Difficult Women
December 15, 2018 3:26 AM   Subscribe

The Pleasure of Difficulty by Davis Smith-Brecheisen

At least since Mark Twain panned Jane Austen, readers and critics have long described the work of women authors in terms of the attractiveness of its characters or style, praising or criticizing their novels for failing to connect with their readership .... The point, rather, is to highlight the continuity between the contract model and the criteria by which works by women writers — from Jane Austen through Brooke-Rose and Lynne Tillman — are too often judged. These assumptions virtually exclude women from conversations about experimental or ambitious fiction.
posted by chavenet (7 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I've never heard of Christine Brooke-Rose before, but this essay makes it sound like her books are exactly my cup of tea. Putting her on the top of my reading list!

(and nice oulipo tag, despite the group not being explictly mentioned in the essay.)
posted by hopeless romantique at 4:10 AM on December 15, 2018 [4 favorites]

As an illustration of Brooke-Rose not having a huge US audience, it turns out that there are exactly zero books of hers at the Portland library.
posted by hopeless romantique at 4:16 AM on December 15, 2018 [3 favorites]

Thanks for posting this! I had not heard of Brooke-Rose.

I'm reflecting on times when I had trouble reading, understanding, appreciating, or enjoying a work of fiction. I think I've gotten better at assessing what's up, like, "this is not for me right now because I'm in a mood for something more immediately accessible" versus "this is not for me probably ever because I always have a tough time with [this characteristic, e.g., a very unpleasant point-of-view character]" versus "maybe I should seek out online and friend discussion about this thing to try to get a handle on it". Watching a lot of art film helped, I think, because that gave me more confidence that I could get through weird stuff and maybe find something to like or appreciate, or just say "well I didn't care for that" and move on.
Where Gaddis’s art, despite its perceived difficulty, fosters a “direct personal relationship” with its readership, Brooke-Rose’s idea of good art really is one whose value is “independent of how many people are able to appreciate it.” The meaning of the work, in other words, is autonomous from the reader’s response to it just as it is autonomous from the market, governed instead by its own set of rules. The real importance of Brooke-Rose’s work in the history of the novel is not that she is a particularly difficult status writer, but that for her status and the appeal to the reader go hand in hand and are equally irrelevant. If there is a kind of recondite pleasure here, it emerges from meeting the work on its own terms. It is one thing, I mean, to write difficult fiction that appeals to a reader who “gets” difficult fiction — as Gaddis does — and it is something different to make a difficult work in which the reader’s relationship to the work is at best secondary, and at most irrelevant — as Brooke-Rose does.
I'm also wondering what clues I should look for, in more "challenging"/"difficult"/"experimental" fiction, that the author is kind of uninterested in whether I (the reader) can appreciate it (as opposed to "they're rooting for me and would be happier if I were picking up what they were laying down"). Maybe that's only perceptible in metadata, like book blurbs and forewords and so on, not in the text itself.
posted by brainwane at 5:10 AM on December 15, 2018

Thank you for posting this! I first heard of Christine Brooke-Rose in a sort of bibliography to a 1998 fiction collection from Dalkey Archive--a list of 101 suggested readings that I re-sorted by a combination of number of readers and average rating at Goodreads a few years ago. The selection and the Goodreads sort reflect biases described here in multiple ways.

But given that it calls out two women named in the article and shares a focus on "late-modernist or postmodern novels," the others seem relevant: Angela Carter, Nights at the Circus; Carole Maso, Ava; Janice Galloway, The Trick is to Keep Breathing; Kathy Acker, Empire of the Senseless; Marguerite Young, Miss MacIntosh, My Darling; Rikki Ducornet, Phosphor in Dreamland; Karen Elizabeth Gordon, Red Shoes and Other Tattered Tales; Ann Quin, Tripticks; Christine Brooke-Rose, Thru; Carol de Chellis Hill, Henry James' Midnight Song; Nathalie Sarraute, Do You Hear Them?; Brigid Brophy, In Transit; Gabrielle Burton, Heartbreak Hotel; Luisa Valenzuela, He Who Searches; Susan Daitch, L.C.; Julieta Campos, The Fear of Losing Eurydice; Eva Figes, Ghosts; and Margaret Mitchell Dukore, A Novel Called Heritage. Djuna Barnes and Gertrude Stein were in the collection itself.

Speaking more personally, other difficult/experimental prose by women comes to mind pretty readily if you allow work sharing borders with poetry/essays, e.g. Lyn Hejinian, My Life; Bernadette Mayer, Proper Name and Other Stories; Elizabeth Smart, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept; Clarice Lispector, Água Viva; or Susan Howe, My Emily Dickinson or The Quarry. I'd love to hear further suggestions.
posted by cpound at 5:56 AM on December 15, 2018 [15 favorites]

Thank you cpound for sharing all of those.

I'll offer Alice Notley to the group (poetry, prose poems, and essays).
posted by kokaku at 6:13 AM on December 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

Moonwise Greer Gilman

Difficult fantasy-- just about every paragraph involves references to poetry, other fantasy, mythology, folk music.... The plot involves two women, their world building, and two difficult goddess.

I've taken a crack at annotating it, and I've gotten about seven chapters in.

I think it was written to be read, but is only going to attract a small audience. I'm amazed it was first published by a commercial publisher.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 7:25 AM on December 15, 2018 [10 favorites]

The article did mention Acker as an exception to the tendency of women's experimental prose being unrecognized.
posted by idiopath at 7:39 AM on December 15, 2018

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