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Disease as Plot and “Women’s Fiction.”

July 7, 2012

I”m trying to form thoughts about reading a book that’s primarily focused on a story about sisters and their emotional connection. And feeling like it’s a one-note thing dealing with wallowing in their miseries, and in one character’s illness.

I feel like… that’s endemic of a genre targeted to women. Focusing on sadness and catharsis, but then it’s a genre described as “women overcoming,” but… I feel like I’m not reading the same triumphant narrative they’re describing. I’m reading a book about slowly deconstructed misery and fractured relationships. Of women suffering in very specific, culturally mediated and prescribed ways. Because it’s women’s fiction.

If you read my ramblings and have anything to add or ask, or a reference to something I can read for further insights, I would welcome it, please leave a comment.

I admit it. I read a lot of genre fiction. Mysteries. Historical fiction. Adventure. Science fiction.

And those genres have their character cliches clearly cut, even their counter-cliches: Hero, villain, spunky woman hero, sidekick best friend.

It bothers me that “women’s fiction,” uses a gender to define a genre. And a very specifically delineated set of emotions.

I find that having taken my YA Genre Lit class, and read Joyce Saricks’ discussion of appeal factors in reading and recommending books… I come a little closer to figuring out the appeal of a genre I don’t particularly care for: women’s fiction, or chick lit. The Adult Reading Round Table has a useful breakdown of the genre. My excerpt below selects some of the points particularly pertinent to what I’m thinking.

Issue-Driven titles are darker, dealing with family problems and issues–more “hot topic,” Oprah-esque tales.
Classic Authors: Elizabeth Cadell, Mary McCarthy, Rosamunde Pilcher, Helen Van Slyke

CHARACTERISTICS: These are novels exploring the lives of female protagonists, with a focus on their relationships with family, friends, and lovers.

I get that the emotional work of the characters, their losses and struggles and connections, are the driving force of the story. Towards sorrow or happiness. But I tend to read a story in this genre and feel at best, manipulated. (Sometimes surly and manipulated while I’m having a good weep over a book that got to me, but manipulated nonetheless.) Or cynical that the author is jerking me around.

And yet… I’m at least outwardly in the target demographic. Thirtysomething woman living in a city. Maybe thinking about how love works, maybe not feeling as grown up as I could have planned.

So I get that the emotional appeal of a book, and a good cry at a character’s struggle and emotional misery can be… cathartic, compelling, instructive, a good read. And I’d be willing to let it go as a case of “eh, not my genre,” but I am also trying to form questions about how the emotional appeal plays out.

What does it mean to read a book that moves slowly, meditatively, through a character’s story of loss and grief, and feel impatient with wallowing in the sadness? I get that it’s not my genre, in terms of familiarity or appeal.

But I also wonder about deconstructing the appeal of novels that romanticize a chance tragedy and its victim,  like, say cancer. (Love Story, anyone?) Tempted to dig about in journals at Pratt to see what’s being written, academically, about the plot tropes in Lifetime movies.

In college and after, I joked about doing a paper documenting the sorts of diseases that befell heroines of Lifetime movies, as if they were some kind of statistical population. For one thing, the cancer cluster would be off the charts… and it would be interesting to map the incidence of domestic violence, to track how that narrative has shifted. Never actually did that paper because I’m far too squeamish to watch that many hospital bed scenes.

I’m sure someone has done something like it.

I should go back and reread Illness as Metaphor, because I’m sure there’s a way to connect the dots, using Sontag’s incisive elegance about the discourse of women’s bodies and illness and narrative and expectation. c

Also: I need to write a review of The Fault In Our Stars, by John Green, which I read at the start of my YA Genre class. I appreciated it precisely because it took the maudlin cancer-romance subgenre to task with such sarcasm.

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