Writing Secrets: It’s okay to focus on the personal

 In Jo-Anne Richard's blog, Tips for Writers

I read something about literature the other day which warmed my heart. It’s something I’ve always believed and which I think holds great lessons for writers.

Here’s an extract from the article, by Anna Momigliano, which appeared in the New York Times:

ROME — In Italy, literary fiction has long been considered a man’s game. Publishers, critics and prize committees have dismissed books by women as chick lit and beach reads. They scoffed at Elena Ferrante, the author of My Brilliant Friend, as the writer of mere page-turners.

Then Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels became an international sensation, selling over 11 million copies, inspiring an acclaimed HBO series and cementing her reputation as the most successful Italian novelist in years. Her ascent, and the rediscovery of some of the last century’s great Italian female writers, has encouraged a new wave of women and shaken the country’s literary establishment. Women writers here are winning prestigious prizes, getting translated and selling copies.

Their achievements have set off a wider debate in Italy about what constitutes literature in a country where self-referential virtuosity is often valued over storytelling, emotional resonance and issues like sexism or gender roles.

And not only in Italy. My first novel was recently rereleased as a Picador Africa Heritage Classic and, in a new essay at the start, I set out my experiences as a woman writer, from when it first appeared in the ‘90s.

There were many attempts to categorise me as “just a women’s writer”, and my novels as less literary than the “more muscular” or starker works of men, focusing on men’s issues:

At the time, and at moments in my career, I felt the criticism keenly on a personal level. Now I find it galling on a more political plane – because of the casual sexism it implies. To call me a ‘women’s writer’ is insulting, and yet why? Does this imply men read more serious works?

Women form the bulk of the fiction-buying public. Book clubs – associated mainly with women – are what keep many booksellers in business. No matter the proportion of intellectualism to enjoyment each may apply to literature, they engage with books on a passionate level.

I truly believe that it’s through personal narratives – stories that focus small, on individuals, their concerns and their lives – that we are able to explore the human condition. And what on earth makes the lives and concerns of women less literary, or serious? Jane Austen focused largely on women, and their search for love, yet her stories showed us so much more about her larger society, its manners and mores.

It’s the way you write it, surely, which provides depth or gravity. In keeping your focus tight, choosing the ‘personal’ narrative, you follow in the footsteps of many writers, male and female, who have shown us the lives of individuals in order to provide a sense of the larger society.

Momigliano continues:

Once we were more reluctant to write about certain topics, fearing they could be labeled as ‘women’s stuff,’” said Veronica Raimo, author of the novel The Girl at the Door, an exploration of marriage, pregnancy and sexual assault allegations that was translated into English this year.

“There was this idea that stories told by women couldn’t be universal. But that’s changing.”

So cheers to the Italian literary world, and to the women writers who have become so successful they can no longer be ignored.

I’ll be overjoyed if the “Ferrante effect” spreads, and if it signals an end to the tired old habit of viewing tightly focused human stories – particularly about women – as a “women’s thing”, or a lesser kind of writing.

In the meantime, we should simply take it back – and view our concerns proudly, and as worthy subjects for fiction.

Read Richard’s latest blog: ‘Monday Motivation: Lest we take ourselves too seriously

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