Tag Archives: women

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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DIY Martyrs, I Mean Mothers

Jess from Sprachbund In Austin wrote about this in a blog post way back in 2008, relating her experiences as a DIY mom to the Judith Warner book Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety:

Judith Warner also claims that the mothers who are really facing the challenges of unrealistic expectations are those born between 1956 and 1972, i.e., in the wake of the 2nd wave women’s movement. But as a woman born in 1976, I think my generation is doubly judged. Not only do voices from the mainstream admonish us with “You finally get to have it all, career and family, so why are you whining?”, but there’s also the whole do-it-yourself hippie/hipster counter-culture movement that differs from Martha Stewart mainly in aesthetics and the politically-correct provenance of raw materials. Otherwise, I think DIY culture can be freakishly backwards. When I read an article in BUST or a similar magazine on knitting stocking caps for all my friends for Christmas, I’m sorry, but I feel like running to Target and buying everyone striped socks made in China. And this mentality carries over into counter-culture mothering, best exemplified by “Mothering” magazine, which I prefer to call “Martyring”. “Mothering” magazine seriously makes me want to wretch, despite the fact that many of my beloved family and friends are subscribers. I’d elaborate, but first I need to go finish harvesting my own baby food while my 5-year-old breast feeds in her hemp cloth sling. And that’s after I take her to a drum-circle that comes from a culture my country is neo-colonizing. Barf. [post here]

This is obviously the reflection of a woman who is in the throes of birthday-party planning for a 5-year-old. I would love to hear more thoughts on how mothering ties into the DIY/craft culture expectations of women of our generation. It’s interesting that she ties it into “neo”-colonization, too – in my article, my editor took the adjective “white” out of my list of self-descriptors, but I thought it was pretty important. Any women of color want to chime in on their relationship to DIY? Mothers? Women outside of my age group?

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Women’s Work and Craft Culture: An Interview with Emily Matchar

[You can read my article about women and DIY, which uses quotes from this interview, here.]

I first found Emily Matchar’s website, New Domesticity, in the aftermath of my DIY-wedding-related frenzy. Now, three months after getting my PhD in English, I handcraft greeting cards, raise chickens, make my own marshmallows, and fantasize about abandoning my academic job search to become a DIY wedding planner. I emailed Emily because I was curious about her take on the gender politics of DIY, and she emailed me back that she could relate to my situation: “I had my own ‘WTF am I doing?!’ moment while up at 3 a.m. hand-stamping wedding invitations to save $100 on printing costs, while neglecting a work deadline that would have netted me way more.” After she sketched out the basic history of the DIY movement, from Kathleen Hanna to Martha Stewart, we started getting down to how contemporary DIY culture affects women’s lives.

Faux mercury glass candle holders, in process.

ME: You talk about your own relationship to DIY. Did that change over the course of writing the book?

MATCHAR: I think it probably confirmed some things that I thought, which was that DIY, when it goes beyond a hobby level, is really counting on people undervaluing their labor, and women undervaluing their labor in particular. This sort of domestic DIY is very much a women’s movement. It’s hard to know what conclusions to draw from that, because it’s not like, oh poor you, you’re doing DIY, you’re spending too much money! But there’s a sort of growing extreme DIY ideology of simple living or radical homemaking, this sort of idea of, why would you work in an office to make money to buy things that you can make yourself? That’s the driving ideology behind some of these extreme DIY movements, and I think ideologically that’s so flawed. Because, one, there are a lot of reasons to work besides making money, and two, it’s a question of how you want to spend your time. Yeah, I would rather make all my own bread to avoid having to work on an assembly line. But would I rather bake my own bread to avoid having a potentially more fulfilling and socially important job? And there’s very much, in this ideology, a very heavy strain of “working sucks,” and the workplace is terrible. It often seems like it’s just irredeemably terrible for women, and that it’s a feminist act to reject it and do things yourself. And I’m pretty wary of that.

ME: That’s really true. I talk to my friends about this all the time. Second-wave feminism was so predicated on getting out of the house and having a meaningful career, which, thank god, right? But there seems to be among women of my generation this kind of irritation with, why isn’t work fulfilling? For 90 percent of men, their jobs are not super fulfilling either. But I feel like women of my mindset and political inclinations view it as something that is going to be super fulfilling intellectually and psychologically and emotionally, and most of the time, let’s face it, it just isn’t that. But when you bake bread, you really feel an incredibly strong connection to that work. 

But why housework? Why does it have to be women’s work, why does it have to be girly crafts, why does it have to be baby clothes? What is it that we crave about that stuff? Why does it have to be weddings? Why aren’t we building shit? DIY is also a hardware store thing. So why is it that the things we make have to be these stereotypically gendered things, do you think?

MATCHAR: Well I mean sure, there are tons of women who go to the hardware store and build houses, but you’re right, it’s not part of this whole aesthetic. I think for girly stuff, there was already a pre-made script for that. And these are the kinds of things that women make, women make baby hats, and women do their wedding invitations and calligraphy and stuff like that, so there’s much more resources and learning available. I think when women officially started to reclaim this stuff as a feminist act, the very idea of it being so traditionally feminine was appealing. Hey, this was denigrated because it was traditionally feminine, so let’s do it. These are areas of life that have a sort of natural space for DIY – like a wedding, you’re making all this stuff, having a party, it’s a big transition. That said, there is a fair amount of DIY that sort of has nothing to do with that . . . I know lots of women who make IPod cases. And, you know, tampon holders.

These vintage pillboxes with homemade lip balm were my bridesmaid gifts.

ME: Okay, but the cute aesthetic is so predominant in DIY. I’ve recently had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with a lot of women in their early twenties, and cute is just what they do. They make their own stuff because that’s what cool, and to me, there does not seem to be a trace of irony, or if there is irony, their relationship to it is completely different than mine. I don’t think it would occur to them to be like, why am I spending my time doing this? Why do I like cutesy things? Where did that come from? These are smart, well-educated, and often super successful and self-confident women who have just grown up with the assumption that baking cupcakes is a really cool way to spend your time. Which it is! But it seems like kind of an unquestioned assumption, whereas women closer to my age got into it via ironic appropriations of women’s culture. When did that shift happen, I keep trying to figure that out.

MATCHAR: That’s a huge question. I don’t know exactly how that happened or to what degree it has happened. I’m 29, and when I was 18, it would never have occurred to me to make cupcakes, I would have thought that was really, like, embarrassing.

Or really girly . . . I would have worried that I wouldn’t be taken seriously. For the longest time that was one of the reasons women didn’t do that stuff, because it was denigrated as girly and there was a lot of sexism toward it. Women shied away from it because they wanted to be taken seriously. And then there was that reappropriation. I think now if you’re 18, you have the privilege, and that’s wonderful, of not having to worry that if I wear, you know, glitter cupcake earrings people won’t take me seriously.

ME: But do you think that’s true? Does it really not undermine their ability to be taken seriously in the world? Speaking to my friends who are in careers, they still have to scrap for every piece of respect they can get, do you know what I mean? 

MATCHAR: I think you’re totally right that yes, women still have to work hard to be taken seriously, and not being too stereotypically girly is part of being taken seriously. It’s just a luxury of growing up now that they don’t realize that, because it’s much more subtle, so that you grow up thinking, sure I can do cupcakes. And yeah, you will run into, a little bit later in life, people who aren’t going to take you seriously. But also I worry a little bit about just the sort of . . . how to phrase this . . . the . . . not to knock cupcakes, and we use cupcakes for so much symbolism beyond their actual meaning. But there is this idea that like . . . There’s a disillusionment with the workplace, which is something that I write about in my book, and there is this very strong idea that if you make something smaller and simpler, it’s more fulfilling. And the whole idea that a wonderful career for a woman is having a cupcake bakery.  I’m not saying it’s not. I mean if you’re a serious baker, that seriously wants to be a baker for life and you know what that entails, good on you. But the idea that that would be a cultural ideal.

Embroidering handmade cards is my favorite way to ruin my eyes.

I have so many friends, women who are in really hard careers that are sometimes very stressful, sometimes very disappointing, and who go, “God, I wish I could just start an Etsy shop and just knit all day,” or “I just want to start a bakery.” And I’m like, but you don’t really! Which I get, and people should do whatever they want to do. But the idea that work is hard and demoralizing, and that it’s maybe better to focus on the small things, is a little bit of an insidious cultural thing right now. I see a lot of people on blogs say, you can’t reach for too much. One of the ways people always introduce themselves on blogs is you know, my name is Anne, and I like pink cardigans and kittens and copper teapots. And there’s something very childish about it. And I’m not criticizing the people individually, but just the idea that you’re the sum of your whimsical interests. Does that make sense?

ME: So, do you have a magical answer for me about whether I should stop doing DIY and invest all my time in starting to earn income for my family?

MATCHAR: Well, how broke are you? [Laughs.] I mean you know basically as long as people are doing it for fun, and fulfillment, or people are doing it to make money but they have a very concrete goal in mind, and they have a very good idea of how that actually works, that’s great. I think it’s when we get into the slightly delusional space where we’re like, oh, we’re saving money. You are saving money, but at a really big cost of time. So as long as you’re enjoying growing all your own vegetables, and it’s not taking away from your ability to earn a living, if you, say, had to move somewhere else, or your vegetable garden got eaten by bugs . . . when you start going, well I’m spending three hours a day gardening and raising chickens,  and therefore  I don’t have time to do other things. I think that’s probably not a solid financial plan. But most people figure that one out pretty quick. You should check out that book Make the Bread, Buy the Butter [by Jennifer Reese]. She talks about that exact topic.

ME: I definitely need to check that out. In the mean time, don’t forget to look me up on Etsy. I have some great handmade cards.

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