Why are some life experiences not trendy in high-brow literature?
May 19, 2020 10:14 AM   Subscribe

I recently had a child, and it's struck me how little "good" literature there is about this transformative, sublime experience of becoming and being a parent (and even less so about motherhood). Same with music. Is there a theory for why some experiences are so underrepresented?

There's also very little comparatively on platonic friendship and sibling relationships (especially with women involved), or professional conflicts.

Visual art and film may be slightly better, but in my (limited) experience, across all art forms, these themes are drowned out by romantic love, war and death, coming of age, teen angst and midlife crises, and politics.

It makes sense why greater-than-individual events like war and politics are elevated, but honestly, so much great literature is about romantic love, which is all well and good, but why at the expense of other aspects of living?

Ironically, things get better with more layperson/low-brow movies and TV.

Has a literary critic written about these why these preferences have come about? Or is it simply a reflection of the preferences of the traditional gatekeepers of high-brow art?
posted by redlines to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
You may be interested in reading more about the marriage plot as a literary trope.
posted by CMcG at 10:29 AM on May 19, 2020

Women disappear from fiction as they get older, it's not as obvious as it is with film/TV, but it happens. Even so, there is so much literary fiction about motherhood now. So much, and it's not all murdering nannies and We Need to Talk About Kevin. To give one example, Elena Ferrante has been one of the biggest literary success stories in the past decade, and she has written extensively about motherhood.

Why All the Books About Motherhood?
posted by betweenthebars at 10:30 AM on May 19, 2020 [20 favorites]

Off the top of my head I can think of two New Yorker-ish stories about parents with infants in peril and one about trying to have a baby in a weird, magical realist way. I think they fit the description of being about profundities of parenthood, but they vary from mildly disturbing (Lesley Nneka Arimah) to disturbing (Alexandra Kleeman) to deeply disturbing (David Foster Wallace). So I guess I would modify the thesis a little--like why no happy stories or whatnot--and maybe it comes down to something like people thinking serious stories need serious tension and/or they believe Tolstoy's "Happy families are all alike" line.
posted by Wobbuffet at 10:40 AM on May 19, 2020

Longreads has boosted the signal of a lot of thoughtful writing on the topic of motherhood. Here are a couple of articles that touch tangentially on your question:

How Motherhood Affects Creativity, by Erika Hayasaki (The Atlantic)
... My friend Leslie Schwartz began writing her second novel while she was pregnant with her first (and only) child. During pregnancy, she told me, her sensory awareness intensified. “Food is better. Sex is better. Life is in Technicolor,” she said. “I couldn’t stop writing ... and then my baby came and I still had that creative bliss, but she was literally sucking me dry. The irony is you have this wealth of creativity, it’s like you’ve been plugged in, but you can’t really do the work because the child is there, taking from you.”

She found a way to write still, fighting through extreme fatigue and finishing her book in the spurts when her baby slept. Her creative drive did not let up. Diaper changes might cut into the time spent on creative work, but they don’t cut out the drive to do it. ...
To All the Moms I've Ignored Before, by Meaghan O'Connell (The Cut)
Now I just cringe at myself, when I think of all the moms who came before me, who had to listen to me work out my complicated feelings about motherhood, resisting it as if I invented ambivalence. "No one talks about this!" I said, when they’d been talking about it all along.
posted by virago at 10:47 AM on May 19, 2020 [8 favorites]

I think it's literally a representation, diversity, and inclusion issue, are those moms making media in those areas and are they prominent? I think about this video by Utada Hikaru called Sakura Nagashi that features a birth artistically filmed. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HNvTh_3iayM

The main example, but probably wrong for your question, that comes to mind is this powerhouse collaboration MV by Utada Hikaru and Shiina Ringo, who are extremely well-regarded singer-songwriters and single moms. "Nijikan Dake no Vacance" (Two Hour Vacation).

Original MV
MV with English Sub with modified stills to avoid copyright takedown
English lyrics
posted by yueliang at 11:01 AM on May 19, 2020

May I ask a clarifying question? Are you talking about contemporary prose, or “classic”/western canon stuff?
posted by kevinbelt at 11:16 AM on May 19, 2020

So to help refine this question a little bit, I would point you to the divide between "literary" fiction and "domestic" fiction. Partly due to systemic misogyny in the book world, stories about families have been ghettoized into their own sub-genre even when they are quite well-written and compelling. They are often bestsellers. But they don't seem to be considered when it comes time to dole out the literary awards. To take a popular contemporary example, check out "Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng. It's all about the family circle and parenting children of various ages, from infancy to teens. There are many books like this if you know where to look, but they typically aren't getting nominated for Pulitzers/Bookers/what-have-you. Try googling "best domestic fiction novels" for some more suggestions.
posted by zeusianfog at 11:31 AM on May 19, 2020 [13 favorites]

It's misogyny, specifically hatred for mothers. Mothers are generally seen as freeloaders who don't do any real work, as I said in a previous comment. Because our work is invisible and erased, we are stereotyped as lazy, stupid, boring, worthless, nagging harpies ... with (this is the death knell) no identity of our own. We're sheep. We're bots. We're drones. We join up into a formless entity. We aren't interesting individuals anymore.

Motherhood is also desexualized which means we are double the regular amount of worthless: a woman who fails to be sexually attractive to men might as well not exist. Can you imagine a non-sexy woman in a book or on screen? Pigs may fly.

Even feminists get in on the mother-hating fun. Becoming a mother is almost a shameful abdication of feminist principles and commitment to the patriarchal-capitalist idea of "self sufficient" and "independent" living. No. Being pregnant is nothing if not an exercise in vulnerability. Giving birth means putting yourself entirely into the hands of other people, trusting them to care for you and keep your most precious loved creature safe from the world/elements.

Once you have erased the value and even the existence of such a thing as "motherwork", a mother becomes the opposite of an active, self-driven, agentic actor. She is someone who is tied down, dependent, reactive, not just vulnerable but utterly helpless. Rah-rah feminism of the "we are just as kick-ass as men" variety has made sure not even the misogynists want to write this kind of female character into their work. Pretty much the only good thing you can say about mothers is that moms sacrifice themselves for their children. A hundred thousand books and shows are about exactly that. Yaaaaawn.

Who wants to write such a character as their protagonist? What does she even DO, damn it? She can't go on a quest, she's too busy wiping snot off her baby's face. Nobody wants to read about that, right? Right???? It's not like raising a child or doing caregiving work could possibly be interesting or suspenseful or heartbreaking or ethically wrenching or transformative. Nah, nothing to examine there, no drama at all. Write about mothers and the daily dramas of parenting? Ha! You might as well write about the daily drama of being in a coma.
posted by MiraK at 11:38 AM on May 19, 2020 [32 favorites]

Has a literary critic written about these why these preferences have come about? Or is it simply a reflection of the preferences of the traditional gatekeepers of high-brow art?
You'll want to read
Vivan Gornick, The End of the Novel of Love
posted by nantucket at 11:56 AM on May 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: These are great responses, and I think they highlight that my ignorance is partly to blame.

May I ask a clarifying question? Are you talking about contemporary prose, or “classic”/western canon stuff? Good question. Both, though I obviously expect less from the western canon. My question was spurred from reading this powerful anthology of contemporary poetry about motherhood, and realizing that not only is that book unknown, but that there are pretty much no mainstream anthologies of a similar nature.
posted by redlines at 12:38 PM on May 19, 2020

Parenthood has long been considered a female sphere, so it was and is devalued in all kinds of ways, including in art. This has been changing, but yes, there is still an assumption that traditionally "male" settings (like the battlefield) are inherently more interesting than home life. In 2015, Claire Vaye Watkins wrote an essay about this, and literary misogyny in general, that sparked a lot of discussion: "On Pandering."

The good news is that I would describe, "the elevation of traditionally 'female' subjects, such as parenthood," as one of lit fic's most notable recent trends. Here is a piece reflecting on this, and I'm sure there are more. (This could also double as a reading list?)

That said, if I'm reading your question right, you're going to find the literary perspective on parenthood as more "deeply conflicted" (or even "horrifying") than "sublime." Thing is, the women who draw on their experiences of parenthood are sort of inherently more likely to be troubled by that parenthood. It is hard to be a mother and an artist. It's hard to be a working parent, period, but both art and children are uniquely parasitical on one's time/emotional life/mental bandwidth. Men often have the ability to tacitly pick their art over their children. Whereas women, even in the most enlightened of straight marriages, are usually still the "default parent," and have no such choice. Instead they must either sacrifice their art for a time, or try to live the impossible life of a primary caregiver who writes at night. It's not easy, and that's reflected in the lit fic on this theme.

Visual art and film may be slightly better, but in my (limited) experience, across all art forms, these themes are drowned out by romantic love, war and death, coming of age, teen angst and midlife crises, and politics.

To address your general observation: yes, I think it's true that contemporary western culture emphasizes these things, and de-emphasizes family life and platonic friendships. To some extent, art merely reflects this culture. Art likes to seize on transformative moments, and we currently configure "parenthood" or "married life" as a snare, a tapering, an ending. We also configure "friendship" as a static and comparatively minor life fixture, rather than a transforming (and transformative!) experience. Relationships between women are the closest and most functional friendships our culture allows, but they are still devalued. This is not universally true, or course, and in recent years there has been more lit fic about women's friendships, but still. If I relied on contemporary western lit/culture for my friendship broth, I would be depressed. Reading widely is a comfort, here; literature from other times and other places is not necessarily limited in that way.

For all the faults of the traditional canon, for instance, it used to deal quite extensively with friendship (mostly between men of course).
posted by desert outpost at 12:55 PM on May 19, 2020 [3 favorites]

Yeah, I feel like the flippant but also real answer to your question "Is there a theory for why some experiences are so underrepresented?" is ... feminist literary criticism. I mean, this is the heart of Virginia Woolf's work A Room of One's Own: "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction." And even more so after becoming parents, women traditionally have even less time.

Of course women have subscribed to these same beliefs, whether consciously or not. Internalized misogyny has done a real number on us. Like, why do we value some works more than others? Of course some things are better written, but this is culturally influenced as well. Writers from Nathaniel Hawthorne to VS Naipaul have been wholly dismissive of women writers (and Hawthorne's negativity was in part likely driven by jealousy, because the women novelists he was complaining about were outselling him handily).

To draw a comparison during the current time period from outside of literature: there's some evidence that women academics are writing less right now, and men academics are writing more, because the burden of parenting has fallen more heavily on women. Which is to say, this is an on-going issue, and it's partly because of limitations for women and opportunities for men, and partly because of our own culturally-influenced tastes.
posted by bluedaisy at 1:43 PM on May 19, 2020 [13 favorites]

I wrote my honours thesis about this, specifically the way Barbara Kingsolver's work gets deemed "chicklit" and derided as part of Oprah's book club etc, because it is centred on those experiences of motherhood and family, domestic life, even as it examines a lot of broad political moments.

Basically? Misogyny, via categorisation, review, audience, and analysis at all levels.
posted by geek anachronism at 3:00 PM on May 19, 2020 [6 favorites]

Thing is, the women who draw on their experiences of parenthood are sort of inherently more likely to be troubled by that parenthood. It is hard to be a mother and an artist. It's hard to be a working parent, period, but both art and children are uniquely parasitical on one's time/emotional life/mental bandwidth.

Respectfully, this is a very lopsided view of motherhood and art. There are many mothers who find their art enriched and their drive to make art more urgent because of motherhood. Even though I too have complained aplenty about babies eating into my writing time, the truth is, motherhood is simply an integral part of where my art comes from now because it's an integral part of who I am. My work would be missing a key animating component if I were to keep motherhood out of it (if I even could!). So much material, so much insight, so much soul growth has come from motherhood for me that it rankles to hear others talk about the impact of motherhood on art as being purely predatory, colonizing, parasitical. It's really not like that. Motherhood doesn't keep us from doing art any more than war or falling in love or having a day job does. In fact, art comes of motherhood just as it comes of war and falling in love and doing a day job. There's something subtly disparaging that we speak of motherhood cannibalizing our art but for all the horror and the life-consuming nature of war, it just enables and ensouls men's art?

OP have you read the poetry of Holly Nish? She has a collection out and she's also on Instagram and YouTube. I absolutely adore her, listened to her every day when my kids were babies.
posted by MiraK at 7:09 PM on May 19, 2020 [6 favorites]

I guess for the same reasons Harry Potter isn't Harriet Potter, and Jo Rowling had to go by J.K. Men are universal, read by both men and women, whereas women are marked and get read by women only. It's infuriating, but it's something that happens in all spheres of our society.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 12:05 AM on May 20, 2020 [3 favorites]

You have to seek out these stories. A favourite author/artist of mine, Lucy Knisely, had a baby a few years ago. She's well known for her autobiographical graphic novels. Since having a son, she's released a graphic novels about motherhood, growing older, marriage, and children. It's called Displacement.

Displacement - https://www.lucyknisley.com/displacement

I often wonder why I love her work so much. Then it struck me! She is a modern day Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake. Her art style reminds me of Blake's, and her autobiographical story telling reminds me of Dahl's, especially his novels Boy: Tales of Childhood and Going Solo.

When I was a preteen, I read these two novels and they resonated with me. In the same way Knisely's books and webcomic really speak to me.

I'm a man in his early 30s who's settling down, getting married, and is planning a family. Sorry for rambling, but I can't recommend her work enough. I really, really, really love her graphic novels and art style.
posted by GiveUpNed at 2:06 AM on May 20, 2020 [2 favorites]

I would push back on the premise a bit: what's "good" literature? Philip Roth and John Updike misogyny has been largely discarded in many circles for the circle jerk it is. If you read books written by women they're quite often concerned with issues of parenting and motherhood.
posted by aspersioncast at 11:26 PM on May 20, 2020

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