Simon Armitage's novel raises two questions. The first is: have women lost their credibility in marriage, motherhood and family life? It is not an issue that has yet come to the attention of the world of letters, but popular novelists, with their bent for market research, have been drilling in this area for some time. I read Bridget Jones's Diary belatedly, after it had become a cultural byword for female insecurity, and was therefore surprised by the certitude that its heroine exhibited in her feelings about men, and by her loyalty to the heterosexual romantic ideal generally. No, her scorn was all for married women and their children, who dwelt in a realm of animal stupidity and social tyranny, and whose rude complacency both funded the plight of the anxious singleton and, for the grateful reader, glamourised it.
More recently, someone left a copy of Allison Pearson's I Don't Know How She Does It in our house. I read that, too, with considerably less enjoyment. Pearson's use of aphorism reminded me of Glenn Close's use of carving knives in Fatal Attraction. There was one passage in which the author observed that where in the past women had made their mince pies and faked their orgasms, now they faked their mince pies and - well, I can't remember how she put it exactly. The point was that an awful lot was held to ride on a distinction its author had invented ostensibly for the purposes of raising a laugh, but really as an act of inter-female aggression.
Bridget Jones's Diary hints at the idea of a generalised opposition between single women and married women, but I Don't Know How She Does It imports this brand of incipiently narcissistic female misogyny into its heroine's own world of family life. Kate Reddy, Pearson's heroine, views the other mothers at her daughter's school as cows and sows, while passing on to us a colleague's extraordinary but unverifiable opinion that she has the best economic brain "since Maynard Keynes". Bridget at least has the grace to admit to a spare tyre and a drink problem. Kate and her author despise all women with the exception of Kate and her author, plus one or two close friends.
I wondered how our sex had arrived at such a low ebb, to allow ourselves to be summed up so cruelly and carelessly, to recognise ourselves en masse in such a cheap, unflattering mirror. In Simon Armitage's second novel, The White Stuff, Abbie Fenton makes her husband ejaculate into a plastic hospital container and lies with her legs in the air after they have had sex. She buys baby food at motorway service stations, although they are childless. She cries self-pityingly at the baptism of a friend's children. What do you expect? She's a 40-year-old woman who wants to have a baby and there is, it seems, no creature more pathetic, no target more stationary in our society today.
The problem is that, like Kate Reddy and Bridget Jones and countless other heroes and heroines of whatever-lit, Abbie is her author's projection - a demographic victim, if you like, of the writer's vanity. The White Stuff is not about Abbie. It's a book about a lovely, selfless man who is married to a complete lunatic: Abbie. Wake up, ladies. Stop putting your legs in the air, if that's what you do. Stop making mince pies - people will think you're frigid. Forget babies, wear black, quote Simone de Beauvoir, smoke a pipe, man the barricades, anything, anything to confound these summarisers, these cartoonists.
Which brings me to the second question: what are novels for? You might say that they furnish the spectacle of human mediation - they are like existence, but they are not existence. Simon Armitage is a respected poet, but he appears to approach writing prose as some people approach watching television, by switching it on indiscriminately. I occasionally wondered whether such statements as "A course of antihistamine tablets did the trick, eventually" were there in the spirit of an entry for the Turner Prize, but was forced to conclude by sheer volume that they were not.
It is possible that the suburban north of England is as castratingly untransformative as it seems here, but all resemblances to the recognisable or the real are, as the small print says, purely coincidental. For example, Felix Fenton, a social worker, witnesses over the short span of the novel two violent deaths in his caseload, one of a boy tossed by a bull that was running, rampantly unexplained, around the city centre. Nor can the novel be an attempt at surreal comedy: the earnestness with which issues of family and fertility are treated precludes it.
Simon Armitage should return to writing the short stuff. The rest of us, meanwhile, should examine ourselves in the mirror for signs of cliche.
Rachel Cusk is the author of A Life's Work: on becoming a mother (Fourth Estate)