Tag Archives: women’s writing

My article about hybridized genres at the LA Review of Books!

My article about hybridized genres at the LA Review of Books!

America, with its relative lack of codified, non-race-based class distinctions, has always been a good place for working out questions of literary status. Novels in particular have been the repository for these struggles since the 1890s, as Mark McGurl tracks in The Novel Art: Elevations of American Fiction after Henry James. But literary distinction has been especially important to writers of speculative fiction since — well, since the word “speculative fiction” was used by Judith Merril in the 1960s to gently disentangle the more aspirational science fiction from the robot-and-spaceship kind.

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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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The Custom of the Country

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of characters to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Franzen and Egan hadn’t exactly been starved before the fight, but, as was the custom, they had been fed on a parsimonious diet of lean proteins, just enough to keep a corrosive hunger burning in their bellies without actually weakening them.

Or, so he explained to her over the murmur of the crowd. In the stands, a thousand men were quietly explaining the rules of the game to a thousand women sitting next to them. How the prisoners would be fed a single slice of bread just before the games began, spiking their blood sugar after the long fast. How they had been sequestered in soundproof cells for months, able to hear only the sounds of their own voices.

This was not as difficult for writers as it would be for other people, he explained. In fact, many writers expressed the opinion that their months in the cell had been very productive.

“Ian McEwan claims to have written most of Atonement in the cell. Or”—he grimaced—“claimed, I guess.”

“I think he wrote that book just to prove he read Clarissa.” The professor paused to consider her own statement. “Do you think he’s really read Clarissa?”

The man laughed. “Does it really matter? Has anyone actually read Clarissa? We still get what he’s doing, replacing the actual rape in Clarissa with a false accusation of rape that ruins a man’s life. Which is just as violent.”  The professor didn’t say anything, so he elucidated. “It’s subversive.”

The professor shifted on the hard bench and opened her program. “Why do they do the interviews right before the fight?”

“Well obviously they can’t do them afterward.” He grinned. “Not both of them, anyway.”

“No, I meant, I don’t understand why there are interviews at all.”

“Come on, it’s our one chance to see these guys be completely honest for once in their lives. Maybe for the last time. They haven’t been eating or sleeping much, they haven’t spoken to anyone in months, and they’re about to face the opponent for the first time. They forget there’s even going to be an audience. They say the craziest things, not realizing that any little slip up might cost them their fan base. Which could cost them everything. It’s so—raw.”

He sucked his lower lip a little in anticipation. She felt it too, but would have been embarrassed to show it so publicly. The more typical attitude was one of suppressed bloodlust—eyes darting nervously behind square-rimmed glasses, blazers creaking over shifting shoulder blades, throats fluttering under artistically draped scarves.

She had been avoiding the obvious topic of conversation, but since it was already being discussed in low voices all around them, she decided to bring it up first.

“Who are you rooting for?”

“Does it really matter?” he asked again. “I’m sorry, I know she’s your favorite author. But she’s pretty scrawny.”

It was true. In a boatneck t-shirt you could spot her clavicles a mile away. “So is Franzen.”

“Plus, she’s older than she looks,” he continued. “Did you know she’s 50?”

“Franzen is 53!”

“Sure, but you know what they say—women get older, men just get more distinguished.” He laughed. “No but seriously, it’s true. That face has helped her career a lot up until now, gotten her a lot of extra attention. But looks don’t last forever. And in the ring, she won’t have makeup artists to prepare her for her close-up.”

The professor didn’t feel like arguing the point, and besides, it did seem pretty hopeless. The two might be evenly matched physically—Franzen was not exactly a paragon of physical prowess. But he was demonstrably more aggressive than Egan. Just look at the way he went on the offensive in ’96, preparing the canon for The Corrections even before he had finished writing it. Taking back the tradition, the commentators called it. And his bold refusal to accept a marketing advantage that would have boosted his readership by millions, because those readers were women who watched daytime television—that was a masterstroke. People might not like him, but he had always generated the buzz he needed to stay alive. And he wasn’t here to make friends.

He did have glasses, she reminded herself, a definite handicap. The committee never allowed contestants to get fitted with contacts for the ring. The thought was that any author who had chosen to wear glasses instead of contacts their whole life had almost certainly done so in the hopes of benefitting from a more intellectual public image—a strategy whose efficacy had been proven time and again by the number of bespectacled contestants over the years. To let an author jettison the image that got him to the ring in the first place would be unfair, to his fans as well as his opponent. So if Egan could knock off his glasses early on, she might gain an enormous advantage.

On the other hand, there were rumors flying around that the glasses were an affectation, that Franzen had first donned them to appear more interesting to girls at Swarthmore. This rumor was unlikely to be true, and was probably originated by Egan supporters trying to undermine Franzen’s image. However, Franzen fans—or “frans,” as they called themselves—had spread the rumor with glee, gloating that if Egan got close enough to knock off the spectacles she’d be in for the surprise of her life. The professor couldn’t help but shudder at the thought that it might be true. She abruptly closed the program and tightened her jaw.

“Hey, you gonna be okay?” He put his hand on her elbow and leaned in. He really did love her a little bit, even years after their one unsuccessful date had shown that there was no hope of a romantic relationship between them. The concern in his voice touched a guilty place in her conscience, as she remembered his shattered look at the restaurant.

She reminded herself that he had been reluctant to read Jane Austen because the plots weren’t “universal” enough. “I’m fine. I think the interviews are starting.”

The Jumbotrons above the stadium came to life, lighting up the twilight with images of typewriters colliding in midair and leather-bound tomes bursting into flame. The crowd erupted into cheers as the loudspeakers began booming out chamber music laid over a heavy backbeat, then hushed as a face appeared on the screen: the master of ceremonies, with his long, literary face and his theatrically nerdy bow-tie. Opening the ceremony with a few tepid jokes, he directed the audience’s attention to previews of next year’s fight, introducing a montage of possible contestants that included the dapper Alan Hollinghurst, Man Booker winner Julian Barnes, and Irish underdog Emma Donoghue. From the way the camera lingered on Donoghue’s fluffy red hair and childishly makeup-free face, the professor was willing to bet that she would make what they called “the shortlist.”

Just as the crowd began to stir restlessly, the announcer’s face appeared again, and the camera began the crosscutting of the two interviews. The interviews were supposed to be broadcast live from their cells, a fact the announcer enthusiastically repeated every thirty or forty seconds, but nobody really believed they weren’t edited down to the most sensational bits, perhaps even rearranged to appear more in sync with one another. Egan and Franzen were shot cinematically in director’s chairs against a black background, each turned slightly in toward the center of the screen, so that when the camera cut back and forth it looked like they were facing off.

Franzen, perched tensely on the canvas edge of his chair, was first. The interviewer asked him whether he had been writing anything in his cell.

“I’ve been working on a piece about Edith Wharton,” he answered, blinking owlishly.

Sounds of interest and surprise wafted up from the audience.

“You know, I’ve always thought that she’s very hard to sympathize with because of her wealth. She was probably the most privileged American writer ever.”

“Interesting,” said a female interviewer’s voice from offscreen. “Do you have any evidence to support that statement?”

Franzen shrugged impatiently. “Well no, Carrie, I’ve been locked in a cell for four months. I’m going off what I remember from a conversation I had with Gary Shteyngart at a cocktail party. But even if it’s not true, I’m sure it’s basically true.”

“So you’re saying she was a bad writer because she was rich?”

“Well I’m not really talking about her writing in detail. I’m more talking about her as a person, about how maybe if she had been prettier, and not so rich, she would have been more sympathetic. Or the rich thing doesn’t really matter, but prettier. Like Jackie O., or Grace Kelly. Or—” The audience held its breath. “Or Jennifer Egan.”

The camera cut immediately to Jennifer Egan gazing placidly toward the center of the screen from the other direction. She did indeed look beautiful, although the strong horizontal lines in her face were sagging a bit here in there with exhaustion, or possibly resignation. She wore the nautical striped top that she was so often photographed in. “Jennifer,” the offscreen interviewer’s voice asked, “what is your make-up routine like? Do you use a primer?”

Egan smiled graciously, her thin lips barely turning up at the ends. “I usually just wear some tinted moisturizer. They let me bring it in with me because it was already in my purse.”

“Wow, unbelievable. What a complexion. Okay, can you give us a sense of what your method is like? Do you think that it’s harder for you as a woman?”

“Well, writing isn’t easy for anyone. But I do work hard, yes.”

“I meant the competition. Will it be harder for you as a woman?”

Egan squinted her eyes a little bit in thought. Then she shook out her blond hair and said, “I don’t think so. I did track and field at UPenn.”

The camera cut back to Franzen, who had removed his glasses and was rubbing his eyes with his thumb and middle finger. “I don’t want to kill anyone. Christ, I can barely handle clearing the mouse traps in the attic.” The audience laughed sympathetically. He pulled his hand away, shook his head as if to clear it, and blinked his eyes open. The professor could feel her companion leaning forward, straining along with the rest of the audience members to discern some sign of imperfect eyesight. The glasses were on again in an instant, and a moan of frustration rippled through the crowd.

“Carrie, I honestly don’t know if I can do it. She is a human being, after all. And so gracious. She’s never been anything but kind to me.”

“Do you think she’s a good writer?”

There was a pause during which the only sound was that of audience members anxiously fiddling with their laptop bags.

“I think A Visit from the Goon Squad had universal themes.”

The camera cut back to Egan, who was staring somewhat blankly off into the distance. After a moment, she seemed to recover her sense of purpose, and her gaze refocused on her interlocutor offscreen. “That’s an interesting question. I think . . . I think he’ll be well read in his lifetime. None of us know, after that. None of us has any right to know. I write a lot about celebrity, not literary celebrity, but the kind of manufactured celebrity that we see in our culture. And I think . . . there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be liked, or wanting to be the best.” She looked up, and then she smiled and laughed at the ceiling, and the crowd seemed collectively to catch its breath. A few audience members began weeping. The professor listened closely. “But will either of us be remembered? Not for me to say.”

Shortly thereafter, the screen went dark, and the audience, unable to pretend indifference anymore, began to stomp and chant for the tournament to begin. The contestants were given their slices of bread, or, as a few men in the know were telling the women next to them, their carbohydrate shots, which is how they were doing it this year for the first time. They were released into the arena, Franzen in a sweater vest over a maroon button-down, and Egan in her signature boatneck top with navy horizontal stripes.

The fight didn’t last long. Jennifer Egan beheaded Jonathan Franzen fairly quickly, and, after a brief glance around the crowded stadium, walked out of the arena with a fatigued look on her face. A thousand women cheered and went home with plans to apply to graduate school and write their dissertations on Edith Wharton, Gertrude Stein, Zora Neale Hurston. A thousand men remained very quiet on the car ride home. The professor resigned and became a writer. Her friend resigned as well, but for different reasons. Jonathan Franzen’s essay on Edith Wharton was published posthumously in the New Yorker, and when people read it, with tears in their eyes, they thought how much better it would have been if he had at least had access to Wikipedia.

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