The End of Popular Women’s Writing

Reviewed by Hannah McGregor

In the essay “Pure Heroines,” Jia Tolentino ponders how different the narrative possibilities are for girls than for women. Discussing the busy industriousness of the female heroines she loved—Anne Shirley, Hermione Granger, and Harriet the Spy—she wonders if “part of the reason these childhood characters are all so independent, so eager to make the most of whatever presents itself” is that “they—or, more to the point, their creators—understand that adulthood is always looming, which means marriage and children, which means, in effect, the end.” This question of what the women writers of popular girl characters understand to be entailed in “the end”—for their characters, for their stories, for their own careers—is very much the concern of Wendy Roy’s impressive archival study The Next Instalment: Serials, Sequels, and Adaptations of Nellie L. McClung, L. M. Montgomery, and Mazo de la Roche.

Like the best book-historical scholarship, this study offers detailed and materially grounded answers to big questions like why the female Bildungsroman unfolds in the way it does, packing childhood with myriad delightful entertainments and delaying the stultifying domestic narratives that seem to inevitably attend adulthood and marriage, at least within conventional popular fiction of the early twentieth century. As Roy explains, authors like McClung and Montgomery “both criticized and adhered to the female coming-of-age plot that could not imagine a conclusion other than that of domestic romance.”  Of particular interest to Roy is how the emerging publishing conventions of the period contributed to the shaping of these authors’ iconic series: the Pearlie Watson trilogy, the Anne of Green Gables books, and the Jalna novels, respectively. The portrait Roy paints is of three different creators navigating the complex terrain of popular writing and publishing in Canada in the first decades of the twentieth century, from international copyright laws to royalty agreements to disputed marketing and serialization approaches. In attending to how new conventions were being established in an industry just emerging into modernity, Roy demonstrates how industry norms are developed, from the rule that books in a series should have continuous naming conventions to the belief that magazine serialization in advance of volume publication would enhance rather than cut into book sales.

The strength of this book is the granularity of its detail: this will be a resource for scholars and students for years to come. But one of the pleasures of reviewing is getting to sit down and read a book straight through rather than skimming it for pertinent details, and this is a book that rewards that reading approach; Roy does an excellent job of transforming archival detail into historical narrative peppered with entertaining characters and interactions, whether it’s McClung’s agent continuously (and unsuccessfully) trying to convince her to marry off two minor characters, or the difficulty of tracing de la Roche’s career because of her tendency to lie about her age. In addition to its breadth of archival research, this book is also part of the larger feminist project of restoring the legitimacy of sentimental and popular women’s writing from its scathing repudiation by the midcentury male canon-forming critics, with their preferences for realism and modernism. As a feminist project, it is attentive both to the material conditions of women writers and to the aesthetic constraints on their work. The latter, however, sometimes oversimplifies. In “Horizons of the Publishable,” Rachel Malik challenges the tendency in literary studies to treat writing as a process that precedes publishing:

Publishing, far from being the mediating term between writing and reading, writer and reader, precedes and constitutes all formations of writing and reading. The publishable governs what is writeable and what is readable.

When Roy grapples with the question of whether Montgomery’s tendency to write series rather than one-off books was a result of her natural inclination as a storyteller or a matter of her publisher’s coercion, Malik’s formulation helps us understand that it is both and neither.

As is often true of archivally driven and granular studies like this one, I often found myself longing for a shift towards theory that never quite arrived—which in fact points to the project’s great strength. A wealth of detail like this, scrupulously researched and engagingly recounted, is a fundamentally generous project, one that opens up possibilities for future scholars to build in multiple directions. Frankly, I don’t want to spend years in archives reading publishers’ correspondence, but I’m extremely grateful that Wendy Roy has.


Works Cited

Malik, Rachel. “Horizons of the Publishable: Publishing in/as Literary Studies,” ELH, vol. 75, no. 3, 2008, pp. 707-35.

Tolentino, Jia. “Pure Heroines.” Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion. Random House, 2019.

This review “The End of Popular Women’s Writing” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 23 Aug. 2020. Web.

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