of female-centred literature are represented in Australia this week. Even a quick glance at the output of Elizabeth Gilbert and EL James teaches us a lot about the curse of the successful female narrative.

Elizabeth Gilbert sold 10 million copies of her memoir Eat Pray Love that saw her find love with a man after a life-changing journey through food, travel and spirituality. EL James sold 70 million copies of a book of Fifty Shades of Grey in which a woman finds love with a man after letting him tell her what to eat and how to accept his love, all while frequently addressing her inner goddess.

Both successful formulas followed the age old narrative allowed to women; settling down with a man after an acceptable length of time experiencing the world. What is not considered is that women are so starved of respect for their stories that they will endure any amount of bad writing or stereotypical narratives to be able to read a book in which they are represented on the page.

In contrast to the giant of chick-lit that is Eat Pray Love, what Fifty Shades of Grey did when it left out the vanilla icing and went straight for the erotica, was serve up a moist, velvety cake just for the straight ladies. The ladies basically ate slices and slices of the cake, had a bit of a lie down, then got back up to eat more.

Women made Eat Pray Love and Fifty Shades of Grey bestsellers for the same reason Frozen rules children’s movie right now, women are so starved for our own stories that we gorge on the few that are allowed to us. It doesn’t mean we are not achingly interested in diversity in the literature and erotica written for us.

The truth of the matter is that we crave innovation in our stories, and if you look at the market hungry for any stories for women by women, it makes sense to cater for that market with more good stories. We just don’t want any of the old prejudices to stand in the way of us baking our cake and eating it too.
When is kinky sex not kinky sex? When it's Fifty Shades of Grey ...
What is literally legislated as "alternative" sexual practise encompasses homosexual, bisexual, transsexual, pansexual and asexual practises. These include means for those with limits to their physical sexual capacity through illness, injury or trauma to enjoy erotic play and sexual release. For those who have limits to their intellectual or emotional sexual capacity, expanded techniques allow for their particular erotic needs outside the strictly physical. As people age, their erotic and sexual requirements change, no one escapes the ravages of time. Open discussion of all techniques mean personal sexual practise can change whether it is out of choice or necessity.

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