Ron Rash’s Women Trouble

Discussing his new novel, Serena, with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Ron Rash brings up an interesting point:

“It struck me as I got deeper in the book that there are very few women in American literature who have real power,” he says. “There are plenty of women who have power within a family, but women who have the real kind of power, to kill people, to control a 100 men, as in this case. That was intriguing to me; we don’t have that many views of that kind of women, particularly during the Depression.”

is on my to-read pile, so I can’t speak to the specifics of Rash’s definition of a powerful woman. But if the standard is a woman who runs armies, cities, companies, he may have a point. There are plenty of novels about successful, empowered women (Sister Carrie is the first to pop into my head, for whatever reason), but not on Rash’s terms. Maybe it’s an improperly framed question—outside of spy novels, there isn’t too much fiction specifically about male leaders. (Excepting Sinclair Lewis; inside my brain this morning, World War II hasn’t yet begun.) But this can’t be entirely a dead zone—female power brokers in American fiction? Anybody?

7 thoughts on “Ron Rash’s Women Trouble

  1. Okay — you’ve stumped me (but I’ll keeping thinking).

    I think the framing of the question is problematic. Anytime a writer starts talking “types” of fictional characters, you veer into dangerous territory and risk completely sucking the soul and dimension from the character you’re trying to create. In this case, you would become so intent on having a woman project her power that all other sides of her character are abandoned. Unfortunately, in the case of Rash’s Serena (which I reviewed in the October edition of Open Letters here), I believe the typecasting worked contrary to the creation of a deep and enduring fictional character.

  2. Thanks, Karen. It may say something that after a couple of days the only example I can think of is the film producer in Rick Moody’s “The Diviners”—who’s cruel and abusive to staff, and morbidly obese in a way that’s played for laughs—she can’t live without her daily infusions of Krispy Kremes….

  3. So… it’s a few days later and all I can come up in terms of power-wielding women are characters from movies. And the best example out of those is Eleanor of Aquataine in “Lion in Winter” (Katherine Hepburn, of course). She’s clever and cruel, powerful yet vulnerable — all the complicated pieces of the psyche that should be explored when talking about power.

    It would be interesting to put Eleanor up against the Krispy Kreme woman to see which power-wieldng woman would prevail.

  4. You have to read Serena. Rash certainly achieved his goal of a creating a woman with absolute power, who was also complex. I disagree with Karen when she implies Serena Pemberton was without complexity or depth of character. There are moments in the novel where she is very vulnerable (though they are often overshadowed by the more over-the-top moments where she is displaying her power).

    The result is a harrowing proposition:

  5. Rash may be right (my knowledge of American literature is far from exhaustive), at least in terms of official positions of power (armies, cities, countries). But to me Ma Joad from The Grapes of Wrath certainly qualifies as powerful – not just within her own family, but on the lives of the people around her.

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