Jennifer Quist's novel, Sistering, was just published, and it's already buzzing with great reviews and suggestions that it's a contender for the Leacock Award for Humour. This the second novel by Quist, whose first book, which won her an Alberta Lieutenant Governor’s Emerging Artist Award, was longlisted for the 2015 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and was a finalist for a 2013 Whitney Award. Sistering is the story of five admirable but slightly deranged sisters, each with her own peculiar morbid fascinations, and while it's funny—"a romp," as the cover says—it's also part a genre less inclined toward hilarity: the family saga.
In this guest post, Quist breaks down what the family saga is all about. We've also made a list of some of our favourites here.
Complaining about being sorted into categories by booksellers, libraries, and anyone else has become the trite stuff of clunky interviews where authors desperately explain how their books are so much more than their labels. Categories are hated but necessary. Little orients an idly-browsing reader to a new literary find like a good label. That’s a good label—all categories are not equally meaningful. Some may be too vast and diverse to be useful. For instance, what, exactly, is a "family saga?"
Strictly speaking, it’s hard to find a story without a family. Family themes are universal themes and the "family" in family saga doesn’t tell us much about what sets a book apart. All My Puny Sorrows is a family saga. But so is The Orenda. And then, so is Anne of Green Gables.
The "saga" part of the label is slightly more telling, landing heavily with its dictionary-orthodox meaning, signalling a long, intricate story ahead. Sure enough, most of the books named in "Best of Family Saga" lists on Amazon and Goodreads would be perfect for pressing flowers. Somewhere near the top of every list is Australian author Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds, weighing in at over 700 pages. It makes the label "family saga" daunting for readers not looking for a serious, lengthy commitment. Long books aren’t the rule in family saga but complex, intergenerational stories with big, fecund casts of characters tend to run up a word count.
Reading "Best of Family Saga" lists I noticed something else. The majority of writers on them are women. It’s nothing like the Everyone-But-Nicholas-Sparks saturation level women enjoy in romance writing but it is a trend. Women dominating literary lists is overdue. It’s a good thing. And it would be an even better thing if more men could resist the impulse to tip-toe backwards away from spaces—and book categories—where women might be more masterful than them.
Women can’t help but out-master men when it comes to harrowing, genuine stories about how families are made, stories of childbearing. Up until very recently, real-life stories of pregnancy, birth, and post-partum recovery have been stories of maternal and infant mortality. Family sagas are full of dead mothers and babies. That’s not a relic of a morbid female imagination. It’s the shadow under which women lived for most of human history. It’s part of the honesty of family saga.