A Day of One’s Own
By John Weeks
On June 16th, the literary world will celebrate Bloomsday in honor of James Joyce’s epic novel Ulysses. This retelling of The Odyssey takes place on June 16th, 1904, and follows its hero, Leopold Bloom, as he journeys through Dublin to reconnect with his wife. On June 16th, Joyce fans the world over will gather over pints of Guinness to read this literary masterwork.
While I would never begrudge Ulysses its well deserved day in the sun, the “Bloomsday” tradition has overshadowed another equally influential and, in many ways, strikingly similar epic of early 20th century Modernist literature. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway takes place over the course of June 13th, 1923. Its heroine, genteel society wife Clarissa Dalloway, spends the day traversing London. She makes preparations to host a party while ruminating on the choices she’s made in her life.
Mrs. Dalloway was a crucial work in a career that, like Joyce’s, revolutionized and refined narrative technique within the novel. Woolf’s name is rightfully mentioned alongside Joyce’s by the literary and academic elite.
In The Broken Estate, #Muse2013 keynote speaker James Wood says, “The two enormous modern changes that are found in Woolf and Joyce are that a character need go nowhere particular to think; and that thought need not have the gravity of emergency or agitation in order to earn its place, need not have an arrow shower of exclamation marks to exist. Thought is as natural as narration, and has in fact become narration (pgs. 38-39).”
In Beyond Egotism, Harvard University English Professor Robert Kiely says, “Joyce and Woolf agreed [about the power of relationship on individuality], so much so that both subjected their most prized and hard-won of literary trophies --- their incomparable narrative voices --- to an increasing range of counterpoint, contradiction, mockery, and cacophonous abuse (pg. 189).”
Perhaps we fiction lovers (be it Hamsun’s Hunger or Collins’ Hunger Games) should consider celebrating “Dalloway Day” come the Ides of June. Woolf deserves her own day.
“Difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic,” says writer and iconic feminist Audre Lorde in her essay ‘The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House.’ “Only then does the necessity for interdependency become unthreatening. Only within that interdependency of different strengths, acknowledged and equal, can the power to seek new ways of being in the world generate, as well as the courage and sustenance to act where there are no charters.”
Woolf faced a harsh gender bias throughout her career. Despite being born into literary aristocracy, she had a much harder time publishing her work than Joyce did. And once published, she had a much harder time gaining recognition. Today’s women writers face a similar bias.
High-level review venues, literary awards, and the majority of today's MFA programs look down on genre fiction. And yet, one of the most visible genres of late is titled “Women's Fiction.” Michelle Hoover, Grub Street instructor and author of The Quickening, considers the idea of any gender-based genre to be “obscene.”
“It immediately undermines those books in the eyes of the literary world,” Hoover says. “I have friends who have been pushed into the Women's Fiction category. Their books are complex, vibrant and smart, and yet the category limits how they are looked at and even who their readership might be. The overly-prettified covers of the genre don't help either. The hierarchy of genre versus literary fiction should be revisited as a whole, but until then I don't think we'll be seeing a genre called "Men's Fiction" anytime soon. There'd be a riot.”
Hoover is hard at work on her second literary novel. Currently entitled Bottomland, the work focuses on two sisters who disappear from a German-American farm in 1920s Iowa.
“I was happy with my publishing experience, but I do feel it's harder for a woman to get away with unlikable characters, dark endings, and scenes of violence than it is for a man,” Hoover says. “Funny enough, this reaction seems to come more from female readers than male, and many agents and editors (though thankfully not my own) share these expectations.”
While Hoover has escaped the box of Women’s Fiction, she has felt pressured to restrain her literary work. “Personally, I've felt pushed to redeem my characters at the end of my books, à la the Oprah Winfrey bookclub,” Hoover says. “I have nothing against the idea of redemption, but if my characters don't lead themselves there, I don't force the expectation onto them. Redemption does not happen for everyone…We should be able to tell those stories. And yet it's less acceptable for women writers to confront that reality.”
We need to confront the reality that women writers’ voices have been restrained and at times silenced. Just take a look at the latest VIDA Count. Dalloway Day will not usurp Bloomsday, but it could perhaps serve us as a lighthouse.
A former staffer at the Massachusetts State House, John Weeks is a democratic strategist and political consultant. He studies writing at Grub Street. You may contact him at [email protected].
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