This is a transcript of the talk given by Lucy Neave at the Feminartsy & Ainslie and Gorman Arts Centre event, Myth-busting Women and Literature, in August 2015.
The myth I’m busting is: ‘Women writers are too preoccupied with frivolous topics – hence, chick lit.’
I would like to bust this myth in true myth-busters fashion, preferably with explosives, as Jamie and Adam kind of bust the myth that a room filled with methane gas can be blown up by placing a magazine in an electric toaster and turning it on.
The contention is that women writers—and by implication readers—are concerned with trivial and frivolous topics. As a male writer once said to me at a party—a famous and political South African writer—‘there’s too much kitchen sink fiction published these days’.
‘Kitchen sink fiction’: he’d had a few drinks, we shouldn’t hold him entirely responsible for this phrase, which has lodged in my mind, even though it was spoken almost ten years ago. I interpreted this phrase as being a statement about women’s (or men’s, I suppose) writing about the domestic sphere, although I may have been wrong. To a man who had been imprisoned under the apartheid regime, the domestic might have seemed like a luxury. ‘Kitchen Sink fiction’ connoted the kind of fiction written by people who had lived a comfortable and privileged existence.
While the domestic and the kitchen sink in particular are arguably sites of privilege, the domestic could never be construed as wholly separable from the world outside the kitchen or its sink. Rather than viewing the domestic space as being divorced from important events and subjects, questions about the spaces women traditionally occupy and supposedly write about are a nexus for some of the most important literature written in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, on the basis that these spaces allow for discussion of issues like gender, class, race, sexual orientation and the relationship between the individual and the state in a world where governance in even apparently democratic countries appears to be becoming increasingly autocratic.
Unfortunately this is not what I said at a party almost ten years ago. Unfortunately, what I said was, Yes. That’s right. There’s way too much kitchen sink literature being published these days. Perhaps the man didn’t want me to agree with him; perhaps he wanted an argument. I was certainly, and perhaps regrettably, thinking of the writing I was doing as serious. It was about cold war biological weapons research. My fiction would not, ever, fall under the heading of ‘frivolous’ or ‘chick lit’ or be something that could be metaphorically linked to sinks.
This is an issue facing emerging and impressionable writers. The devaluation of writing by or about women distorts writers’ thinking about valid subjects for fiction.
The main problem with the contention that women write about frivolous or trivial topics, and here I’m trying to get the concentration of methane gas entering the room right, which was the issue with Jamie and Adam’s initial attempt to make a magazine in a toaster cause a massive explosion. The main problem, of course, is not that women—or men—write kitchen sink fiction, but that it is trivialized. Its treatment as frivolous not only denigrates women writers, but also their readership, a readership which is portrayed as passive, undiscerning, consumerist. But is chicklit really as frivolous and uncritical as it is made out to be?
A PhD student in English at ANU–where I work– Imogen Matthew, is studying chick lit, in particular the work of Anita Heiss. In Am I Black Enough for You? (2012) Heiss writes that the ‘non-indigenous female market is her key audience’. Her books are about women who she says are urban, educated, articulate, career-minded and aboriginal; she ‘wanted to write these women into Australian literature because they did not exist in any genre’. In a way, Heiss is using the ‘chicklit’ or ‘choclit’ genre, as she calls it, as a Trojan horse. Through her commercial fiction, she doesn’t want to simply raise the consciousness of white middle class readers, she wants to ‘use her storylines to challenge notions of what it means to be Aboriginal in the twenty-first century’. It’s hard to argue that this kind of literature is frivolous—and actually, I could give a whole other talk about the benefits of a little frivolity anyway. Heiss’s protagonists move through and between private and public spaces; her books take her readers to New York and Paris, on shopping expeditions and to book club meetings. Her books have commercial appeal, and depict strong, intelligent, career-minded aboriginal women, and by this means ask her white readership to confront their quite possibly racist preconceptions about indigenous people. Nor are reader responses, studied by Imogen Matthew, homogenous or uncritical.
In order to stick the magazine in the toaster, though, there’s an obvious point to make to counter the idea that women’s writing is frivolous. I am not claiming that women who have written—as I aspired to write—about science or public life–did so simply to be taken seriously as writers, or because they had internalized the cultural value attributed to such writing. An example my South African friend–who is already more a figment of my imagination than a real bearded, grey-haired ex-revolutionary–would have to agree was not overtly writing about kitchens or sinks was war correspondent and novelist, Martha Gellhorn. She occupied and claimed a thoroughly un-frivolous space, the space of war.
Gellhorn covered several twentieth century wars, from the Spanish Civil war to the wars in Central America. She writes in the first edition of The Face of War, which is a compendium of her reports from various front lines, of the horror she has seen and the futility of her profession. In discussing her witnessing and writing about the rise of fascism in Europe, she says: ‘For all the good our articles did, they might have been written in invisible ink, printed on leaves and loosed to the wind’.
She goes on to say:
After the war in Finland, I thought of journalism as a passport…I could not fool myself that my war correspondent’s work mattered a hoot. War is a malignant disease, an idiocy, a prison and the pain it causes is beyond telling or imagining.
These are pessimistic quotations, I’m sorry. It’s clear from Gellhorn’s introduction that she started out as an idealistic American journalist and became a thoughtful correspondent who observed her readership, her fellow reporters, and herself. I don’t want to make her sound like a saint; she wasn’t. In her writing about the fight for independence on the part of Indonesians from the Dutch after world war 2, her sympathies appear to lie with Dutch colonists, whom she regards as benign paternal figures in their dealings with the ‘natives’. 
What is interesting about Gellhorn, though, is that she was not only an extraordinary reporter –the only woman who managed to report from the D-Day landing, from which women journalists were banned. Her later war writing returns again and again to the effects of war on the domestic sphere. She talks to women in Vietnam and Nicaragua, and in a very real way it is her evocation of war’s disruption of the domestic space that is affecting. She attempts to ‘keep the record straight’; she views her investigations as a ‘form of honourable behaviour’, which in the end is the only thing that she thinks war correspondence can achieve. Through careful accretion of details about women, men and young people who are trying to survive terrible circumstances, Gellhorn shows the reader the impact of the wars she covers on these people, who are humanized through her reporting. As a result, her articles are still emotionally affecting, are more than ‘leaves loosed to the wind’ forty or sixty years later.
Gellhorn is therefore an example of someone who wrote about a distinctly unfrivolous subject, war, and portrays conflict as destructive of the place which is traditionally regarded as a refuge, the home.
It is not necessary to write about war, though, to address topics which aren’t officially –and problematically –regarded as frivolous. Nor do I intend to construct a narrative about a series of exceptional writers who took on serious topics. Women writing about apparently trivial–or culturally sanctioned–subjects have been addressing issues around private and public life for hundreds of years. The list of women writing meaningfully about everything and anything, from a range of cultural viewpoints and positions with respect to power–and using their writing to affect minor but revolutionary changes in, around and far from kitchen sinks is long.
As I began this talk by speaking about Anita Heiss’s chicklit, I will end it by talking further about fiction which is apparently domestic or centred on trivial women’s issues. Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping (1980) would appear to be about the keeping of a house. The title suggests that the novel is rooted in the domestic sphere. All of the important characters in the novel are women. The novel focuses on two sisters, Lucille and Ruth, whose mother commits suicide and who are left in the care of a series of relatives, and finally their mother’s sister, Sylvie, in a town in Idaho.
The book has been ‘claimed as a feminist work on the grounds that it rejects a symbolic, patriarchal order and the primacy of male characters;’ almost all of the interactions are between women, between the sisters Ruth and Lucille and their female relatives. The book depicts not so much good housekeeping as the failure to live up to traditional domestic responsibilities and the movement of its characters between interior spaces beset by flood and entropy and a natural world which is similarly afflicted. It gives women’s experiences and relationships primacy. Robinson’s fiction, which is poetic, grasps at relationships between characters and the spaces they inhabit, which emerge from the domestic. I am going to read a little from page 116, but the passage is not alone in either its beauty or its consciousness of itself as a piece of fiction:
Lucille would tell this story differently. She would say I fell asleep, but I did not. I simply let the darkness in the sky become coextensive with the darkness in my skull and bowels and bones. Everything that falls upon the eye is apparition, a sheet dropped over the world’s true workings. The nerves and the brain are tricked, and one is left with dreams that these specters loose their hands from ours and walk away, the curve of the back and the swing of the coat so familiar as to imply that they should be permanent fixtures of the world, when in fact nothing is more perishable.
Is this frivolous? How could it be? This is fiction about the illusion that is fiction and the illusion that is life, about impermanence, about death.
And so this is the quiet explosion. The domestic, the everyday, the subjects derided again and again as frivolous by our culture ought not be turned away from. They speak, if only we let them.
Gellhorn, Martha. ‘Introduction to the 1959 Edition.’ The Face of War. 3rd Edition. London: Virago, 1986
Heiss, Anita. Am I Black Enough for You? Sydney: Random House, 2012
King, Kristen. ‘Resurfacings of “The Deeps”: Semiotic Balance in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping.’ Studies in the Novel 28. 4 (Winter 1996): 565-580,
‘Martha Gellhorn’ Wikipedia Page. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martha_Gellhorn
Mythbuster’s Blue Ice’ on youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0QV1zR9kIM0
Robinson, Marilynne. Housekeeping. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980
 See ‘Mythbuster’s Blue Ice’ on youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0QV1zR9kIM0
 Heiss, Anita. Am I Black Enough for You? Sydney: Random House, 2012, p 214
 Heiss, Am I Black Enough for You, p. 214
 Heiss, Am I Black Enough for You, p. 216
 Gellhorn, Martha. ‘Introduction to the 1959 Edition.’ The Face of War. 3rd Edition. London: Virago, 1986, p. viii
 Gellhorn, The Face of War, p. viii
 Gellhorn, The Face of War, p. viii
 ‘Martha Gellhorn’ Wikipedia Page. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martha_Gellhorn
 Gellhorn, The Face of War, p. ix
 King, Kristen. ‘Resurfacings of “The Deeps”: Semiotic Balance in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping.’ Studies in the Novel 28. 4 (Winter 1996): 565-580, p. 565
 Robinson, Marilynne. Housekeeping. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980, p. 116
Image: Adam Thomas