I am a feminist, non-feminist writer…(or whatever it takes to stop them talking).

Can you be a socially conscious, female writer in Spain, or anywhere, and not be labelled a feminist? Few hispanic authors have had to battle the gender trap and its scrutiny more than Rosa Montero, one of Spain’s most popular authors and long-standing columnist on El País, who arrives in the UK next week to talk at the annual Cervantes Forum at Oxford University.
Laura Londsdale/Amaranta Wright

She is a woman. Her protagonists are women. Her novels deal with ‘women-orientated’ themes. As a result, Rosa Montero, one of Spain’s most consistantly best-selling authors, her novels packed with social and political commentary, has been labelled as simply a feminist writer. On being defined as such, she is forced to react, thereby giving her critics even more leverage to define her.

Why is it, Montero asks ”that the experience a male author brings to his work is held to be universal whilst a woman’s remains particular? It’s more likely that I have more in common with a Spanish male author of my own age, born in a big city, than with a, lets say 80 year old black south African writer who lived through apartheid.”

There. That statement alone will be prey to both feminist and sexist interpretations…and she is already engulfed in a debate. She must extrapolate. No, she does not seek to transcend gender in her writing, but stresses a need to incorporate women’s experiences into language. “If men had periods, literature would be awash with metaphors about blood. So its up to us to create those metaphors.”

Almost unwittingly, such talk of affecting narrative and language has inevitably drawn Montero into the ‘enojoso tema de las mujeres’ ever since she sprang onto the literary scene in 1979 with her first bestselling novel Crónica del Desamor, an angry, assertive and amusing tale of life in Madrid at the dawn of Spanish democracy.

Yet, as a highly successful journalist – she became editor-in-chief of the El País Sunday supplement in 1980 – Montero has a social perspective which cannot be just pinned down to her being a woman, as many critics have done. It is more likely Montero would want to be defined by her moral ideas of what a writer should be, in her own words: ‘like the medieval court jester, who can see what convention denies and speaks what the courties dare not.’

Punishing Lofty Ideals

In another top selling novel La loca de la casa Montero often compares the role of writer to the child in Hans Cristian Andersen’s story who reveals that the Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. Nothing is more damaging to the writer’s integrity, says Montero, than to become a ‘committee member’; power, she suggests, is a corrupting influence for which ‘you pay with your creativity and literary substance’. The worst authors, in her view, are those who give historical and moral legitimacy to an unworthy cause, or who allow themselves to be ingratiated by dubious members of the political establishment.

It would be nice to think that such lofty aspirations raises one above the clamour. Yet, simply by being both a woman, and having a socially informed narrative, make it even more likely that society will pin you down with a label. This label then erects another trap; of being burdened with a cause you never sought.

Indeed Montero, doesn’t want to be the banner bearer of any ideology, be it feminism or any other, and whether imposed by macho obsession or feminists themselves “who believe that what a woman writes is only about woman.” Both end up ghettoizing the author and besides, steer you towards being the ‘pamfletero’ which is, in Montero’s view, the “the ultmate betrayal of your job; literature is a journey on which one should embark loaded with questions not answers. Be constistantly alert to assumed truths, one’s own prejudice, to all the inherited and unscrutinised ideas, bad ideas that lead to intelectual laziness. For me, writing is a form of thinking, that should lead to the cleanest, freest and most rigorous thought posible.”

The Feminist Non-Feminist

And so Montero declares herself a feminist, who has no interest in writing about women (“I want to write about people“) - a feminist but not a feminist writer. “Women’s literature doesn’t exist.” Montero declares. Instead, she claims “its about time that men identified with female protagonists in the way that we have identified with male protagonists for centuries, because they were our only literary models.”

Rosa Montero’s fiction posits a reader who is a democratic citizen, an individual with rights and responsibilities who must always maintain a critical distance from the sources of power.Temblor is a powerful allegorical exploration of how the creation of an alternative power base – Montero imagines a corrupt and failing matriarchy –can end up failing the democratic values it sought. Though predominantly woman-centred, Montero’s sympathetic (if sometimes ironic) presentation of a number of characters – transsexuals, the elderly, the disabled, even animals – alienated or marginalised within society reflects a social conscience. Montero’s writing embraces its own popular commercialism while asserting itself as a constructive questioning of modern values.

Montero’s fiction is perceived – sometimes disparagingly, sometimes enthusiastically – to lack literary style: her prose is highly readable, often colloquial and sometimes journalistic. Some academic critics welcome the ease and clarity of Montero’s prose, interpreting its lucidity in the context of the feminist-realist project which they consider to lie at the heart of the author’s fictional enterprise (she has something to say, and she says it, as clearly as possible). Central to an understanding of Montero’s aesthetic: this relationship is often overlooked by those who dismiss her, but perhaps too easily pre-packaged by those who interpret her work exclusively within a feminist frame.

Substance over Style? Or a dialogue between language and its social function?

Both Crónica del Amor (1979) and La Función Delta (1981) emphasize a connection between a pretentiously literary use of language and an egotistical self-preoccupation. The interest in language and its social function remains evident in almost all Montero’s novels; from her first to her most recent novel, there is a distrust of any use of language which is perceived to entrap, rather than to liberate, the individual. In Te trataré como a una reina the author lambastes the empty promises and romantic rhetoric of the bolero; in Temblor, she exposes the corruption of language into the codes of a powerful ruling class; in Bella y Oscura, Airelai’s ability to weave magic with her stories is undermined by the false trickery in which she engages; in La Hija del Caníbal, the dishonest narrator consistently revises her version of events, working her way gradually towards an honest contract with both the reader and herself.

Montero’s conscious resistance to abstract, highly metaphorical, language seems to reflect a belief that language should attempt to engage it as clearly, unambiguously and sincerely as possible. This is the responsibility of the individual speaker/ writer, who helps to determine social relations through his or her mode of communication. It does not necessarily mean that Montero’s own writing therefore lacks style, subtlety or depth. In fact, Montero is highly adept at bringing to life, in often blackly comical ways, the drama of the mundane, the petty but hyperbolic humiliations of daily life, whilst emphasising the constant struggle of each individual to shape and assert him or herself within an often corrupt and belittling world. She achieves this through an often rich and subtle use of language which many critics have passed over in their assessments of her writing.

Montero’s work shows a particular stylistic propensity towards comical excess and exaggeration, creating a linguistic intensity which conveys both humour and anxiety. Grotesque images of mutilation and amputation abound; physical discomfort, nausea, mutilation and the scatological emerge throughout her novels in contexts which attach different thematic resonances to these recurrent motifs.

This piece was edited by Amaranta Wright with material provided by Laura Londsdale, Lecturer in Modern Spanish Literature at Oxford University. Rosa Montero will be in conversation in the following events, organised by the Instituto Cervantes:

Tuesday 24th January and Wednesday 25th JanuaryCervantes Forum at the University of Oxford: Rosa Montero - That Essential Futility: a personal reflection on the act of writing, on creation, on the status of narrative in general and in Spain. 5 PM on Tuesday  and 1 PM on Wednesday TAYLOR INSTITUTION, ST GILES’, OXFORD OX1 3NA. For more info

Thursday 26th January The journey of words 6.30 PM KING’S COLLEGE STRAND, LONDON WC2 For more info

Also go to londres.cervantes.es