By Gabriel Carlyle
December 2015- January 2016
A self-described ‘socialist-anarchist-feminist’, the US activist and writer Marge Piercy is the author of 17 novels, spanning a wide range of different genres including science fiction, as well as one of North America’s best-selling poets.
Nonetheless, this latest addition to PM’s excellent ‘Outspoken Authors’ series eschews fiction to focus on ‘essays, rants and railleries’. The latter cover a wide variety of topics, including abortion, homelessness, censorship, the tragedy of Marilyn Monroe, the role of politics in fiction, and a moving essay on Piercy’s own discovery of feminism.
Not one to mince her words, she believes that people in the US ‘are being trained from infancy into a people… with the attention span of a puppy and the intellectual curiosity of a stale doughnut’, and that ‘one reason too many American novelists… have atrophied, producing their best work out of the concerns of late adolescence and early adulthood, is that since they do not care to grapple with or even to identify powerful forces in our society, they can’t understand more than a few stories’.
Why should this matter? Because literature, she argues, has power and can ‘help us survive and win’ – if we bother to read and support it.
Though it often squanders the opportunity, speculative fiction can ‘enable the reader to enter worlds in which important variables have changed or in which current trends are extrapolated and we can see the full danger and damage’. And ‘it is by imagining what we truly desire that we begin to go there’.
It is no accident, Piercy argues, that ‘classlessness is pervasive in feminist visionary fiction’ and that many of the utopian novels written by women ‘are deeply concerned with sharing the prestigious, the interesting, the rewarding opportunities’ alongside ‘the daily invisible labour that underlies society’. Likewise, that these same novels often ‘envision women’s sexual energy loosed and free to redefine sexuality individually and collectively.’
Throughout, Piercy’s feminism, working-class perspective and rich life-experience come together to generate sharp and memorable conclusions. One favourite: ‘The real heroes of many people on the Left and in the women’s community are failures who remain pure according to a scriptural line and speak only to one another.’
Midway through reading this short book, I stumbled across two of Piercy’s novels (one very thick) in a second-hand bookshop. I immediately purchased them both.