Women’s Words, Women’s Works

I spent a couple weeks of my Christmas holiday intermittently reading the MetaFilter Emotional Labour Thread. It took me forever because I had to take it in chunks–it kept making me so angry it was like having an out of body experience. The document I was reading, which has since vanished from the internet, was a 63 page compilation of a thread on MeFi about women’s experiences with emotional labour; it’s example after example of the banal, quotidian ways in which men are absolutely terrible.  You should read the thread, though it will probably make you angry.

It did get me thinking, though, about writing and emotion. Writing novels involves thinking about other people’s–imaginary people’s–thoughts and feelings, thinking through their actions and reactions. I don’t want to overstretch the concept of emotional labour here; rather, I want to point out the way that creative labour, particularly writing, is deeply tied to feelings–thinking about feelings, creating feelings in others. Men are perfectly capable of understanding feelings, as long as it’s filtered through the lense of “literary greatness.”  Even Hemingway and Kerouac were writing about feelings–not too much feeling, of course, just enough to be tragic and manly. Writers of fiction are trying to evoke an emotional reaction in the reader: that’s what the novel does, and that’s also why the novel was condemned when it rose to popularity as a Western literary form.  

When women write, suddenly novels become emotional creations again. The horror. All of those icky girl feelings are derided with sneering genre titles: Women’s fiction. Chick lit. Romance. These genres pass beneath the notice of the literary establishment, mere sop to overemotional women–just as the first novels were way back in the day.  Never mind that the purchasing power of romance readership is all but singlehandedly keeping the publishing industry afloat. Rather than hiding the emotional component of writing under a veneer of cerebral literary respectability, women’s fiction and the fiction women like are often explicitly about feelings, about love and sex and family. These genres validate and valorize women’s lives and feelings; no wonder men hate them so much.

Romance is often made fun of for its sexual content, because of course few things are more awkwardly hilarious than women’s sexual desires. The fantasy of romance is partially the sex, yes. The wild, mind-altering fantasy that women might find lovers (male lovers! men!)  who care about their sexual satisfaction.  

The other fantasy of romance, though–and I would argue, its core fantasy–is that of emotional reciprocation. Romance novels are about couples that risk something profound to be together, and who are rewarded for that risk with a happy ending. Everything will turn out all right, love conquers all. Detractors argue that this is unrealistic. Of course it is: show me one example from that MetaFilter thread of a man going out of his way for his wife, let alone risking something profound for her. The men in romance novels care about the women, more than they care about pretty much anything else; they reciprocate emotionally and contribute to the relationship.  That’s the fantasy.

In a world where women’s emotional labour is so rarely acknowledged and reciprocated, one of the most derided genres is based on a fantasy of emotional intimacy and reciprocation. Read the MeFi thread, and then come over here and remind me about what’s so shameful and stupid about women wanting to read about having their emotional needs met and having amazing sex.

What’s interesting about this fantasy is the fact that it’s collectively produced by and for women.  This is emotionally charged creative work that women do for other women. I’m vastly overgeneralizing about an entire genre here, but I think this broad dynamic between readers and writers of romance is worth discussing, especially within the context of women’s emotional labour. Through these romance heroes, these utterly improbable men, women are reaching out to other women and validating their desires, needs, and experiences. It’s a kind of interpersonal emotional labour conducted through the medium of writing and publishing. Women’s words and women’s work are important not in spite of their emotional content, but because of it. This dynamic is, if not unique to, then most pronounced in the romance genre because of its emotional content and overwhelmingly female authors and readers. The cliche of the romance reader as an unhappy middle aged housewife takes on a different cast in the context of emotional labour. This emblematic reader, emotionally abandoned by her husband, finds solace, validation, and companionship through other women’s words. That’s pretty cool.

Of course, the emblematic reader of romance is implicitly white, straight, and (it almost goes without saying) cisgender and nondisabled. The heroes and heroines of romance fiction are overwhelmingly white, straight, cis, and nondisabled–as are its authors. Only certain kinds of people are understood as loving and loveable; only some kind of emotional labour is being validated and reciprocated through mainstream writing.

There are many wonderful authors, editors, and publishers working to change that; most of them operate online as independent presses or self-pub services. If mainstream romance is the bottom of the literary heap, online romance publishing is in the sub-basement. It’s one of the only places authors writing romance outside of the hetero mainstream can find any kind of platform for their work. This kind of creative emotional work is so devalued it barely registers on the cultural radar, except perhaps as a joke: the realm of anatomical impossibility and unedited dreck. This perception is more a reflection of who’s doing the writing and the feeling, rather than a hard and fast rule about quality. I mean, of course some of this stuff is awful. So is a great deal of literary fiction. In publishing, as in life, the generosity of being judged by your best qualities rather than your worst is not something  afforded to those outside the circle of acceptability as determined by old white dudes.

It’s important, I think, to struggle against that, and to discuss and value the emotional validation and emotional labour components of fiction. Because it’s so important–especially for people who don’t otherwise receive a lot of cultural validation. And because it’s so often work done by women for women, by marginalized people for other marginalized people. To acknowledge emotional work as a strength rather than a weakness or an embarrassment in writing sort of upsets the literary canon, but I think I’m going to start calling boring classics “unemotional” in the same tone of voice critics use for “sentimental” and see where it gets me.  Old white dudes don’t get to be the sole arbiters of whose feelings matter, nor of whose writing matters. Damn the man, write more kissing.



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