every novel is about generations of women, I tweeted a little while ago. Lots of people I’d gone to grad school with or done a fellowship with or attended book events with replied to it along the lines of noooooo and how are you looking at my computer right now and *eyes emoji* and drag me!!!!!!, because all of our novels-in-progress were, of course, about generations of women. When you’re a young writer, it’s appealing to swing big with parallels, with depth; it’s comforting to think that you can graft your child-self onto the page as a little sister character while also demonstrating a deep understanding of the inner lives of older women because every Tuesday and Wednesday nights after classes and readings and signings you drink in the same bar as Patricia Clarkson.
It was easy for me to fire off a little post making gentle fun of my and my contemporaries’ inadequacies and quirks and samenesses. But there really are more and more generations of women novels everywhere: novels of different eras and different genres and different degrees of readability all revolving around a toothless device that plops into its characters’ laps an inheritance of historical baggage rather than allowing their stories to take shape as histories of their own.
In Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, a very good generations of women novel, a pair of sisters are raised, for a time, by their aunt in the sweet, old, ultimately suffocating house in which she and their dead mother grew up. In Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, a hot woman learns from her grandmother that she’s a direct descendant of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene. Most generations of women novels fall somewhere in between these two stories: not quite immersive reckonings with what it means to be a member of a family that can’t leave a place behind, not quite Princess Jesus mystery-fantasies.
Billed as sweeping or stunning, these books’ implicit promise to their readers, who are mostly women, is that they can, by reading them, understand what it is to be women from women. But what’s this trend doing to women’s literature, whatever “women’s literature” means? What are books about eons full of women packed against each other and preserved through the years like little tinned fish accomplishing? Are novelists writing and rewriting these books out of a sense of pressure to find something poignant and expansive to say — something that’s effectively been blurbed by time itself? And why are they all titled All The Endless Many Things We Didn’t Know We Lost in the Fire?
Searching the Publishers Marketplace’s database for the phrase “generations of women” turns up pages and pages of the cramped, iridescent word salad in which PM deal announcements — the peely-plastic participation trophies of the publishing industry — are composed. Recently uncovered crimes of the past threaten to tear apart three generations of women. A mysterious curse haunts three generations of one family’s women. Two generations of women gather to celebrate the magic of the Christmas season. Four generations of women face down their shared regrets. Five generations of women deal with how trauma affects their relationships. Three generations of women grapple with violence at the hands of the men in their lives. Four generations of women harbor dangerous secrets that threaten to tear them all apart. The myths and legends of seven generations of women in a single eccentric family echo to each other through the ages.
Most of the time, generations of women novels are about three generations of women. That’s how I did it in my own failed attempt at a first book: there was a mother, and her daughters, and a symbolic sketch of a dead relative several generations back whose purpose in their lives I could never quite figure out. She was supposed to warn them about ecological collapse, or about how cruel men could be. Three generations is a difficult enough feat, so I’m not buying into these four- and five- and seven-generation timelines. And even when the timeline’s more restrained or when the women aren’t all related, generations of women novels gesture emptily at the concept of “time.” In Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, a less-good example, three generations of women write, mull, playact Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway as they consider how miserable womanhood is. Patterns and symbols common to their lives ooze and seep beautifully off the pages; but isn’t that what patterns do when we’re scanning for them everywhere, when we’re trying to gather them together, when we’re lining them up in an order that’ll confirm something for us?
These books’ implicit promise to their readers, who are mostly women, is that they can, by reading them, understand what it is to be women from women.
It isn’t just literary fiction, either. In generations of women romances, thrillers, and whodunits, imparting a sense of history promises to add a layer of depth to schlocky stories about murdered women, women murderers, women who travel back in time to have sex with viscounts. Sometimes it’s effective — as in Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects, a mainstream and great mystery about white Southern femininity and the violence it’s spawned unchecked for centuries. Sometimes, as in the Outlander series, it’s about finding a way to make a story about getting your colonizer guts churned like butter feel epic, feminist, rooted in a sense of destiny.
At their best, generations of women novels build access points to stolen pasts. Cornerstones of the genre — Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits — deal in real ways with how political and sexual violence, displacement, racism, and the stultifying pressures of life in a female body inform how families of women connect to one another, or are kept from connecting. And several contemporary generations of women books make assertions about inheritance, abuse, class, and religion that feel surprising and new: Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, Sarah Manguso’s Very Cold People. But more often than not, the bulk of these books resist letting stories about women be about the women in the stories; they imply that every woman must be haunted by a secret, or rippling with hidden grief, or pinned invisibly by the weight of the lives of every woman who’s come before her like a moth in a shadowbox. More often than not, these panged books tear muscles reaching backward into time to justify themselves. In this way, it seems to me, generations of women novels seem to be a near-perfect synecdoche for the larger state of novel-writing today: the machinery of the publishing industry turns and turns, comparing and connecting things that shouldn’t be compared or connected, using its own past to promise itself it has a future.
lol, texted a friend when I told her about this essay; every novel is about “grappling.” Another wrote me to say that every novel is actually about “the true cost of war.” Every novel is deeply felt. Every novel is new and noteworthy for one libidinous week. And while every novel, I can recognize, isn’t really about generations of women, all novels are ever-more-often about every other novel. And every writer is forced to pretend that they aren’t, smiling gun-to-their head smiles as they help one another shepherd their stories out into the world and onto the shelves of local indies through the smudgy keyholes of Zoom rectangles.
When I walk down a block where all the shops are flower shops or where all the offices are law offices, when I hold up foot traffic in the grocery because I can’t pick between breakfast bar brands, when I search Amazon for something as generic as “wall hook,” I’m thinking to myself generations of women; my catch-all, now, for everything that has to be like everything else, even women themselves, who go back generations.
I read recently about how when cats walk, their back paws fall into the prints left by their front ones, concealing their tracks so their prey’s less likely to see them coming. New fiction — fiction about women, I’m maybe-dumbly venturing to say, most of all — has to fit neatly in its own paw print or else warn someone away.
Alexandra Tanner is a Brooklyn-based writer and the fiction editor of Triangle House Review.