A lot of novelists I like and admire are linking happily to this Meg Wolitzer piece, via Facebook and Twitter.
I link less happily. Because her argument against bias depends on bias.
When I refer to so-called women’s fiction, I’m not applying the term the way it’s sometimes used: to describe a certain type of fast-reading novel, which sets its sights almost exclusively on women readers and might well find a big, ready-made audience. I’m referring to literature that happens to be written by women. But some people, especially some men, see most fiction by women as one soft, undifferentiated mass that has little to do with them.
My issue with Wolitzer’s article is not so much her attempt to define a genre (literary fiction) that depends on cutting other women out, but her failure to acknowledge that it was two female writers with big audiences who stuck their necks out first in advancing a similar argument — and were pilloried for it.
[Insert multi-purpose backgrounder here on Jonathan Franzen, Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult.] [Not an error, just me being silly.]
And, by the way, Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult’s audiences were far from ready-made. Yes, I suppose their work can be describe as popular fiction, if one wants to put a name to their genre. But, really, both women work in very particular genres, sui generis genres if you will. Jennifer Weiner writes Jennifer Weiner novels. Jodi Picoult writes Jodi Picoult novels. They worked tirelessly over a period of time to build their audiences. Other writers who have created their own singular genres — IHMO, in case that isn’t always implicit here — are Lee Child, Stephen King, Tom Perrotta, Kate Atkinson, Elinor Lippman (no relation) (sadly). On a sharper day — I just finished reviewing all the copy-edits for my next novel — I could name dozens of writer who are genres unto themselves. Perhaps, if we really think about it, most writers are genres unto themselves.
I’ve read everything Meg Wolitzer has written. She’s not quite a genre unto herself; I can think of some other writers who make me happy in the same way she does. (Allegra Goodman, for example.) But I buy all her books. Heck, I bought the last one as a hardcover and a digital copy because of my peripatetic life. Still admire her, still think The Wife is one of the best books I’ve ever read.
Years ago, in a very different context, Nora Ephron had a line about wishing to march in someone’s parade, only his actions made it impossible. I now know how this feels. “Soft undifferentiated mass” — it almost reads like body snark, doesn’t it? Don’t taint me with your flabby words. I’m over here, knocking on the door to the boy’s clubhouse, desperate to get in, and if that means throwing you over the side*, so be it.
*As someone who just — just! — read the first book in The Hunger Games trilogy, this image has a lot of resonance.