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17 - Gender and Genre: Short Fiction, Feminism and Female Experience

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 November 2016

Sabine Coelsch-Foisner
University of Salzburg
Dominic Head
University of Nottingham
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When the Canadian writer Alice Munro was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2013, the jury's express appraisal of a woman short story writer brought to wider public attention both the vitality of the genre at the turn of the millennium and the outstanding tradition of prize-winning women practitioners of the art: Nadine Gordimer, Doris Lessing and Alice Munro are all Nobel Prize winners; A. S. Byatt, Margaret Atwood and Gordimer have each won the Booker Prize. Their work suggests deeper ties between female experience and short fiction. As for the post-Second World War era, which forms the historical focus of this chapter, these ties need to be explored in terms of the short story's modernist legacy, its material conditions and affinities with second-wave feminism, as well as its connection with postmodern ethics and aesthetics. The central topics for this discussion are: the concern with continuities and discontinuities in the histories of individuals, cultures and nations; the probing into power structures; and the interest in alternative identities, lifestyles and modes of expression.

These issues will be brought together in this chapter, which shows how the short story has answered and shaped a feminine consciousness both within and beyond the feminist frameworks of the 1970s and 1980s. While feminism has provided groundbreaking ideas for the study of women's writing, its political agendas were often met with reservations by the writers themselves, who feared essentialist traps and new forms of discrimination. Significantly, Nadine Gordimer, who approved of the modernist ideal of the ‘androgynous’ writer, objected to being shortlisted for the 1998 Orange Prize on the grounds of its recognition of women writers only.

This chapter concentrates on women short story writers who came to maturity in the decades after the Second World War: Jean Rhys (Ella Williams, 1890–1979), Elizabeth Coles Taylor (1912–1975), Doris Lessing (1919–2013), Nadine Gordimer (1923–2014), Alice Munro (1931–), Fay Weldon (1931–), A. S. Byatt (1936–), Margaret Atwood (1939–), Angela Carter (1940–92) and Marina Warner (1946–). Coming from different cultural backgrounds and witnessing the watersheds in European and colonial history from different corners in the world, theirs were divided feelings of alienation and submission, empathy, rage and revolt. Although the overall work of these writers traverses most of the twentieth century, they are far from forming a coherent generation. Rhys, Taylor, Lessing and Gordimer form the older group.

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2016

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Hanson, Clare, ed., Re-reading the Short Story (New York: St Martin's Press, 1989).
Gardiner, Judith Kegan, Rhys, Stead, Lessing and the Politics of Empathy (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989).
Leclerq, Florence, Elizabeth Taylor (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1985).
Malcolm, Cheryl Alexander and Malcolm, David, eds., A Companion to the British and Irish Short Story (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008).
Patea, Viorica, ed., Short Story Theories: A Twenty-First-Century Perspective (Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2012).
Sage, Lorna, ed., Flesh and the Mirror: Essays on the Art of Angela Carter (London: Virago, 1994).
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