It is conventional wisdom that men don’t read books by women very much. I am not sure of the basis for this belief. It may well be true and is probably because in our prejudiced way, men are not much interested in women’s ideas. Or it might also be because it is a bit frightening to know what they really think about life and their experience of the male. The female gaze can fall far short of romantic.
The emergence of the romantic novel at the end of the C18th was much welcomed by female readers – though regarded with suspicion by the masculine intelligentsia of the time. It may be that Jane Austen should be regarded as the doyenne of female romantic novelists. She brought to the literary party a more nuanced and ironic account of the underlying social and inter-personal relationships inherent within the girl -meets -boy storyline. Sex as such was not mentioned although it implicitly infused the narrative.
For the purposes of this train of thought and the review and with respect to many fine female writers in between (whose novels were generally informed by ideas other than the primarily ‘romantic’), I would argue that there is a straight line between Austen and Erica Jong. Her novel Fear of Flying was written and published at the height of the Women’s Lib movement. It departed from Austen in that it was written in the first person and with shocking – to some – candour explored the narrator’s break for personal and sexual freedom.
Leaping forward along the same track to the second decade of the second millennium and we arrive at Caitlin Moran. Here is a woman with a strong point of view on almost everything. She is also very witty and a terrific writer. You wouldn’t want her gaze turned on you if it were hostile. You would also need to make sure your game was up to snuff if she liked you. Bur although Moran is primarily a journalist and non-fiction writer her 2018 novel How To Be Famous is definitely of the romance genre despite its contemporary acerbity.
The main Jong/Moran evolution from Austen has two linked aspects. The female sexual experience is explicit and the narrative is first person. Austen’s cool and delicate observation of patriarchy has become in Jong’s work a more powerful and self-confident if more egocentric expression of female identity: even more so in Moran’s. All of which has been ably fostered by the digital age.
By the end of the 1980s we had all become the ‘me’ generation. The internet and social media have made it inevitable that it will primarily and always be ‘about me’. My breakfast, my opinions, my views on make-up technique and my sex life. How many friends or followers I have is essential to my self-worth and hopefully my bank balance. This access to self-expression has had a powerful attraction for women not least because they can compete on more equal terms with men in terms of ‘share of voice’. It probably explains some of the grisly abuse they receive.
It was therefore inevitable that this revolution would result in even more books being written, often by women – and why not?
Has Anyone Seen My Sex Life? Is apparently Kristen Bailey’s first. Her narrator is clearly of the self-consciously bad girl sort – loud in wine bars, drinks too much, fucks ad.lib. She reminds me of what Bridget Jones could have become – girl meets boy and marries him and then what? This is not a criticism of the book. To talk of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ writing is irrelevant. Bailey is not Caitlin Moran but she tells her story with panache and has an ear for dialogue. This is a metropolitan romance of our times. It is probably what we have become, judging from my experiences in the gastro pubs of London inner suburbs such as Putney; and echoes something of the female experience that informed Erica Jong. BBC’s Radio 4 Woman’s Hour would recognize the tropes of the heroine’s existence whilst blanching at her vulgarity. The cover blurb describes the book as ‘hilarious’. It may be. In the words of Miss Jean Brodie ‘For those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like’.
I quite liked the sound of the author from her epilogue ‘Letter from Kristen’ and the ‘Acknowledgements’ section. This is why, although it’s not really a book for me to treasure, I think it should play entertainingly well with any female under 40 and the occasional bloke too.