Why ‘Old-Chook Lit’ matters

The critic Daniel Mendelsohn has argued that the first role of the critic is to self-criticise. A critic’s choice of words is very revealing about the extent to which they have appraised their own values in the course of reviewing a book.

Like many fellow readers, I have been eagerly awaiting the release of Charlotte Wood’s new book The Weekend. In following the press surrounding its release, I was very disappointed to read a review in the Guardian by Susan Wyndham that stated:

Behind the laughs there is deep humanity, intellect and spirituality, qualities that mark The Weekend as much more than old-chook lit.

What exactly is old-chook lit? Is it a genre of novels about older women for older women? Because if it is, what exactly is the problem? Older women do exist and deserve to be written about. The implication in this phrase that novels featuring older women should just be read by women only perpetuates their social and literary marginalisation. This feeds into the broader problem of the dearth of literature that portrays older people, not just older women, as complex human beings in their own right, as Ceridwen Dovey has detailed in the New Yorker.

There have been flare-ups of the discussion about the invisibility of older women for as long as I can remember. Initially Wyndham’s review put me in mind of this debate. Women are constantly struggling to be seen and heard on their own terms, rather than on terms dictated by or in relation to men. So this seemingly knee-jerk characterisation of work dealing with women’s experiences as frivolous struck me as deeply problematic. It is also surprisingly out of tune with our current social context, in which the Stella and VIDA counts lay bare the gender disparity in publishing and reviewing, and the physical appearances of women writers, rather than their work, still become the subject of so-called reviews.

Further still, there is a heavy dose of irony in the use of this phrase, as Wood’s novel explores key issues around women and aging, such as financial security, the aging body, and the way older women are treated by their families and by society (see Sophia Barnes’ review in the Sydney Review of Books). Wyndham acknowledges this, writing ‘Ageism is another face of sexism: older women are shut out of work, love and financial security; men are still dominant, and now young people are patronising.’ Given this, it is even more odd that she thought it appropriate to use the phrase ‘old chook lit.’

Perhaps Wyndham was attempting, in a clunky way, to draw a distinction between popular and literary fiction. Old chook-lit falls into popular fiction, Wood’s work into the literary category. However this is also problematic, particularly because literary value has a long-held association with male writing, a connection evident as soon as we ask ourselves who gets to decide what has literary value and which writers can enter the canon.

The ANU Academic Julieanne Lamond wrote a wonderful article in the Sydney Review of Books earlier this year that teases out these questions. She traces the rise of the novel as a form, and argues that it started to be regarded as serious, rather than just entertainment, when more men started writing novels. Our idea of the canon, she argues, is shaped significantly by modernism which ‘formed itself in opposition to a notion of feminised, rapacious, disastrous popular culture. Especially popular fiction.’

Emily Maguire has also written about encountering the literary canon when she commenced university education at the age of twenty four:

When I got to uni I read a lot of amazing books I never would have come across otherwise, and I’m forever grateful for that. But I also got infected with this idea of the canon, and the associated conviction that books outside the canon are fine for a certain kind of person – but not for serious readers. Definitely not for serious writers, which is what I wanted to be.

Also, most of the books in the canon were by men. Most of them white. Many of them dead before I was born. And hey, what do you know, it turns out most of the fine-for-a-certain-kind-of-person books – the kind I’d read – were by people who didn’t fit those categories.

So the canon tells us that literature equals greatness equals men, while popular fiction equals inferiority equals women. Lamond argues further that this ‘deeply held association between masculinity and literary value’ makes it ‘easier for a work by a man to cross the line between the popular and the literary than it is for a work by a woman.’

To bolster this claim, Lamond looks at two categories of popular fiction: romance and crime. She asserts that crime fiction, a commercially successful genre, is granted more literary validity because it is dominated by men, while romance is ‘has to keep in its corner. If it’s lucky, it gets released into a bigger corner: variously described but most recently by publishers as ‘commercial fiction’, which is also feminised, also sequestered from the literary.’

Which brings us back to ‘old-chook lit.’ Granted, in a bookshop you are more likely to find Charlotte Wood’s books in the literary fiction section rather than general fiction, but taking this distinction for granted, rather than engaging with the substance of Wood’s work, is a disservice to both the author and the reading public. Critique the representation of women in a novel if it is shallow or the characters are one dimensional in a way that it reveals the author’s sexism or internalised misogyny. But don’t sideline books just because they focus on women.

The Continued Relevance of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband

public and private life are different things. They have different laws, and move on different lines.

 I recently attended a screening of An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde, which had been captured live at the Vaudeville Theatre in London’s West End (and was staged by former Globe Theatre director Dominic Dromgoole’s Classic Spring company). I studied this play in highschool and was glad to have the opportunity to revisit it. At a certain point the protagonist proclaimed:

 

How many men there are in modern life who would like to see their past burning to white ashes before them!

I sat up. These words, written over a hundred and twenty years ago, capture the angst of the #metoo era. Surely this is a sentiment the many high profile men who have lost their jobs over the past twelve months due to accusations of sexual harassment would echo. Could An Ideal Husband be the play for our times?

An Ideal Husband centres on a husband and wife, Sir Robert Chiltern (Nathaniel Parker), and his wife, Gertrude (Sally Bretton). Each partner idolises the other. Sir Robert is Under-Secretary for foreign affairs, while Gertrude devotes herself to worthy causes and proclaims her husband to be beyond reproach in all his dealings. Her belief in his high ideals is the basis of her affection.

However, Sir Robert has a secret in his past. While in his twenties, Sir Robert sold a cabinet secret which made himself and a few other investors rich. This misdeed is the origin of his entire fortune and underpinned his entry into public life. Sir Robert is certain that if Gertrude were to find out, she would end their marriage. Along comes the underhanded Mrs Cheveley (Frances Barber) who threatens to reveal all if Sir Robert will not assist her in a scheme of her own.

The interesting thing about Oscar Wilde’s work is how difficult it is to adapt from its late nineteenth century context. Unlike Shakespeare or Chekhov, whose work can be set in different social and political contexts from which they were intended- and indeed this is often the most interesting thing about contemporary productions of them- Wilde’s work remains rooted in the late Victorian era. The production at hand was no exception. It opened with the characters ballroom dancing, and entailed a procession of gowns, bonnets and button holes.

Wilde’s dialogue and themes, however, remain contemporary. The play premiered in 1895, shortly before Wilde embarked on the disastrous libel lawsuit against the Marquess of Queensberry, father of Wilde’s lover Lord Douglas, that ruined him by revealing his homosexuality. Some critics have argued that Wilde’s own sense of his impending downfall permeates the play. Daniel Mendelsohn, for instance, argued in the New York Review of Books (NYRB) that

When the play’s tortured main character, a man revealed to have a terrible secret in his past, addresses a series of lengthy, impassioned, and nakedly illogical pleas for sympathy to his wife—a woman whom he goes on to chastise for having insufficient sympathy for his flaws—it is impossible not to think of Wilde himself.

Emer O’Sullivan, author of a biography that deals with the sexual downfalls of both Wilde and his father, also argues that “these satires on the good wife were connected to the estranged relations with [his wife] Constance… But he also universalised the blackness in his own heart, letting his feelings of fear out in a burst as he pictures Sir Robert’s future.”

Such claims can easily be upheld. In one scene, for instance, Sir Robert entreats to his wife that “no one should be judged entirely on their past.” Gertrude disagrees, proclaiming “One’s past is what one is. It is the only way by which people should be judged.”

I also feel that this exchange is strongly reminiscent of the public discussions that follow allegations of sexual misconduct against yet another high profile man as the #metoo movement continues. How does someone who has behaved badly in the past genuinely atone for their wrongdoing? And what does the public do with this new cache of information?

While the links to Wilde’s increasingly precarious marital situation are apparent in the exchanges between Sir Robert and Lady Chiltern, his use of dramatic irony comically and poignantly reveals broader tensions between public and private morality. Where in Shakespeare insight is often revealed by the fool, in Wilde it is the dandy who speaks the truth. So it is Lord Goring (Freddie Fox), who has an intense commitment to selecting the right buttonhole and “only [talks] seriously on the first Tuesday in every month, from four to seven,” who ultimately emerges as the play’s guiding light. Through some comic maneuvering he saves Sir Robert Chiltern’s reputation and marriage, and, as Emer O’Sullivan points out, “The dandy stands between stage and audience, orientating the public’s moral perception from inside the play…distancing them from their moral expectations with urbane witticisms that reduce the social order to predictable duplicity.” The audience is implicated in the duplicity. Just as Wilde was both a product of his society and a manifestation of its hypocritical moral code, Lord Goring lulls the audience into a false sense of security with his comic armory, then demolishes it as viewers are forced to laugh at themselves.

Ultimately, in An Ideal Husband, as in many of his plays, the foibles and false virtues of Wilde’s society are hidden in plain sight- as are the misdeeds of the men caught up in #metoo. Daniel Mendelsohn summed this up in his NYRB piece:

…in order to do justice to Wilde, to both the life and the art, we must always strive to see not only the exaltation but the humiliation, not only the pathos and suffering but the ubris and arrogance, not only the dazzling clarity of vision about the flaws in his society but a penchant for self-deception that suggested a profound self-destructiveness, not only the beauty but the peril. Wilde himself saw it all too clearly, if too late: an intricate appreciation of the complex and often deceptive relationship between things as they really are and things as we wish them to be.

I’m not suggesting that Wilde’s work is the ideal vehicle for deconstructing modern misogyny. It does not have the force of Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The female characters are thinly drawn- although it could be argued that Wilde had an eye for the suffering induced by a stultifying husband. Similarly, a couple of witty epithets does not amount to a reckoning of the systematic violence against women that the #metoo movement seeks to expose. Wilde does, however, impart a salutary lesson on hero worship, by pointing out that commitment to an ideal is often premised on willful blindness. He would subsequently take this concern to extremes in The Importance of Being Earnest, in which two female characters dream of falling in love with men called Earnest, then latch on to men who call themselves Earnest purely to win their affections. The play premiered in February 1895. By May of that year he had been sentenced to hard labor and became the subject of his society’s taunts and jeers.

There is so much more that could be said, if only a director could find a way to stage a contemporary adaptation.

 

Further Reading

Emer O’Sullivan, The Fall of the House of Wilde, Bloomsbury.

Daniel Mendelson, The Two Oscar Wildes, NYRB