Wednesday 24 January 2018

Memorable year for our feministas

Novels, stories, essays and memoirs depicting the female experience are trending for 2018, tapping into the post #MeToo zeitgeist

Kristen Roupenian, who wrote 'Cat Person', which was the most-clicked story ever on the New Yorker website and she has since signed a lucrative book deal
Kristen Roupenian, who wrote 'Cat Person', which was the most-clicked story ever on the New Yorker website and she has since signed a lucrative book deal

Claire Coughlan

Last year was memorable for many weird, wonderful and worrying reasons. From a literary standpoint, it will be remembered as the year in which a singular short story went viral.

In December, The New Yorker magazine published Cat Person, a piece of fiction about a disastrous date, by debut writer Kristen Roupenian.

It spent the whole following week trending on Twitter, was the most-clicked story ever on the New Yorker website, and its author subsequently signed a seven-figure book deal for her debut collection.

Irish novelist John Boyne also created a spark in the dying embers of the year when he wrote in The Guardian that women are better writers than men because "having been expected to bring up families while running a home and catering to society's expectations of what women should be, they have a better grasp of human complexity".

Of course, Irish writers have been depicting the female experience for decades. Authors like Marian Keyes and Cathy Kelly have made global names for themselves with their novels about modern Irish women, despite often being dismissed as 'chick lit'.

The late Maeve Binchy was also an acute chronicler of Irish women's lives, especially the 'rage' that pervaded them.

Professor Margaret Kelleher, chair of Anglo-Irish literature at UCD, wrote an essay on Binchy last year, in which she cited an early review of Binchy's Victoria Line (1980) by Clancy Sigal in the magazine New Society.

The review is held amongst Binchy's papers in the archives at UCD. Sigal wrote of Binchy's work: "Her real concern is rage, the wily and often fiendish ploys women resort to in a male-dominated world, where the men are moral and emotional shadows despite their political power.

"So Binchy's women have to take up the slack, which they do with a vengeance." During her lifetime, Binchy's novels, such as Circle of Friends and Light a Penny Candle, were often classed as 'cosy' - although devoted readers will know that they were anything but, as they covered the gamut of female experiences such as abortion, marital infidelity, emigration, bereavement and loneliness.

Cecelia Ahern, who has achieved international success with novels such as PS I Love You and The Gift, looks set to take up Binchy's mantle with a new feminist-themed short story collection. ROAR (HarperCollins, August); is described by Ahern as a "passion project," which was "five years in the making".

Ahern said: "With 30 women and 30 stories, ROAR holds a fun mirror up to reality, to the moments when we're overwhelmed by guilt, confusion, frustration, intimidation, nostalgia, invisibility, and the private moments when we feel the need to roar." The female protagonist in Cat Person perhaps generated so much debate because her likeability factor was negligible.

Louise O'Neill's new novel, Almost Love (riverrun, March) - her first for adults - has been described by Marian Keyes as "a bold and honest depiction of obsessive love".

There is a growing sense that female characters don't necessarily have to be 'likeable' in order to be compelling.

The heroine of O'Neill's second YA novel, Emma, in Asking For It, wasn't considered to be particularly likeable, but she was a hugely compelling, thought-provoking character nonetheless, which is surely more important for a reader's investment in the story.

Cat Person seems to have tapped into a post #MeToo zeitgeist, where women's bodily autonomy is gaining consciousness - in Ireland, this is reflected in the Repeal the Eighth movement.

Following the #MeToo trend - which was to share experiences of rape and sexual assault on social media in the wake of allegations against Harvey Weinstein - is Not That Bad, an anthology of essays on rape culture edited by Roxane Gay (HarperCollins, May).

Red Clocks, by Leni Zumas (Borough Press, March) is pitched as "The Handmaid's Tale for this generation". In the novel, "abortion is once again illegal in America, in-vitro fertilization is banned and the Personhood Amendment grants rights of life, liberty and property to every embryo. In a small Oregon fishing town, five very different women navigate these new barriers".

There's also a power rising, it seems, in shining a light on the dark corners of the psyche, post #MeToo. So-called 'confessional' journalism used to be seen as a distinctly female pursuit, and writing about the self was not deemed on a par with 'proper' reportage.

This year's coming memoirs range from the light-hearted - Everything I Know about Love, by Dolly Alderton (Penguin, February), to the moving - You Left Early (Borough Press, June) is novelist Louisa Young's account of "being in love with an alcoholic and what can happen".

Celeb memoirs also got a whole lot more interesting - the woman who began the brace of allegations against Harvey Weinstein, actress Rose McGowan, is publishing her memoir this year, Brave (HarperCollins, January); while Hollywood legend Sally Field's memoir In Pieces (Simon & Schuster) will land in the autumn.

Sunday Independent

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