fictive speculation

The place of art in Western culture, along with the role of its makers, is changing. What once partook of the sacred, or at least gestured in its direction, is now no more than bourgeois entertainment. And ever since postmodernism (+ marketing) broadened art’s definition, painting (like etching, sketching etc.) has grown ever more anachronistic – a quaintly dated response to 21st-century existence. Yet even as the institution of art transforms beyond recognition, gender inequality persists (if less so for painters than, say, filmmakers). And this issue lies at the heart of some fine, recent fiction about female visual artists.

As a young art student living in a garret, I used to borrow art monographs from the library, and each life story gave the colour plates an extra dimension. Yet fiction based on the lives of famous artists, however famous the author (Somerset Maugham, Patrick White etc.), didn’t excite me. Not so, fiction based on other historical figures, and the more heretical, the better – Michèle Roberts’s The Wild Girl (1984), the Gospel according to Mary Magdalene, is still a revelation today. But the artists I loved worked miracles I’d witnessed with my own eyes, and the unadorned hard facts of their lives inspired me.

A fictional biography is quite a different beast. Compared to a novel about a subject with a true history, a mock-documentation of a subject who never existed would seem to offer limitless possibility – which Virginia Woolf inventively fulfilled, spanning generations in Orlando (1928), a gender-bending tribute to her lover, Vita Sackville-West. Novelists who’ve done the genre justice this century include Siri Hustvedt and Ruby J Murray. Yet, as fictive biographies of made-up dead female artists, Hustvedt’s The Blazing World (2014) and Murray’s The Biographer’s Lover (2018) could hardly be farther apart.

For starters, Hustvedt’s subject, Harriet Burden, makes her mark on the New York art world while hiding behind the identities of three different men, then lives long enough to see her work acclaimed, but not as hers. Worlds away, Murray’s earthier subject withdraws to paint in suburban obscurity after sustained exclusion from the male-dominated Oz art scene; Edna Cranmer finds fame under her own name but only after her death. A wealthy, well-read urbanite, Burden creates deeply personal conceptual multimedia installations, a far cry from Cranmer, a realist tackling broad social themes on large canvases.

And it’s not just Hustvedt’s and Murray’s subjects that contrast so starkly. These authors – one an eminent feminist academic, the other an early-career novelist and journalist – employ very different forms. While Burden’s biographer keeps a low profile in The Blazing World, Cranmer’s biographer is central; her actions drive the plot of The Biographer’s Lover. Hustvedt constructs The Blazing World as a multi-authored portrait, including a couple of interviews, introduced and footnoted by a genderless editor; Murray gives us all the pleasures of a conventional novel, with chapters about her unnamed, unknown biographer’s journey – from loose idea to major publication – alternating with shorter chapters on Cranmer.

Unlike Hustvedt’s erudite editor (and professor of aesthetics), the hard-up narrator of Murray’s page-turner faces commercial temptation. And her subject, keeping faith with her social realist vision, defies tradition as it pertains to gender, not to painting. Yet Hustvedt can afford to demand more of readers – some of whom have struggled to suspend disbelief, keep track of all the characters, and wade through art-historical references. Her experimental form fits Burden’s controversial work, the masculinity of which, in both scale and scope, proves so convincing that when Burden finally comes clean and claims credit, no-one believes her.

Discrimination becomes more visible in the context of history, assisting reflection on present-day inequities. Yet the question of why, despite feminism, more female artists aren’t recognised remains fertile ground for speculation. According to these novels, lack of talent, commitment and grand ambition isn’t the problem. So what gives?

While both novels transcend reductiveness, Murray’s Cranmer seems to lack the classically male selfishness that Drusilla Modjeska unpacks in her magisterial Stravinsky’s Lunch (1999). In fact, that book, with its gripping biographies of the overlooked Stella Bowen and the self-effacing Grace Cossington Smith, could well have inspired or energised Murray’s project – though as a grandniece of Arthur Boyd, she must have long since done her homework.

Hustvedt rewards readers who aren’t deterred by complexity, presenting Burden in her own words, as well as through diverse narrators. The character who emerges is not just a victim of a sexist establishment, but angry, embittered and unwittingly self-sabotaging. Fuelled by vengeful fantasies, her scheme to make fools of critics backfires when a cruel and enigmatic man takes advantage of her. Someone more self-aware might have seen it coming, yet it feels unfair.

How can women artists – challenged by hormones, breeding, parenting, caring, home duties, the glass ceiling, the gender pay gap etc. – spare the time or energy to indulge in the self-defeating behaviours that men who succeed often seem to get away with?

That Burden and Cranmer accomplish so much, and on such a large scale, as mature artists, yet still fail to take their rightful place on the cultural stage reflects the reality that most women, no matter how worthy their work, grow ever more invisible with age. It’s easy to think of exceptions – Georgia O’Keeffe? Louise Bourgeois? Margaret Olley? – because being exceptional tends, by definition, to make an impression. In contrast, Frida Kahlo, pop cultural darling of the selfie era, with her exotic face emblazoned on carry bags, coffee cups, cushions etc., is celebrated as much for her looks and style as for her paintings, having died at 47 – not quite too old to be objectified.

Name three more famous female artists, preferably living, over 50…

‘I had a dream.’

the vegetarianIt’s easy to read Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, a novel in which a woman goes vegan (and beyond), scandalising her family and disrupting her marriage, as a critique of repressive patriarchal Korean culture. But to stop there, with a sigh of relief at our relative freedom to eat as we please, would be to do Han’s masterpiece an injustice.

Haunted by violent dreams, the reticent Yeong-hye shuns meat, mortifying her husband, while her father tries to force-feed her. At this point, in the first of three linked novellas, it’s easy to empathise or even identify with her resistance; not hard to understand why she’d slash her wrist. And when, in the second part, she has sex with the artist husband of her sister, it’s easy to see his besotted objectification of her as an improvement on her cold-blooded businessman husband’s rape.

But in the third part, when Yeong-hye renounces all food, if not sunlight, having begun to identify with trees, some so-far-sympathetic readers may feel distanced, and interpret Yeong-hye’s subversive acts as symptoms. And madness is one of the novel’s main themes, but it’s not confined to Yeong-hye. Though she rates diagnoses of ‘anorexia nervosa’ and ‘schizophrenia’, the story still stands as an indictment of brutal Korean – and Western – society.

Some feminists or vegans, prone to literal reading, might feel betrayed that Yeong-hye succumbs to delusion, finally rejecting her own humanity. But it’s easy to misread characters (or creatures) if they don’t speak, or not in ways we understand. Which possibly makes it easier to compartmentalise compassion and, for instance, shun animal exploitation through ‘veganism’ than to renounce the ego, and know kinship with plants, not just animals.

Late in the novel, accused by Yeong-hye of being the same as psych-ward staff, her sister, In-hye, yells, ‘I’m acting like this because I’m afraid you’re going to die!’ After a silence, Yeong-hye asks, ‘Why, is it such a bad thing to die?’

No fate is worse than death from the perspective of the ego, which madness, by definition, unseats. But don’t all spiritual practices exist to free us from the ego’s prison – practices that represent the antithesis of today’s cult of the self? That Han, now 45, was ‘a very ardent Buddhist’ in her twenties comes as no surprise. And for critic Laura Miller, ‘the novel transmits a feeling of great stillness’.

Readers perplexed by the ambiguous ending might question Han’s intentions, and critics’ labels – fable, parable, allegory etc. – offer answers. But despite all analyses, the story retains rare power to haunt.

‘Buddhism is looking at things very clearly, without any preconceptions,’ Han says. ‘I don’t have religion any more, but that’s what I try to do in my writing.’

Besides Ourselves

Beside OurselvesIn Karen Joy Fowler’s ingenious novel about the ill-defined line between human and animal nature, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2013), one character is wanted by the FBI for blowing up research labs after freeing the caged animals.

Asked in an interview what she thinks of animal rights–inspired crimes, Fowler says: ‘I believe in science and medical research.’ And it’s the politically correct response in today’s social climate – implying that some studies (experiments) are necessary for human health (presumably conducted ‘humanely’, though of course that’s relative). But Fowler’s probing novel hints at deep ambivalence. And it’s underpinned, if not at all burdened, by her extensive research.

As with the orang-utan in Monkey’s Uncle (1994), a novel about insanity by the late, great Jenny Diski, it’s relevant that Fowler’s simian character is female. Like Diski’s fiction, Fowler’s tends to feature nonconformist women. Given the overlap, now and historically, between exploitation of animals and oppression of women (and non-whites and the poor), why don’t we see more such inventive animal advocacy novels?

Could part of the problem be that animals can’t speak English, write books and essays, or use social media? Instead, humans speak for them, in cartoons, ads etc., reducing them to comics or corporate puppets. Meanwhile, scientists pick their brains, literally, and we eat their flesh (often disguised by euphemisms, processing, batter, sauce or whatever). A few humans speak for them in an attempt to awaken our empathy. Yet the rhetoric of animal libbers can easily be ignored unless their activism rates as news – an excuse for pro-corporate governments to tighten repressive laws.

One of the greatest gifts of a novel (if sometimes underrated in a market favouring entertainment) is the space for readers to empathise or even identify with the other, rather than with the character who most resembles them. Fiction remains one way to reach a wide audience not just through the habitually defensive, separative intellect, but by engaging the more inclusive, compassionate imagination.

Instead of speaking for animals, a common children’s book strategy, Fowler lets readers fill in the gaps. As the human narrator, Rosemary, tries to make sense of her childhood, we learn quite a bit about Fern, her twin, before we know she’s a chimp. (No wonder Rosemary can’t keep her hands to herself, and relates vertically, as well as horizontally, to the world.)

Kafka’s short story ‘A Report for an Academy’ – about an ape who escapes his cage by mimicking human behaviours, and written after Kafka had become a vegetarian – supplies all the epigraphs throughout Fowler’s novel. In his thoughtful Overland article ‘Carrion Call’, Thomas Wilson asks why the vegetarian reading of texts is ignored, compared to postmodern, post-colonial and feminist readings, when all of these share social justice concerns. And Fowler acknowledges this intersectionality:

If we can’t bear to look at what we are doing, then we shouldn’t be doing it. Of course, this precept reaches far beyond our relationship with our fellow animals into our politics, our environmental policies, our wars, and our prisons. A lot of what the animal rights activists do is simply make us look. I’m all in favor of that.

Talking Tense

About WritingWhy do so few fiction-writing handbooks even mention tense, let alone treat it in depth? One exception is Samuel R Delany’s About Writing (2005). An expert on technique, he talks tense to an interviewer. ‘The simple present has only a single, distanced tone’ in his opinion. But ditto, past tense used by those asleep to its scope. And why not use both? Back in the mid-19th century, we find the popular Dickens employing present tense at strategic points. And by the late 20th century, with conventions changing exponentially, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996) is so inventive, who cares about tense switches? Yet, compare its first and last sentences:

I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies.

And when he came back to, he was flat on his back on the beach in the freezing sand, and it was raining out of a low sky, and the tide was way out.

I forget when I first read a novel written in present tense, or its title. Yet I know the experience excited me. It still can. If some of my favourite fictions stick to past tense, they push other envelopes. And some of my favourites use present at least part of the time. According to Delany, it’s ‘purely artificial’. With fiction, though, what isn’t? In theory, nothing but past tense would work for, say, memoir. Yet the present narration (with past flashbacks) of Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000) is one of its least radical features. (Unlike hordes that have followed suit, often with a feeling of: If I could relive this now, here’s how I’d do it.)

For novelists whose plot reveals itself as they type, the story (before any edits) may be unfolding in the present – as for readers who identify with characters. Present tense mimics the immediacy of film or TV. One reason TV viewing tends to feel so much more passive than reading is that, unless you resort to pause or rewind, the medium drags you forward, thwarting reflection. And the sense conveyed by present tense that the action’s happening as you read generates suspense: what happens next?

I’ve noticed that readers who hate present tense, and many do, tend to be older – as if their habituation to past tense was entrenched before present begins to infiltrate literature. As if it’s an irritant to their sensibilities. (Perhaps not unlike pre-distressed denim to mine? In a culture where each fad is geared to wear out by the time the next comes around, the irony of new clothes that look ripe for use as paint rags seems lost on most buyers. Is our decadence part of our blind spot?)

Delany complains that ‘circa seventy percent of all literary fiction submissions are written in the present tense’, and ‘Today, the present tense has become the easy sign of the literary.’ Since then (1998), for many, it’s become automatic. But the web equalises all content time-wise (if not in other ways that count) – whatever you can define in search-engine-friendly terms is here now.

Delany again: ‘When, as an artist, you’re doing what most other artists are doing, chances run high you’re doing something wrong.’ Agreed – or why value originality? But some of what even groundbreaking artists do gets taken for granted. No doubt resistance reared its head when painters first ditched wood panels for canvas. Maybe present tense is turning into the new background?


Monkey's UncleOne of my all-time favourite writers of fiction is Jenny Diski. Who else has so ingeniously and variously mined the terrain of madness? In her ambitious and wickedly funny 1994 novel Monkey’s Uncle, perimenopausal Charlotte – a socialist feminist genetic technician – descends à la Alice in Wonderland to a curiously lucid dream world where she meets, among others, Marx, Freud and Darwin.

Karl, Sigmund and Charles (as these old men are introduced by Jenny, a witty, floral-frocked orang-utan also based on a historical ape) have cast long shadows on Charlotte’s prospects. And this trio loomed over my more recent stint at uni – a rather less lucid dream world I emerged from not just with a post-grad degree but a substantial degree of bemusement. For instance, why are post-Freudians pushed and post-Jungians wholly overlooked by the local literary academy? I could second-guess the secular leftist answer to that. But the halls of learning reveal conservatism: third-wave Jungian thought can be radical (as in going to the root or origin; innovative). Which seems to me to be a vital function of good fiction – it’s a medium of discovery (for the writer as much as the reader), not just a well-crafted vehicle geared to trends in publishing.