Tag Archives: Sugar and Snails

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

The woman in the attic is known to be mad. From Jane Eyre onwards, if there was a woman in your attic: beware. For not only was she mad but she was vengeful. Indeed there are many vengeful women or mad women in literature. This woman, Nora, is angry, as she tells us in her first sentence:

How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that. (3)

Actually she tells us she is angry and isolated, pretty much the two themes for this character. And she proceeds to tell us just how angry and why.

242 Woman upstairs cover

The story

Nora Eldridge is a primary school teacher in Boston. She is in her late 30s. Her life is not very eventful, even if she has a secret artistic life as a creator of tiny rooms of feminist icons such as Emily Dickinson. She has a good life, although sad to have lost her mother. She lives alone, visits her father, sees a friend or two.

Into this quiet and rather boring life come the Shahid family: Sirena, soon to be an internationally famous artist; Skandar the Lebanese academic on a year’s secondment to Harvard; Reza, their child in her class. Nora falls easily for all three, mostly for representing what she is missing in her life – artistic success, a sexual relationship and a child of her own, but also for their exoticism and the verve they bring to her life. They are in Boston for less than a year. She is betrayed by each of them. They disappear out of her life as if that year had been nothing. Perhaps it wasn’t much to them, but Nora had felt alive in a new way. And worse, a year after they left, she discovers that Sirena has violated her privacy in an almost pornographic way.

The themes

The themes of this novel are loneliness and betrayal. She frequently refers to herself as the woman upstairs, to distinguish between herself and the mad women in the attic. But we are forced to imagine that those mad women were also betrayed in some way, or perhaps only lonely and needy.

We see that the hopes she develops for herself and the Shahid family are all in her head. Her skills, as an artist’s technician, a babysitter, a good listener are used by them and mean nothing more than services rendered, not the basis for close friendships.

Her anger brings her finally to acceptance of her life, and one can’t help feel that she has lost something of value by becoming realistic.

The writing

Despite the action taking place mostly inside Nora’s head, there is a fair bit of humour in this book. For example, the names of the school children: Chastity, Bethany, Noah, Aristide, Ebullience. We know a great deal about the school community through these names.

The pace of the writing got a little too slow for me in the middle section when the artistic collaboration between the women is growing. By this stage we have understood that Nora is unlikely to rein in her obsession with the family.

But the introspection also allows for some very perceptive points about women, and especially women who live alone.

The Woman Upstairs is like that. We keep it together. You don’t make a mess and you don’t make mistakes and you don’t call people weeping at four in the morning. You don’t reveal secrets it would be unseemly for you to have. You turn forty and you laugh about it, and make jokes about needing martinis and how forty is the new thirty, and you don’t say aloud what all of you are thinking, which is ‘Well, I guess she’s never going to have kids now!’ and then, still less admissibly, ‘Is it because she didn’t want them, or because she didn’t get around to it (silly fool, a failure of time management) or is it, poor lamb, because of some physical impediment (pitiable case)? Why is she single anyhow? It’s not as if her career has been so spectacular – she’s only a school teacher, and among school teachers she’s not even Shauna McPhee.’ (279-280).

Angry, lonely women like Nora are more common than you think. They are too embarrassing for everyone, aren’t they?

I am amazed at the psychological insights of so many authors. Claire Messud really knows this character. The image of the nightmare Fun House, its horrors and allure, is a strong way to show Nora’s inner state. She allows us to see the workings of Nora’s mind in a sustained way, from start to finish.

Related posts

Annecdotalist’s review, posted in January 2016, considers the acceptability of angry women in novels, and the assumption that Nora is unlikeable. And she makes interesting comparisons with other angry protagonists, such as Barbara in Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller, and her own protagonist, Diana, in Sugar and Snails.

Over to you

What did you think of this novel? Did you think that Nora was unlikeable? Was she right to be angry? Did you find her unlikeable? Did she have your sympathy?

 

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud. Published by Virago in 2013. 301 pp

 

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A little rant about … Spoiler Alerts

This post is about spoiler alerts, what they mean and why they are so common. I am asking whether we need them. Are we in danger of saying that the story and its surprises are the most important thing about reading a novel. Really?

The donkey dies in the end

I cheered when I read this by David Rain.

Think of the phrase ‘spoiler alert’, so common in discussions of films, television series and even, nowadays, novels. What kind of work is ‘spoiled’ – used up, made redundant – once its surface narrative is known? A classic story can be told again and again. Shakespeare is never read for the last time; nor is Jane Austen. In Platero and I, we ‘spoil’ nothing by saying that the donkey dies in the end.

He was recommending Juan Ramon Jimenez’s novel Platero and I in Slightly Foxed (No 46, Summer 2015).

Recently I saw a spoiler alert on a blogpost about Mrs Dalloway. If Virginia Woolf were alive today she’d be turning in her grave! Now I ask you, would your pleasure in Pride and Prejudice be reduced if you knew that Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy get it together? Or that Jane Eyre is able to say of Mr Rochester, ‘Reader, I married him,’ and you already knew? Or even that in Rebecca, Maxim … no I’ll leave that one.

Cartoon from Amy Lynch tweet 28.5.15

Cartoon from Amy Lynch tweet 28.5.15

The surface narrative is not the novel. Although the surface narrative may be the film, I’m not sure about that. But perhaps the reason why films of good novels are so popular may be connected to this primacy of the narrative. Here’s a link to the blogpost on novels that are ‘major motion pictures’.

A and B Readers and Writers?

Anthony Burgess divided writers into two kinds:

A writers are story tellers.

B writers are users of language.

For B writers prose is foremost and without it ‘you are reduced to what are merely secondary interests: story, plot, characterisation, psychological insight and form,’ according to Marin Amis in The Art of Fiction, 1998, Paris Review interview. Hmmm

Could we apply the same categories to readers?

A readers focus on the story.

B readers look at how writers express ideas.

If this division works I would say that A Readers dominate the blogosphere with their spoiler alerts.

But although I would say I am more of a B reader, the novel is nothing without those things: story, plot, characterisation etc. I’m sure there are exceptions, some experimental French novelist of the last century probably.

While novel reading is about the pleasure of the story, a great deal of that pleasure comes from how the writer writes. The writing presents and supports elements of the story. Literary fiction is about the art of the writer to tell us the story in a skilful way. For readers the manner or style of the telling is part of the experience.

And novels need tension to carry the reader to the end, but the tension doesn’t have to be about what on earth will happen? Whodunnits use the tension of clues and McGuffins to draw the reader on. Thriller readers want the hero to escape, with one enormous bound. That’s why it may be important not to reveal the plot twist in Rebecca, but reader she (not Rebecca, who was at the bottom …) got her man.

45 catch-22

Some novels aren’t written for suspense, for what happens. Reading can simply be watching the protagonist come to terms with the events. This is one of the strengths of Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, who in scene after scene, character after character convinces us of the many absurdities of war. Perhaps the writer is suggesting that nothing much gets resolved in the story: see The Green Road by Anne Enright for example, reviewed recently on this blog.

I know of one reader who always turned to the last page. She wanted to read the novel without the surprises that the story might bring, to know the outcomes so she could see how they got there.

To spoil or not?

225 S&S coverSometimes it seems important not to reveal the plot. For example, I did sidestep reviewing Sugar and Snails, by Anne Goodwin. The significant reveal is designed to get the reader to think about their assumptions. I love a novel that makes you think, but I didn’t feel I could review the novel without discussing what is revealed. Anne Goodwin’s own discussion of spoilers can be found on her blog, Do spoilers Spoil? We are all Completely Beside Ourselves. Anne quotes some research about spoilers (that weren’t) and readers of short stories. They preferred them spoiled!

I took a different line when I reviewed at We are all Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, where the central issue of the novel is disclosed on p77. Again, it challenges the reader: what were you assuming? And says, now you know THAT look at what it does to my story.

But on the whole I want fewer spoiler alerts.

BTW

Slightly Foxed is a quarterly and subscription details can be found on their website.

Over to You

We have energetic debates about spoiler alerts in one of my reading groups. Where do you stand?

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Is there Discrimination against Older Women Writers?

We know about the bias against women in publishing and reviewing. My recent writing has made me think about the toxic combination of sexism and ageism. I have been wondering if the effects of that combination are evident in the book world, making it harder for older women to be published and noticed. The media, at any rate, acts surprised if people over 65 do anything, it seems.

225 foggie_grandmother_knits_glasgow

Surprised at older writers?

The press uses the idea that it’s surprising that older writers even exist. Here’s one headline:

Grandmother lands book deal for debut novel aged 82 (Guardian June 2010)

A grammatical point has to be made: the misplacing ‘aged 82’ suggests the novel is that old. The sub chose to use the word ‘grandmother’ as a euphemism for ‘surprisingly old woman’. The grandmother reference is gratuitous, except that it conjures up the image of – what? A quavering shawl-wrapped dependent knitter of limited mental capacity. But – guess what – this 82 year old person writes books. (btw ‘pensioner’ is used in the same way. Watch out for it.) The emphasis in the article is on the writer’s age and gender.

Here’s another headline.

In defence of the older debut (Guardian Review July 2015)

OK, this one is a little more promising. It turns out to be about people publishing their first novel when they have passed 40. 40? I ask you. More than 50 writers have formed a support group called Prime Writers. It suggests that they have found age-prejudice even before they are 40.

The press likes to draw on the idea of inactive, less competent older persons, especially women. Are they reflecting the attitudes of the publishing business? I decided to ask a blog-friend, Anne Goodwin of Annethology, about her experiences as an older woman writer. She has recently published her first novel, Sugar and Snails.

225 AG and book

An older female writer’s experience

Here are the Q&A.

Congratulations on having recently published Sugar and Snails. What difficulties did you have in getting your novel published? Are you able to identify any issues that relate to sexism, or ageism or both?

Thank you, Caroline, I’m really pleased to have published my first novel. I sent out dozens of submissions before I found my publisher and it’s impossible to say whether or not the multiple rejections were due to sexism or ageism, but it didn’t feel like that to me. There are so many subtle (and, I’m sure, often unconscious) factors which influence an agent or a publisher’s decision whether or not to pass on a submission, the prejudices that exist throughout society must play a part. It could be that my novel was turned down because the main character is a forty-five-year-old woman, but I think the main anxiety was that it didn’t fit so easily into any obvious marketing slot.

We know from VIDA’s statistics that women’s fiction receives much less coverage in the literary press (in the UK as well as in the US): fewer reviews of their books, fewer reviewers. Where has your book been reviewed, and did any refer to your age or gender?

I’m guessing that women’s fiction gets fewer reviewers etc because of a perceived lack of “authority”, but small independent presses are at a similar disadvantage, so I wasn’t expecting to be reviewed in the broadsheets. My reviews have come primarily from book bloggers and a few small magazines, who seem to be a fairly egalitarian lot. I don’t recall any references to my age or gender, but it would be hard to imagine how a reviewer could have raised this in a way that was relevant to the novel, even though gender is one of the main themes.

Do you have any antidotes to the difficulties for women, and perhaps older women, in getting their work published and noticed?

I think it’s the same for writers at any age: find some allies; work to your strengths; keep asking yourself if there’s anything you’d rather be doing (and if there is, get out of this crazy business).

What do you see as the advantages, benefits, good things about being an older female writer, if any?

The situation might be very different for a female writer who’s been working at the keyboard all her adult life and sees her prospects and earnings diminishing as she gets older, but for a woman like me embarking on fiction as a second career after early retirement, the benefits are manifold:

  • rich life experience means you’re never short of ideas

  • if you’re writing from painful emotions, there’s a better chance these will now be processed sufficiently so as not to contaminate the writing

  • a stronger sense of your own values and priorities and less of a sense of having to prove yourself (although ask me on another day and I might tell you something different)

  • (not for everyone, I know, but) fewer competing demands on your time

  • closer connection to potential readers (aren’t middle-aged/older women the group most likely to read fiction)

Any reaction to what Martin Amis said about older writers, quoted by Michele Hanson in the Guardian,

Octogenarian novelists ‘on the whole [are] no bloody good. You can see them disintegrate before your eyes as they move past 70’.

Michele Hanson referred to Ursula Le Guin, Fay Weldon and Ruth Rendall. I might add Diana Athill, Cynthia Ozick, Mary Wellesely, and Elizabeth Jane Howard (isn’t she something to do with Martin Amis??). Any comments? Are you aware of other older women writers?

I’m not terribly interested in what Martin Amis has to say about much, really, and I’m too small fry to enter his radar. And it’s always rather foolish to make sweeping generalisations. However, I have been disappointed at times with the work of some older well-established writers, but I see that as less about age per se than the fact that they’ve been practising this very strange profession for half a century and might well have run out of steam, or, because anything with their name on it will sell, they aren’t being pushed hard enough by their publishers and editors.

The world of fiction writing and publishing seems to be very young. I have come across press comment about how surprising it is for novelists to achieve a first novel at 40. In your lovely phrase elderly prima-authorista. They even have a support group – Prime Writers: about 50 authors over 40 when their debut novel was published. And Huffington Post ran a feature on 10 women authors over 40 in August this year. What do you make of all of this?

Interestingly, my biggest supporters in the publishing world have been young women (an agent’s assistant who was very enthusiastic about my novel but couldn’t persuade her more experienced colleagues to take it on, and my publisher who has been wonderful to work with). Despite my grey hair and my post on being an elderly prima-authorista, I actually see myself as fairly youthful relative to how old I thought I might be by the time I got published, having assumed I’d put my writing to one side until I retired (and ended up retiring earlier than expected). While I was shocked that the Prime Writers thought forty was old, I think gathering together under some banner is a good marketing strategy, and age is one of many possible ways of defining a group.

Do you have anything else you would like to add about older women writers?

I think it’s great that you’re running this series [older women in fiction], Caroline, and I’m honoured to be invited to be part of it, but the biggest barrier for me in getting my books to readers is the low status of small presses in the publishing industry (I suppose it’s capitalism rather than ageism or sexism).

Thank you Anne, for your answers and for your perceptive comments.

225 S&S cover

Case for discrimination not proven?

So the evidence for sexism-ageism in publishing is not overwhelming. I guess that the infamous invisibility of older women might help avoid judgements based on age, in publishing at any rate. I am constantly impressed by the dominance of the professional skill and all round competence of the many young women we have met in our publishing experience. We wrote a blogpost in their honour after the publication of our last non-fiction book, called Published today: what our editors did for us (July 2014).

And thank you Anne, for reminding us what we all know from our experiences that older women are as competent, active, wise and creative as anyone else. Age alone does not rob us of that.

But you might have a different view or experiences to counter this conclusion.

 

Sugar and Snails by Anne Goodwin, published in 2015 by Inspired Quill Publishing. 332pp

See also Women and Fiction, a post from September 2015 about discrimination against women novelists.

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Filed under Books, Feminism, Older women in fiction, Publishing our book, Writing