Change Through Trash

Women's Review of Books
JULY, 1989


Five years after writing an article on historical fiction called "Pop Goes the Novel," I was more pissed off than ever about condescension to genre fiction. Asked why I write the way I do by The Women's Review of Books, I told them.  Some of the thoughts repeat those in the previous article but there is much more here on my own work. 


            “Why do you write the way you do?" she asked me." And how is that?" I murmured, taken aback by the idea that I write only one way. "These historical novels." Subtext: Genre literature. Trash.
            I do it for love and money. I do it for fun. I do it to change the world.
            I like historical novels. Should I scorn a genre that has given me knowledge and pleasure just because she's fallen on hard times? (Since the historical novel these days is written largely by women for an audience of their own sex, I shall use the female pronoun.) She is more to be pitied than censured. Born of noble stock, she is descended from romantic epic on the maternal side, and fathered by none other than history. A proud lineage! Yet today we find her dressed in lurid covers, lounging around corner drugstores, airport lobbies and Greyhound bus stations, hobnobbing with gothic novels, Westerns, pulp magazines and mere pornography. Pictorially arrayed in a low-cut gown, she can even be found hawking her wares in the advertising pages of journals who seldom allow her to be reviewed in their columns.
            Most critics of reputation see the historical novel not as a kind of novel but as a form of subliterary life, having a generic rather than an individual existence. Partly this is due to the debasement of the form. Partly it is snobbery. The literary taste that prevails in high-art circles was set in the I950s, when those in charge of literary standards decided art must turn its back on history and politics. "A poem should not mean but be," wrote Archibald MacLeish in words that became dogma for the novel as well. The canon of major modernists was limited to such figures as Eliot, Pound, Joyce and Celine, excluding those of more radical or pop sensibilities (like Louis Aragon, Kenneth Fearing, Henry Miller, Dos Passos), particularly those who combined progressive opinions with literary accessibility. Not to mention women.
            The historical novel did not disappear under this assault; it had too large a public for that. But it became a taboo form for young writers desiring recognition, and sank to its present status as a mass-produced cultural artifact, a mere commodity, like the Western, the soap opera. the romance—the lumpenproletariat of literature. When noticed by reviewers at all, it is-called names like "a beach book" or "summer fiction," meaning pap for those too infantilized to be able to digest meat and potatoes.
            I used to review genre novels myself at $25 a shot for Kirkus Reviews, a job I got through a want ad in the New York Times in I977. I had moved to New York the year before, a single mother, and my women's group was trying to help me get my life together, no easy task. I had no academic credentials since I had abandoned my thesis to do political work. I was earning my living as a secretary and spending my free time trying to build a reproductive rights movement and take care of my three-year-old daughter with no help and no money. The Rising of the Women, a history book I had worked on for years, had just been rejected by its original publisher.[i]
            Reading genre fiction for Kirkus, seeing how little most authors cared about history, I thought: I could do better than this with one hand tied behind me. It would be neat to write a novel about the Women's Trade Union League and the I909 shirtwaist strike, which I had already researched. Try it, said my women's group. One of them was friends with a literary agent; if I wrote a book proposal, she would show it to her. The agent called me back very quickly. She said it was the best book proposal she had ever seen and she wanted to go to auction. Bemused by the whole thing, preoccupied with my daughter and politics, not understanding much about publishing or believing anything could get me out of the trough I was in, I said okay. She auctioned it for a sum she thought the most that had ever been given for an unwritten first novel.
            It is very hard to write these words even now, ten years later. It's not just dislike of bragging and industry hype—I have an atavistic Jewish fear that, if you're doing all right, it means God is setting you up. I told no one of my good fortune for months, overwhelmed by terror of both success and failure.
            But Rivington Street was very satisfying to write, particularly after doing a history book in which I could only tell stories I could prove. I had always wondered, for instance, how it felt to wear corsets. Now I could dramatize my curiosity; I ended up having two of my characters, a rich suffragist and a Lower East Side needleworker, invent the brassiere. Rivington Street (1982) and its sequel, Union Square (1988),[ii]which takes the same characters through the twenties and thirties, are the kind of historical novels called family sagas in the trade. A cross between the novel of social realism and the historical romance, family sagas (say, Evergreen) usually celebrate the American way by following an immigrant family up the social scale, mixing entertainment with enough historical fact to satisfy a public of autodidacts. While family sagas occasionally portray famous incidents in the class struggle, particularly the industrial trials of first-generation immigrants, they do not challenge the liberal consensus version of American history any more than a pickpocket challenges capitalism.
            Mine are different. Rivington Street is centered in the nexus of Jews, politics, the union movement and the women's movement that came together on the Lower East Side in the first decade of this century; among other things, it presents a picture of the garment industry from the point of production to the point of distribution. I wanted to show the part of American Jewish history which was shaped, not by the rush to the suburbs, but by class consciousness and politics.
            And I wanted to create strong women characters who feel themselves part of history and change it, like Hannah, who brings her family across an ocean and, though hating her husband's socialist politics, is more rooted in reality than he is; Sarah, her father's daughter, a labor leader and a communist, who has trouble with men; Rachel, a free spirit, feminist and bohemian, who marries a rich man but doesn't live happily ever after; dreamy Ruby, who wants to be an American success story and doesn't see why being a girl should stop her; and Tish, the rebellious daughter of a society family, who tries to find herself in art and the women's movement and, finally, flees to Europe where she can be free to love other women. All of them are composites, made up of parts of me combined with various historical characters.
            I wrote Rivington Street with passion and high seriousness, and assumed it would be read the same way. It was in some places. But the New York Times review (which I was very lucky to get) made it clear that what I had written was not literature, but an article of commerce:
            The principal virtue of a good historical novel is not, as 10th-grade history teachers and writers of the stuff say, its ability to take historical events and make them come alive. Those of us for whom the genre is an answer to insomnia, the Metroliner or afternoons at the beach know that the best historical novel is a big historical novel. There must be lots of characters, preferably related, and plenty of plot . . . Meredith Tax is a knowledgeable feminist, and her concerns are shown to advantage in her women characters—people who think seriously and passionately about work, politics, friendship, and sex. In the end, however, despite all the talk and all the action, happiness, for this is summer-weight fiction, consists in large part in finding the right man.[iii]
            The New York Times has enough power to set the terms in which products of culture are generally viewed, at least until the fashion changes. It treated my next book, Union Square, with more respect but, while noting I had an educational mission, was clearly uneasy about taking a generic product seriously:
            Meredith Tax writes edifying romances, airplane fiction with political content…a kind of "politically correct" but popular fiction….For those weaned on made-for-television minidramas, who can best meet history as popular fiction, she is a blessing.[iv]
            Does such condescension hurt? Sure, it hurts. So does not being able to get grants and not being asked to give readings in university writing programs and not being noticed in critical articles about feminist fiction. But play in the dirt, you get dirty. I am a 68er. My generation does not shudder away from popular culture; we use it. If I must choose between literary prestige and a mass audience, there's no choice: I can only be true to myself by being true to myself-when-young.
            I spent a lot of my high school years hanging out in the local shopping mall, reading historical romances from the revolving racks at Walgreens. Certainly most of what I learned about history and sex during those years, I learned from Forever Amber, Desiree, Gone With the Wind, not to mention Kenneth Roberts and all those war books filled with dirty words. Biding my time till I could escape, waiting for experience, I collected ideas and information.
            I want to reach restless, angry timebombs like I was then with the news about sex and class and the joys of political struggle. I want to teach them to look at society as a whole. Most people who understand society do so because they stand at its peak. The middle and top of a pyramid are invisible to those who hold it up; they may not even realize it is a pyramid. Often they blame themselves for their squashed condition and think, because all the people they know are powerless, that no one has power. Society is mysterious to them and they cannot imagine how to change it.
            I want to get the knowledge of how society works—the class system, the family system—into the hands of those who need it most. I think it is easier to present this wide view in the past than in the present: in history, the returns are already in; one can lay out the class structure, the way women are part of each class, the way racism affects everything. Once people learn to think in terms of race, class and sex, they can think about the present, too. But books that teach this are usually hard to read and not on sale in Walgreens.
            I thought: if I could put this way of thinking into a book with stories and characters— making sure it was the kind of book that would get into the paperback racks and even have a cover that made it look like all the other books people read on their way to work (because you can't tell a book by its cover)—maybe I could help people learn how to change the world.
            I want to empower my readers. I want to raise the level of political education in this country, where most people think politics is something sleazy you get into if you don't want to work at an honest job. I want to show that political struggle can be as exciting and passionate as sex. That is why I write the way I do.
[i] This was McGraw-Hill. After substantial rewriting, The Rising of the Women was published by Monthly Review Press in 1980. I have told this story in more detail in “l Had Been Hungry All the Years," an essay in Between Women, edited by Carol Ascher, Louise DeSalvo and Sara Ruddick (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984).
[ii] Rivington Street and Union Square were published by Morrow; Rivington Street was published as a mass-market paperback by Berkeley Jove in 1983. Both novels were republished by Avon at the end of 1989. [They are now back in print with the University of Illinois Press.]
[iii] Jean Zorn, "The Levys and the Macbeths," New York Times Book Review, July 25, 1982.
[iv] Eden Ross Lipson, "Downtown, Where the Action Was," New York Times Book Review, January 1, 1989.