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Short story writers Helen Simpson and Michele Roberts were at the London Review of Books last Thursday to talk about “Women Writing Women”. Before contemplating the depictions of motherhood and cultural perceptions of the domestic narrative, they first acknowledged that the primary hurdle was women being able to write in the first place.
The struggles of downtrodden wife and mother Dorrie, a character in Simpson’s collection Hey Yeah Right Get a Life, suggest the threat that tending to others’ needs invariably poses to a writer’s work. The work-life balance remains the greatest challenge for any mother in a society yet to adjust its laws and attitudes to accommodate the requirements of two working parents, with the bulk of domestic and child-rearing duties still falling to the woman.
“Men and women can share childcare – that’s the foundation of my feminism,” Roberts said.
“It’s whether or not they want to,” Simpson added.
Despite the plethora of roles and character types that women occupy, Thursday’s conversation quickly gravitated towards motherhood and domesticity, areas that both authors said critics and the public continue to disdain in both literature and in life.
“We don’t suddenly stop living when we’ve had a baby,” Simpson said. “Someone’s got to make sense of it.”
Yet when women write of motherhood or family life, the authors agreed, it’s ghettoized as kitchen-sink drama or chick-lit, regarded as boring. Some of it is boring (it’s hard to transform domestic monotony or exhaustion into narrative thrills), but the original woman writing women, Jane Austen, focused much of her attention on domestic life – “life in rooms”, as Simpson called it – and made it compelling through the accuracy of her prose, her wit, and the truth of her observations about human nature and relationships.
Simpson’s stories are in part so successful because they are witty. Domesticity, she said, “had not been much written about in a way that I’d wanted to read,” so she set out to tackle stories about women differently.
Consequently, Roberts pointed out that at times her stories bear similarity to Fay Weldon’s “grotesque comedy”, their depictions of domestic horror as effective as “contraceptive”. Another writer of maternal horror, Lionel Shriver, has produced one of the most powerful novels on the subject, We Need To Talk About Kevin, which was adapted into one of last year’s most impressive films.
But that is a tale of extremes, which gets upgraded from the plodding, everyday kitchen-sink label to the genre of literary psycho-drama. Simpson and Roberts also lauded depictions of motherhood as a joyful, “sensual” experience.
“It isn’t all service,” Roberts said.
Simpson recalled publicists asking her to weigh up whether Dorrie’s experience, being unappreciated by her husband and drained by her children, was “worth it”.
“It’s not a consumer experience to be rated on a scale of one to 10,” Simpson said. “It’s just life.”
Melanie White is an arts writer and editor who returned to London in 2011 after eight years in the US. In addition to journalism, she has written two feature screenplays and is currently working on a novel. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.