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Reading Fiction Again, This Time for the Ladies

When I asked Jennifer Egan last week if she’s faced any challenges as a woman writing, she answered, “I feel like I’ve been absolutely lavished with praise and reward. I’ve been overpraised and over-rewarded. That doesn’t mean there are no problems for women writers, that’s for sure. But it means that I’m probably the least equipped to analyze them right now.”

Fair enough; the woman just won a Pulitzer Prize. The thing is, I can’t imagine a post-Pulitzer Jonathan Franzen telling an interviewer that he’s been “overpraised and over-rewarded.” I take at face value her statement that she’s never been aware of lesser treatment. But her deflection of praise in the next sentence says volumes to me about the attitudes we have all internalized, to varying degrees, about “women’s fiction”—whether written by women or for them.

This fantastic article by Meg Wolitzer, “The Second Shelf: On the Rules of Literary Fiction for Men and Women,” appeared earlier this week in the The New York Times Sunday Book Review. Like so many things I vehemently agree with, it is brilliant (ahem). Wolitzer has articulated many of the things I’ve been preoccupied with—not to say obsessed with—of late, and she says them with a great deal more knowledge and experience of the contemporary literary scene than I can hope to have.

Not only am I not a published author, but let’s face it: I don’t even read much contemporary fiction. Here’s the story of how that happened, and how I plan to fix it.

In 2001 I lived in Portland, Ore., in a wonderful Boston marriage with my best friend from high school that lasted exactly one year. With no television and no other friends, we cocooned ourselves in a spinsterish fantasy of near-constant knitting and weekly trips to the Portland Public Library. In addition to reading a backlog of authors I “felt I should know,” I made a point of checking out new novels in hardback, often spending months on a wait list for hot titles. Every Sunday I pored over the New York Times Sunday Book Review, coffee cup in hand, taking mental notes on what to look for on my next trip to the reading room downtown.

These outings, which often followed lazy breakfasts at the French creperie down the street, were superb. The fiction, however, often left me cold. Perhaps Henry James is the culprit: I began reading him for the first time in Portland, and there’s nothing like racing through Portrait of a Lady, Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl in a matter of months to convince you that contemporary fiction is mostly bunk. Having sampled a wide swath of critically acclaimed contemporary authors that included Zadie Smith, Rick Moody, Mona Simpson, T. C. Boyle, Ian McEwan, and Thom Jones, I felt underwhelmed. My grunts of annoyance while reading frequently prompted couple-ish interactions with my roommate—she would gently suggest that I stop reading, and I would refuse, instead throwing the book down, fuming for a while, and picking it back up again, determined to fight it out to the bitter end. (My husband may think that my tendency to get irrationally angry over other people’s writing began with the internet, but my friend could tell him differently.)

By the time I entered grad school, I felt that modern fiction had let me down. Despite a few tiny treasures I discovered along the way (the short stories of Jane Smiley and Helen Simpson, for instance), the writers who spoke most to me had been at it for a long time: Doris Lessing, Alice Munro, and even John Updike (exactly half of whose books are lovely and the other half of which are total crap). Satisfied that I had given contemporary authors a fair chance, I spent the next seven years on a diet of novels written between 1700 and 1960, from Tristram Shandy to Middlemarch to Peyton Place. In and out of the classroom, I cultivated what I considered to be the most useful type of book knowledge: literary history.

It was useful, and extremely pleasurable as well. It feels good to like something that is old and difficult. And now I can converse with the three other people in the universe who not only read Clarissa but enjoyed it.

Older novels have the advantage of having been curated by the passage of time. You don’t have to like Ulysses (I don’t) to recognize its dazzling technical achievements and crucial influence on twentieth-century literature. Additionally, over the past 40 years literary scholars in academia have done us all a great service in uncovering hundreds of fantastic and indispensable texts by women, minorities, and other marginalized populations. While the playing field has been leveled somewhat by these valiant canon warriors, the struggle for greatness is still essentially Darwinian, and only the very best of the recovered literatures will survive into the next century.

Contemporary fiction is bound to suffer by comparison with these survivors. Even the most talented and passionate current critics will never have the advantage of observing a book age over a hundred years. Will Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm be read in 2090? (God, I hope not.) Will Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections be more famous for its beautiful portrait of family life, or for the Oprah scandal that surrounded it? History tells us that the critics of Henry James’s day preferred the work of the largely forgotten and inferior author Walter Besant. The Don DeLillos, Cormac McCarthys and, yes, Jennifer Egans of our day might just turn out to be Walter Besants after all, literary-historical footnotes to more lasting works.

Despite this, literary history is happening right now, and in my opinion it’s happening around women. The persistence of categories like “chick lit” and its more respectable cousin “women’s fiction” testifies to lingering inequalities in a canon that is being formed even as I write this. In addition to Meg Wolitzer, authors like Judith Krantz, Jennifer Weiner, and Jodi Picoult have drawn attention to the subtle disparagement of women in the literary scene.

(I wish I could add Jennifer Egan to that list, but after interviewing her, I can’t. Though brilliant and generous, Egan is not the outspoken advocate of women in literature that I so desperately wanted her to be after reading Look at Me way back in 2001. My article on Egan is currently looking for a publisher, knock on wood, but if I can’t sell it I will post it in a few weeks and you’ll see what I mean.)

This is all to say that if I am serious about exploring women’s role in shaping the novel, which I apparently am, the time and the place to read is now. More women are writing novels than ever before (or are they? I’ll do the research on that), and I want to play my small part in discussing them, celebrating them, and, when appropriate, canonizing them. While I can’t predict whose fiction will outlive us all, I can advocate for those authors who take women’s experience seriously, and especially for those female authors whose work runs the risk of being ghettoized, marginalized, or simply ignored.

In point of fact, I think that as a woman who has been given a highly public platform, Egan is better equipped than anyone to address these issues. I can’t banish the suspicion that Egan’s well-deserved Pulitzer for A Visit from the Good Squad was won partially on the strength of her dexterity in representing both women’s and men’s voices—a skill that has developed alongside her growing critical acceptance. When female writers transcend gender in this way, they are seldom praised specifically for reproducing a masculine point of view; rather, their work is praised as having “universal themes.” By contrast, when male authors choose to write exclusively from a woman’s perspective, they are often praised for their ability to mimic a woman’s point of view, but not for “universal themes.” A woman’s point of view, after all, isn’t considered universal in the literary world any more than it is in the real world.

One last observation: every devoted reader has experienced the heartbreaking moment when you come to the end of your favorite author’s oeuvre. When the writer is dead and gone, there will be no more first-time reads ever again, which in itself is a reason I should start cuddling up to the ones who are still living. A dead writer is never going to grant me an interview, either.

I have higher hopes for the contemporary female authors I admire most. That’s why I’m going to start calling them up and asking them these questions.

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