Sexts before Texting: Putting Pen to Vagina in Women’s Fiction

By Lili Owen-Rowlands

Sometimes I imagine Toni Morrison and Doris Lessing sitting at their desks writing. I think myself into their foreheads – that space at the front of the mind where images feel like they are held. In that space I see vaginas: deep and dark and soft vortexes. Lessing and Morrison inscribe these vaginas into their work, aligning their narratives to elliptical, uncertain forms.

Lessing and Morrison wrote ‘sexts’, seminal and revolutionary ones, that span pages, win Nobel prizes. Yet this notion of a ‘sext’ was birthed long before images of grossly pink glandular organs ping-ponged between mobile phone users, before lovers narrated imagined and real sexual acts through the medium of SMS. In 1975 the French Algerian polymath Hélène Cixous first coined the term ‘sext’ in her book The Laugh of the Medusa, a polemical treatise on écriture féminine [feminine writing](it is worth noting that the French word féminine is not laden with the soft and passive connotations of its English equivalent). This transgressive literature should figure forth a woman’s body and sexuality; Cixous enthusiastically encouraged the emancipatory power of feminine language and form to subvert the patriarchal literary canon. The hybrid term ‘sext’ is used by Cixous to textualise sex, to textualise gender.

Literature was always a ‘sext’ but one that centred unquestionably on the penis. Western literature is best characterised by its unyielding faith in logos, the phallus of which Derrida sagaciously termed phallogocentricism. Literature is both ‘logocentric’ in that it hinges on the dominance of Apollonian thought and determinateness, and ‘phallocentric’ because it upholds the patriarchal privileging of these values while nullifying their supposedly Dionysian counter-concepts such as emotion and uncertainty. Such binaries are explained using Saussurean structuralism: the phallus represents ‘presence’ while the vagina embodies ‘absence’. This boils down further to a penis/nothing dichotomy that necessarily entails the subordination of women; it was this Cixous sought to dissolve through écriture féminine. In sum, the dominant masculine discourse is one that reaches toward concreteness and assumes an apparent mastery of syntax and language. Male experience in literature says something, with inherent authority, of the human condition. I imagine this stems from the historic conjunction of man’s identity with institution and production: the world is made in His image and as such He carries the onus of both a distinct ‘self’ and a veneration for cogito. Big things happen in writing – I say ‘writing’ because the idea of ‘men’s writing’ sounds tautological– and it is rich with discovery, there are wars, loves, murders. It is in this way that literary texts bear the mark of gendered libidinal economies within which women and their vaginas have been negated.

(Slight digression: this is notwithstanding those books rendered domiciliary or ‘chick lit’ and then relegated to the roasting hands of sunbathers. While few of these novels would constitute great literature they are widely read yet under-reviewed, such is the status of our contemporary notion of women’s writing. This stands in stark contrast to the ‘domestic’ scenes of Ian McEwan, Jonathan Franzen, hell maybe even Nick Hornby which are considered so earth-shatteringly profound that they are bound in dark, minimalist dust jackets and read by both genders.)

Écriture féminine remains contested. Firstly, because Cixous and other proponents have rarely specified the features that might constitute such writing other than highly theoretical or vague descriptions of their own fiction. Secondly, because the essentialist undertones of gendered writing appear as equally limiting as the patriarchal novelistic form that Cixous so derided. To be bound by the signature of one’s work is troublesome. Sylvia Plath recorded in her journals a fear that her writing might only amount to a ‘woman’s world, weighted with heavy descriptive passages and a kaleidoscope of images’.  Very recently Sheila Heti (author of How Should a Person Be?) espouses a similar thought in her own journal: ‘don’t think of yourself as a woman while you are writing’. Yet the beauty of  it écriture feminine, lies in its polysemy. The ‘sext’ that Cixous asks women write is no pink cage or monolithic version of femininity. Écriture feminine is writing with a total openness, it is fluid and forgiving.

Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), a tale of African-American emancipation and infanticide, is a beautiful example of textualising experience as it is felt by woman and not how it is seen by man. The narrative opens as Sethe, a mother and the murderer of her child, leans against the grave of her dead daughter and utters, ‘I am Beloved and she is mine’. From herein the narration is entrusted to no individual protagonist. Voice, person and space are disrupted, folded, merged. Morrison privileges the sensorial, the corporeal: loneliness ‘can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up; holding, holding on this motion.’ She writes that the self might be touched, can be mended: ‘[t]he pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order’. Morrison’s earlier novel Sula (1973) poses a plethora of inconclusive ethical questions and equally embodies the non-phallic, plurality of femaleness. The patchy and episodic nature of the text keeps the reader in a haze, devoid of concrete meaning and coherence. We drown in this indeterminateness, in Morrison’s radical restructuring of time, everything feels, well, very hard to pin down.

None of the above says much of vaginas. Women’s writing does not have a monopoly on fragmented narratives or disrupted temporalities. Indeed much writing that is labelled post-modern, avant-garde or experimental is often abstractly playful in form. And yet the point of écriture féminine is not to amass a list of tropes incontrovertibly isolated to women – narrative arcs that must literally rise and fall like the double crest of two breasts or spin into crazed emotion every twenty-eight pages- but rather to posit a form that metaphorically reflects the female body and its apprehension of time, of meaning, of truth. Without sounding too much like a prude sex education teacher, my point is that a woman’s body can be said to experience time and events in a more circular fashion and her erogenous zones are many, unlike the somewhat unidirectional rise and fall of the post-coital penis. Écriture féminine therefore contravenes this symbolic linearity while positing that reality cannot be reduced to one single, phallus-shaped version of events.

Marguerite Duras spoke of ‘breaking the whole thing down’ through writing. Doris Lessing penned actual breakdowns in The Golden Notebook (1962) and The Summer Before the Dark (1973). The madness of these writers deterritorialises the male dominance of literature and its striated space of fixity and certainty. Lessing in particular embraces liquid doublings of identity by accommodating ‘otherness’, by admonishing the existence of an easily identifiable, autonomous self. ‘The Golden Notebook’ details the five notebooks (black, yellow, red, blue and gold) of protagonist Anna Wulf’s endlessly grim domestic life, jilted love, cold-war anxiety, writer’s block and schizoid breakdown. Lessing pairs a single character with multiple narratives inducing in the reader both vertiginous nausea and mild confusion but all the while granting Anna the versatility to be a mother, writer, communist, lover and friend; a succession of selves that coexist independently, non-sacrificially. Most significantly, however, is Lessing’s use of the notebook as a response to the limiting novelistic form. She writes the character of Anna: a struggling writer who begins a novel in the yellow notebook about Ella, herself a struggling novelist. These layers of meta-textual literary failings underline a mistrust for the novel’s capacity to convey any notion of the feminine self, all of which is discernible through Lessing’s inclusion of crossings out, revisions and anxiety about language. As Anna says: ‘[w]ords. Words. I play with words, hoping that some combination, even a chance combination, will say what I want.’

Yet Lessing was famously ambivalent toward labels, particularly those that deemed her a feminist. I think she thought it was irrelevant to comport to any scrupulous doctrine, resenting the crystallisation of her works into historical monuments of ideology. Nevertheless, écriture féminine does not stipulate nuanced feminist discourse. Cixous makes few demands of the woman writer at all and the nebulous definitions that she does provide imbibe the core tenet of écriture féminine itself: unrestricted narrative openness. Morrison and Lessing counter the dominant penile-trend in literature by interrogating our predilection for unity of place, time and action, our love for the univocal narrator. They embrace uncertainty and challenge the hegemony of reason. The necessity to assert the primacy of the oppressed form, here being women’s writing, is far from ideal but nevertheless strategically important. I am never supportive of gendered enclosure but the hierarchy of binary opposition has a unique tendency to perpetually reconstitute itself. Without a revisioning of our phallogocentric, Western notions of truth and certainty through literature this binary may never be broken. We need freewheeling women novelists to break the whole thing down, break the binaries open. Pens in hand, vaginas in mind.

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One Response to “Sexts before Texting: Putting Pen to Vagina in Women’s Fiction”
  1. OWelby says:

    A really great article, thank you, and I agree with you on many points in particular your call to arms of ” freewheeling women novelists” in which literature is still certainly lacking. However, I feel that it is worth rethinking these ideas beyond their particular context of second-wave feminism. As you rightly stated, woman’s writing does not have the monopoly on plurality, fragmented narratives or disrupted temporalities, and I don’t think these trends are intrinsically “feminine” (half of a binary that I have trouble with anyway), despite biological differences. Rather, I think it is crucial to remember that the power of fiction lies in the very language used which, through its manipulation, permits writer and reader (regardless of gender) access to any perspective, any time, any body. It is most importantly this free position acquired through language which should continue to be explored by both male and female writers. And perhaps due to the dominance of men within this discipline, it is a position that is more easily accessed by male writers.

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