In search of the bad girls of literature

Over the years, I’ve known two men who professed hatred of Germaine Greer – a woman neither man had ever met. But some men seem to think Ms Greer invented the scourge of feminism. My hatred of public figures whom I’ve never met is mostly reserved for those who wield more than opinions: the sort who sign off on illegal wars or the razing of old-growth forests, for instance. But to each of these men – born during WWII and the baby boom, respectively – Greer’s influence must have seemed threatening. The first man had a predilection for whipping submissives and fantasised about cutting women up; the second had been single for decades and wasn’t on speaking terms with his mother.

Last month, Julia Gillard, our first female PM, made what is so far the speech of her career, reprimanding Tony Abbott, who covets her job, for his ‘misogyny’. While I think ‘sexism’ would be more correct, I found Gillard’s vehemence wildly exhilarating. At last everyone was talking about the elephant in the room (or the House).

Around then, I read Howard Jacobson’s Guardian essay ‘In praise of bad boys’ books’ with a deepening sense of irritation. After reeling off a string of incendiary titles by male giants, Jacobson draws comparisons with the work of 19th-century women. No female authors after Austen and Eliot bear mentioning. And as they don’t meet Jacobson’s criteria for ‘non-redemptive’, who are the bad girls of literature?

If a woman wrote a ‘splenetic, unconsoling and wilfully damnable’ novel, who in this culture of fake endorsements and photoshopped faces would publish it? If ‘hellish’ is not what you’d call Jane Austen (Jacobson stating the obvious), are any women writing today worthy of the epithet?

I moused around and compared a few online lists. In contrast to bad-boy line-ups, most top-polling bad girls are no longer with us. Yet, sure enough, Greer numbers among the living. Now, one needn’t approve of all of Greer’s ideas to like her style. Consider the intro to her review of Naomi Wolf’s Vagina: A New Biography:

The nastiest name ever to be given to the female sex organ is “vagina”. “Vagina” is Latin for “scabbard” or “sword sheath”. A scabbard is owned by the same person as owns the sword that it exists to house. The word is more, not less, offensive because it is doctor-speak. There is a word for the female sex organ, a magical word. To hear it said makes strong men flinch; to hear it said by a woman unleashes pandemonium. It is the last sacred word in English, so I shall not debase it by using it here.

But Greer doesn’t write fiction, the topic of Jacobson’s essay, which doesn’t pretend to survey bad boys’ books comprehensively, its point being merely to promote his latest novel (which sounds all too tame, but you don’t win the Booker for challenging mainstream morality). And yet, he did prompt me to question what exactly bad means. One of the main books Jacobson cites, Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night (1932), which I’m partway through reading to my partner, is so anti-humanist it’s cathartic. His notorious anti-Semitism (and sexism) loses its edge in the context of his apparently endless contempt for humanity.

Shock value is a defining feature of the work of bad boys – and bad girls. Take Elfriede Jelinek’s semi-autobiographical novel, The Piano Teacher (1983):

In the daytime, she sometimes calculates how much peeping she can do for her saved coins. She saves them by eating less at her coffee breaks. Now, a blue spotlight sweeps across flesh. Even the colors are handpicked. Erika lifts up a tissue from the floor; it is encrusted with sperm. She holds it to her nose. She deeply inhales the aroma, the fruits of someone else’s hard labor. […] Her mother sleeps next to her and guards Erika’s hands. These hands are supposed to practice, not scoot under the blanket like ants and scurry over to the jam jar. Even when Erika cuts or pricks herself, she feels almost nothing. But when it comes to her eyes, she has reached an acme of sensitivity.

This contradicts, for starters, the received wisdom that men are more visually oriented and less feeling than women. At least some of the pleasure and freedom of writing and reading fiction comes from subversion of stereotypes, whether through smuggling in lived experience or imagining ways to defy expectations. If that’s what the ‘bad girls’ of literature do, I’d like to propose AM Homes, having just finished reading her story collection, Things You Should Know (2002). ‘Shock effect seems to be the only point’, wrote an NYT reviewer.

What makes these 11 stories ‘transgressive’? Reviewers tend to cite Homes’ themes (a woman taking conception into her own hands, Nancy Reagan’s private life) rather than just letting her form speak. Yet, male characters narrate five of the six first-person stories (the gender of the voice in the sixth is ambiguous). The remaining five, third-person stories focus on female characters. So, AM Homes tends to stand back to portray her own sex yet chooses to step inside the subjective experience of men. Overall, the risk pays off – she explores the male psyche in ways that might feel too exposing for some male writers, and shows us women in a male mirror; a double departure from the familiar.

My own, few stories narrated from a male perspective have, in general, appealed more to men than to women. Maybe some women refuse to let men be vulnerable, even weak? Of course there are men who don’t want to go there either. As one of them told me: ‘Men have drive, you know. Dreams [other than figuring out how to get you in the sack]. They just don’t always tell their women about them, so it may seem that they don’t.’ Well, duh.

Bad boys, it seems, write a lot about sex, drugs, crime and psychopathology: about men whose drive has imploded or swerved off the rails. To qualify as a bad girl, though, you need only defy stereotypes. Lesbians, feminists and erotic writers abound in bad-girl inventories: women ahead of their time. But where are the contemporary provocateurs, the female Ellises, Houellebecqs and Selfs of the lit fic world? AM Homes is the closest thing I’ve found lately: a mum of fifty. (You can read her on the pros and cons of writing edgy literature in a recent interview with fellow bad girl Jeanette Winterson.)

So, if I feel less free than might a man to write hellish novels, do I have ‘equality’? Which is not to say I haven’t given it a shot and wouldn’t again. But the limits aren’t all purely in women’s heads.

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