Five years ago, I was standing in my house—a large fading Victorian with bad carpet and cracked shingles. I lived in this house with three other graduate students. Two of them were writers, and we were having a party. I remember we had just hosted a reading in our living room where, along with others, I read some poems. I was wearing my favorite black wrap dress, and I was drinking a glass of cheap red wine. Another graduate student came up to me, and we began talking. He told me he liked my poems, and I can’t remember what else we talked about. What I do remember is him reaching out to touch my arm and saying, “Can I just say? Beth and I were talking the other day, and we can’t believe you’re single. How are you still single?”
At the time, I said thank you and shrugged. How are you still single? I was supposed to take this as the ultimate compliment. I think I took it positively. I think I felt isolated within it.
In her 2012 book-length study, Single Women in Popular Culture: The Limits of Postfeminism, feminist critic Anthea Taylor argues:
to be partnered is yet seen as a universal feminine desire that cuts across class and race lines, therefore narratives about remedying singleness relentlessly populate movie and television screens, books, and popular music. . .
I feel this projected “universal desire” acutely. I still worry about showing up at the wedding alone. I shirk the questions and expectations. Taylor also provides evidence to disprove that the single woman as a cultural idea is now “celebrated where once she was denigrated.” Taylor demonstrates, that in fact, no: “[she] remains a figure of discursive unease (or dis-ease).” It’s clear singleness makes some people uncomfortable. During my master’s program, two engaged friends had potlucks to which they only invited other couples—another colleague started garnering invitations once he began seeing somebody. Only the normative experience was welcome, and that has always filled me with dread.
Perhaps that dread has led to my increased interest in the solitary walker, in the woman who explores her environment by moving through it, with no particular end in mind. I’ve been writing about the flâneuse, about what Lauren Elkin, in her book Flâneuse: Women Walk the city in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London calls the “[f]eminine form of flaneur. . .a dawdling observer, usually found in cities.” Though I am deeply interested in urban walking, I am interested in thinking about the perspective beyond the limits of the city. There is a larger way of moving through the world in solitary perspective, in choosing to not see oneself as moving toward a romantic conclusion at all times. I often want that movement to be enough.
Does it remain pathetic to write about singleness? Does it remain pathetic to talk about it? I want there to be a space for voices who are lonely, but aren’t always lonely, for those who sometimes desire a partner, but are often completely fine. I always want to read more books about single women, but not only about single women fixing their solitary status as if it’s a problem. I want to read more books about single women of color, nonbinary uncoupled people, about LGBT characters, including asexual and demisexual people whose story isn’t about a journey toward romance, toward partnership, toward conventional couplehood. There has been a recent spate of celebrated books about single women, though as Tara Wanda Merrigan points out in her Lit Hub article, most of them are by white women. Rebecca Traister’s fantastic All the Single Ladies : Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation does take a look at a history of a wider racial and class demographic, pointing to how the lives and activism of single women has often led to lasting change in America. Traister also points to the problem in books. She says, “[m]arriage, it seemed to me, walled my favorite fictional women off from the worlds in which they had once run free, or, if not free, then at least forward, with currents of narrative possibility at their backs.” Narratively, single characters are often moving toward change and partnership; it seems both a problem of cultural expectation and a rigid allegiance to certain norms of narrative structure.
I welcome structures that meander, and I want to see more portrayals of single women with vastly varying narratives. I want to wander myself as writer and woman, and let go of the expected conclusion.
Lindsay Tigue is the author of System of Ghosts, which was the winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize. Tigue writes fiction and poetry and has been published in journals such as Verse Daily, Blackbird, and the Indiana Review. She was a Tennessee Williams scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, a James Merrill fellow at the Vermont Studio Center, and a former assistant to the editors at the Georgia Review. She is a graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University and is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Georgia.
Read earlier posts from Walking Through here.