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"Bringing up the women’s question — I mean the women’s fiction question — is not unlike mentioning the national debt at a dinner party."
April 4, 2012 11:14 AM   Subscribe

If “The Marriage Plot,” by Jeffrey Eugenides, had been written by a woman yet still had the same title and wedding ring on its cover, would it have received a great deal of serious literary attention? Or would this novel (which I loved) have been relegated to “Women’s Fiction,” that close-quartered lower shelf where books emphasizing relationships and the interior lives of women are often relegated? Certainly “The Marriage Plot,” Eugenides’s first novel since his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Middlesex,” was poised to receive tremendous literary interest regardless of subject matter, but the presence of a female protagonist, the gracefulness, the sometimes nostalgic tone and the relationship-heavy nature of the book only highlight the fact that many first-rate books by women and about women’s lives never find a way to escape “Women’s Fiction” and make the leap onto the upper shelf where certain books, most of them written by men (and, yes, some women — more about them later), are prominently displayed and admired.
So begins The Second Shelf: On the Rules of Literary Fiction for Men and Women, an essay in the New York Times by novelist Meg Wolitzer. She was interviewed about her essay in the NYT Book Review podcast (mp3 link, interview starts at about 18:30). Wolitzer references the classic 1998 essay by Francine Prose, Scent of a woman's ink: Are women writers really inferior?, and further back in time you find Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, which, as literary critic Ruth Franklin notes, still sounds fresh today.
posted by Kattullus (105 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite

 
iTunes link for New York Times Book Review podcast.
posted by Kattullus at 11:16 AM on April 4, 2012


If “The Marriage Plot,” by Jeffrey Eugenides, had been written by a woman yet still had the same title and wedding ring on its cover, would it have received a great deal of serious literary attention

Impossible to know. Hate these kinds of Hypos. An essay doesn't need this counter factual
posted by Ironmouth at 11:26 AM on April 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


Recently at a social gathering, when a guest found out I was a writer, he asked, “Would I have heard of you?”

Wait, what? Dude sounds like a putz already.

I dutifully told him my name — no recognition, fine, I’m not that famous — and then, at his request, I described my novels. “You know, contemporary, I guess,” I said. “Sometimes they’re about marriage. Families. Sex. Desire. Parents and children.” After a few uncomfortable moments he called his wife over, announcing that she, who “reads that kind of book,” was the one I ought to talk to. When I look back on that encounter, I see a lost opportunity. When someone asks, “Would I have heard of you?” many female novelists would be tempted to answer, “In a more just world.”

I understand and agree with Wolitzer's larger point about women writers getting the shaft. At the same time, I'm an avid reader who abstemiously avoids contemporary novels about marriage, families, sex, desire, parents, and children, no matter the author's gender, and I know I'm not alone.
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:29 AM on April 4, 2012 [20 favorites]


I didn't think the asexual foundlings genre was that big yet.
posted by kmz at 11:31 AM on April 4, 2012 [14 favorites]


Let the record show that there is, as of this moment, exactly one Google hit for "asexual foundlings."
posted by saturday_morning at 11:36 AM on April 4, 2012 [6 favorites]


Who cares about "serious literary attention" in this day and age? That sounds so hopelessly old-fashioned as to seem downright obsolescent. Who cares about what "shelf" a book is on, either, to address that tired and overextended metaphor, in an era when e-readers flatten the putative ideology inherent in physically locating copies of books?

It seems a curiously inverted sort of discrediting to privilege the "serious" literary discourse about fiction over, say, what millions of women readers think and feel about it. Women buy and read lots of books. Who cares what the literary establishment thinks?

And what's wrong with calling something "Women's Fiction"? By playing along with the stigma of "Women's Fiction," don't you buttress the idea that something which appeals strongly to lots of women must be ideologically defective, vacuous, or just unimportant?

I don't understand what Wolitzer wants. Why is the rarefied, sexist, and externally irrelevant world of haute literary prestige so important?
posted by clockzero at 11:37 AM on April 4, 2012 [10 favorites]


I didn't think the asexual foundlings genre was that big yet.

You've never heard of science fiction?
posted by DU at 11:38 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


My habits are much like Sticherbeast's: if it has "quilt" or "club" in the title, I avoid it. Sadly, I often do find myself having consciously to try to read contemporary books by women, and I'm not sure why that is.

(Anything written before 1960 by a woman is fair game for me, though. This is probably because I don't feel that those books are trying to Speak To My Experience As A Woman when I can't relate to anything about relationships. Books are so marketed these days, even "literary fiction," that a book that might otherwise be good puts me off because of the title or the blurbs.)
posted by Currer Belfry at 11:43 AM on April 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


Nope, never heard of it.
posted by kmz at 11:43 AM on April 4, 2012


Who cares about "serious literary attention" in this day and age? That sounds so hopelessly old-fashioned as to seem downright obsolescent. Who cares about what "shelf" a book is on, either, to address that tired and overextended metaphor, in an era when e-readers flatten the putative ideology inherent in physically locating copies of books?

Writers care. And more readers than you think. And no, we're not all wearing onions on our belts.
posted by rtha at 11:47 AM on April 4, 2012 [8 favorites]


clockzero: "Who cares about "serious literary attention" in this day and age? That sounds so hopelessly old-fashioned as to seem downright obsolescent."

Ladies and Gentlemen, I present The New York Times.

(Really, I like a lot of the NYT's journalism, but my god, their Arts/Living sections are hopelessly out of touch. This sort of pointless and counterintuitive essay is perfect for them. They deserve each other. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Mr. Burns is running the Times. It's the only explanation that makes sense.)

My spin:
Are female writers inferior? No.
Does pandering suck? Yes.
Do I sometimes enjoy books that are not popularly or critically well-received? Very Yes.
Are female writers discriminated against by the literary establishment? Possibly.
Does the literary establishment affect the success/failure of an aspiring writer today? Not really. A catchy title and good cover art are more important.

...and phrases like "literary fiction" make me vomit a bit inside my mouth. Maybe that's why I liked Vonnegut so much...he makes his point without using 1,000 words and a thesaurus. Few writers today see the value in that.
posted by schmod at 11:52 AM on April 4, 2012


"That is a stupid club and why would you want to be part of it anyway?" has a history of being used to perpetuate sexism, way back at least as far as Victorian times when people would talk about how much better it was to stay at home unsullied by commerce.

Being taken seriously as a writer -- in the way that Eugenides or Franzen are taken seriously -- is probably a bigger deal than money to most people who are writing that kind of fiction. Being part of the national conversation about literature, insofar as there still is one. If those things weren't important we'd all be writing thrillers or romances.
posted by Jeanne at 11:54 AM on April 4, 2012 [30 favorites]


I think it's even less about Eugenides and Franzen as examples than it is about the culture authors would like from a literary establishment, where each book is a serious event for the Reading Public to discuss at their parties, where those writers are often heard from in respected journals, where you could eventually hope to see a bound edition of "The Essential Franzen" or whatever. Put another away: as far as they are perceived by the literary world in general, where are the female Gore Vidals, John Updikes, or Norman Mailers?

Is Toni Morrison up there? I genuinely don't know. How about Iris Murdoch? Maybe in a more just world. Susan Sontag and Pauline Kael only count a third of a point each, since they're both chiefly known for nonfiction.

That said, I don't really follow "literary fiction," so I'm the wrong person to ask anyhow.
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:01 PM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Writers care. And more readers than you think. And no, we're not all wearing onions on our belts.

I guess they do, rtha, but that seems...vain, I guess is the word I'm looking for.

If the literary establishment buys into institutional and informal misogynistic oppression by devaluing women and their writing and whatever portion of that work is mostly appealing to other women, why would you want the establishment's approval?

"That is a stupid club and why would you want to be part of it anyway?" has a history of being used to perpetuate sexism, way back at least as far as Victorian times when people would talk about how much better it was to stay at home unsullied by commerce.

That's a very good point, Jeanne. But not all clubs are the same. The club you allude to, which is in fact the entire sphere of commerce in the Victorian age, is a virtually incomparably different thing than Modern American Serious Literature.

Being taken seriously as a writer -- in the way that Eugenides or Franzen are taken seriously -- is probably a bigger deal than money to most people who are writing that kind of fiction.

If the cabal that you want to take you seriously is oppressive and misogynistic, isn't the complaint really with their ideology rather than the fact that they refuse to valorize authors and kinds of work outside their tiresome paradigm? And if their ideology is so aggressively anti-woman, again, why would you want to be a part of that club? Wouldn't it be better to, I don't know, start your own club?
posted by clockzero at 12:09 PM on April 4, 2012


Yeah, after getting to that paragraph, it looks like Ms. Wolitzer is hashing out some issues that have to do with that encounter. She wants recognition, and she doesn't want to be pigeon-holed as chick-lit. Saying her books are about "marriage. Families. Sex. Desire. Parents and children" is a strange choice if she's trying to avoid a label.

I just checked Amazon, and her recent novels include (1) a group of women who abandoned their careers in order to become mothers, and (2) a group of women who all lose their desire to have sex. I might be inclined to read either of these, but I do wonder who the target audience might be.

Now then, there is an entire genre of literature that unapologetically caters to women. Authors in that field likely are not subject to Wolitzer's dilemma, because "the wife" is exactly the market for those authors. (Note that Wolizer wrote a book called "The Wife.") I get it if Wolitzer dislikes being lumped in with these people.

I don't know exactly how an author becomes pegged as the SERIOUS LITERARY WRITER label that she seems to be aiming for. It looks to me like she's been making a career out of being a literary writer for quite some time. I genuinely hope it works out for her.
posted by jabberjaw at 12:09 PM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


She wants recognition, and she doesn't want to be pigeon-holed as chick-lit. Saying her books are about "marriage. Families. Sex. Desire. Parents and children" is a strange choice if she's trying to avoid a label.

Well, when men write about those issues, it does often get seen as literary fiction, and not at all as chick lit. John Updike, to cite just one example, made his career writing about that kind of stuff, and he was not pegged as being only for men.
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:13 PM on April 4, 2012 [23 favorites]


If the cabal that you want to take you seriously is oppressive and misogynistic, isn't the complaint really with their ideology rather than the fact that they refuse to valorize authors and kinds of work outside their tiresome paradigm? And if their ideology is so aggressively anti-woman, again, why would you want to be a part of that club? Wouldn't it be better to, I don't know, start your own club?

On the one hand, I agree with you. On the other, I don't: "start your own club" walks awfully close to the line where you end up with "you have your own club so why should we include you in ours [which has way more resources and cache and advantages]?"

The Literary Tradition has a long and storied (and fucked up, to be sure) history. Starting your own version of, say, the New Yorker is all well and good, but it's not the same as being published in the New Yorker, which is a thing that has a ton of good things (for writers) going for it, starting with eyeballs.
posted by rtha at 12:15 PM on April 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


It matters because the experiences that female writers can write about honestly and authentically are as of just as much importance to the human race as the experiences that male writers can write about honestly and authentically. And yet literary history has confined books about women's inner lives to a shelf that's just for girls, while holding up books about men's inner lives as the classics that define the human story. And for the most part, they're still doing it today.

It's fucking depressing starting out as a female writer and knowing that writing about how women experience the world has a good chance of consigning you to the Vaginas Only section of the bookstore.
posted by crackingdes at 12:28 PM on April 4, 2012 [24 favorites]


Let see, what are a few recent massively popular writers.... hmmm ... Rowlings, Meyer, Collins. Now I know that NYT probably barely considers them authors, let alone 'literary', but if there is some kind of problem of people not buying books written by women, I submit that it is a phenomena restricted to some small subgroup of the general populace, who don't seem to mind books written by women at all and in fact embrace them wholeheartedly.
posted by Bovine Love at 12:30 PM on April 4, 2012


but if there is some kind of problem of people not buying books written by women

That is not the problem.
posted by rtha at 12:31 PM on April 4, 2012 [6 favorites]


I'm an avid reader who abstemiously avoids contemporary novels about marriage, families, sex, desire, parents, and children, no matter the author's gender, and I know I'm not alone.

Whereas I went and discovered the rather rich world of romance novels, because I wanted to read about families and every day life, and that's where I could find it. (Also happy endings -- too many books like Games of Thrones that got me down).
posted by jb at 12:33 PM on April 4, 2012


Let see, what are a few recent massively popular writers.... hmmm ... Rowlings, Meyer, Collins.

Women like Rowling, Meyer and Collins have attained massive popularity writing books aimed toward children and teens. Then men like Joel Stein pontificate in the NYT about how adults should be embarrassed to be seen reading them.
posted by crackingdes at 12:38 PM on April 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


That just makes Joel Stein a dick. I'd be guessing he is part of a very small subculture that seem to be populated heavily with elitist dicks. I object strongly to the suggestion that "men" don't like books written by women; that is clearly untrue. Some bunch of snobby old white men from another generation who probably still think women should be in the kitchen almost certainly think dumb shit about women who write books, but I'd suggest we should just stop caring what they think and, indeed, make a new club. And, if you don't want to be classified as womens lit, don't write womens lit (which her description certainly seemed to match quite well)
posted by Bovine Love at 12:44 PM on April 4, 2012


I have worked in both chain and independent bookstores, and shopped in more than a few. I've seen 'Women's Studies' sections but never a 'Women's Fiction.' YMMV
posted by jonmc at 12:46 PM on April 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


And, if you don't want to be classified as womens lit, don't write womens lit (which her description certainly seemed to match quite well)

Wait, what? After railing against "snobby old white men from another generation who probably still think women should be in the kitchen" how did you end up here? Who do you think came up with the moniker "women's lit" in the first place?
posted by davidjmcgee at 12:48 PM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


On the one hand, I agree with you. On the other, I don't: "start your own club" walks awfully close to the line where you end up with "you have your own club so why should we include you in ours [which has way more resources and cache and advantages]?"

Yes, that's a good point.

Women like Rowling, Meyer and Collins have attained massive popularity writing books aimed toward children and teens. Then men like Joel Stein pontificate in the NYT about how adults should be embarrassed to be seen reading them.

You know, when I started commenting in this thread, I didn't really understand what Meg Wolitzer was dismayed about. Reading that dumb little blurb of an article you linked to was very enlightening. He trashes specific works which all happen to be written by women and notes their failure to incorporate literary brilliance as exemplified by a list of male writers. He doesn't come out and say it, but he is definitely perpetuating a hateful and anti-woman literary vision.

And, if you don't want to be classified as womens lit, don't write womens lit (which her description certainly seemed to match quite well)

You and I agree about the new club plan, but this is problematic. Consider why Pynchon and David Foster Wallace aren't considered "men's lit". They write about men and their experiences, don't they? Why should fiction be gendered only when it's women writing about women?
posted by clockzero at 12:49 PM on April 4, 2012 [10 favorites]


When someone asks, “Would I have heard of you?” many female novelists would be tempted to answer, “In a more just world.”

Seriously? I mean, this question has been a cliche for all writers since Samuel Johnson.

I don't understand what Wolitzer wants.

Publicity and more readers, of course. Same as all writers. It's working, too. Until now, I'd only been vaguely aware of her. Now thanks to Amazon, I've checked out a bit of her fiction. Iowa Workshop prose. Lot of people seem to like it. Not my sort of thing.

Being taken seriously as a writer -- in the way that Eugenides or Franzen are taken seriously -- is probably a bigger deal than money to most people who are writing that kind of fiction.

I understand this, but frankly, they should get over it. All artists should get over it. You want a good laugh, check out lists of Serious Fiction from the first half of the twentieth century. Or 19th century art prize winners. Then check out the works themselves.

Seriously, if being taken seriously is the real test, then the serious test isn't even given until well after you're seriously dead. I doubt Ms W. will be remembered very long once she goes. Nor, I expect, will Eugenides or Franzen.

Jane Austen, on the other hand - still doing well even with the testosterone set.
posted by IndigoJones at 12:51 PM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


You and I agree about the new club plan, but this is problematic. Consider why Pynchon and David Foster Wallace aren't considered "men's lit". They write about men and their experiences, don't they? Why should fiction be gendered only when it's women writing about women?

This, yeah. Serious Male Writers who write about....anything, really, are seen as writing about the Universal Experience. Even if their books have no women in them. Women who write about families/marriages/kids/domestic life are not seen as writing about the Universal Experience, even though far more of us have families and a domestic life than have gone whale hunting.
posted by rtha at 12:54 PM on April 4, 2012 [12 favorites]


Women who write about families/marriages/kids/domestic life are not seen as writing about the Universal Experience, even though far more of us have families and a domestic life than have gone whale hunting.

Maybe you just picked a bad example here, but... in a way, a book about whale hunting can be far more universal than one about relationships - because of course none of us have ever hunted a fucking whale, but we've all had domestic lives; but these domestic lives are unique in as many ways as there are people in the world.

Content doesn't resonate-meaning does; a book's plot is as often its medium of message delivery as it is its raison d'etre
posted by MangyCarface at 1:02 PM on April 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


And, if you don't want to be classified as womens lit, don't write womens lit

First we're going to have to work out a universally agreed-upon definition of what constitutes women's lit. Because I'm going to continue to respectfully insist that sex, love, relationships and parenting are not "women's issues," even when women are the ones writing about them. They're pretty universal.
posted by crackingdes at 1:03 PM on April 4, 2012 [12 favorites]


This argument is kind of missing the point. It's easy to name a bunch of respected female authors. Now try to do the same with painters, or movie directors, or composers, or screenwriters...
posted by mek at 1:06 PM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


: Well, when men write about those issues, it does often get seen as literary fiction, and not at all as chick lit. John Updike, to cite just one example, made his career writing about that kind of stuff, and he was not pegged as being only for men.

Updike described his writing as about "the American small town, Protestant middle class."

The issue is, when you are asked what kind of stuff you write about, what is your response? You are trying to familiarize a person to what you write about, and you pick "marriage, families, desire, sex, parents and children"?

I'm not saying that these are chick-lit words, what I'm saying is that these are generic words that leave a particular taste in your mouth. When you ask Jhumpa Lahiri, she says she writes about the Indian-American experience, but also about not having roots. Jennifer Egan says about her book, "I was interested in how the new mass media interacted with the ’60s counterculture and heightened its intensity, and also in the “out of body” nature of media coverage and the way that might dovetail with a basic human longing for transcendence." Elizabeth Stout says "I am writing about the American experience—one part of it. The part where people have a long history related to the land, and how that is in the process of changing."

You say you're writing about sex and marriage to some doofus who asks if he's ever heard of you, what kind of outcome do you expect?
posted by jabberjaw at 1:07 PM on April 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


Also, check out the blurbs given for Joel Stein's stupid new book.

These guys are falling all over themselves in a sycophantic panic to praise what looks like a perfect example of the typically vapid stunt book that's been so popular lately (e.g., I traveled across Europe on a donkey in search of my grandfather's pocketwatch, read about it! I lived in a cage with a howler monkey in Malaysia for two years to come to terms with something! I housed a small midwestern family in my gut for six months to understand why they vote Republican!). Gah.

This kind of silly bullshit must be part of the problem. Nobody thinks his work deserves credit because it's written well -- all the blurbs are praising him for writing about masculinity in a way that's non-threatening, and they're all from other men. This book is the literary equivalent of the "hilarious" man-child comedy that Hollywood has been producing for at least a decade.
posted by clockzero at 1:10 PM on April 4, 2012 [5 favorites]


I don't understand what Wolitzer wants. Why is the rarefied, sexist, and externally irrelevant world of haute literary prestige so important?

Money.

Now, you might argue this fancy moneyed hardcover-bestseller-driven dinosaur is about to take a big fall Any Day Now, but it's still where most of the big money is currently.
posted by aught at 1:13 PM on April 4, 2012


Money.

Now, you might argue this fancy moneyed hardcover-bestseller-driven dinosaur is about to take a big fall Any Day Now, but it's still where most of the big money is currently.


You must be joking. Whatever money there is to be had, as always, is in the best-seller list, which is merely adjacent to the world of Literature.
posted by clockzero at 1:16 PM on April 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


Maybe you just picked a bad example here, but... in a way, a book about whale hunting can be far more universal than one about relationships - because of course none of us have ever hunted a fucking whale, but we've all had domestic lives; but these domestic lives are unique in as many ways as there are people in the world.

I guess I'm having a hard time seeing what can be universal about a book that has no women in it.
posted by rtha at 1:21 PM on April 4, 2012 [8 favorites]


which is merely adjacent to the world of Literature.

But that's what I mean: Wolitzer wants to be where Franzen is, where the Venn circles for Literature and Bestseller overlap. (And regardless of some of the crap that appears in their weekly lists, the stuff that the reviewers take seriously within the pages of the NYT Book Review is in this category as well.) That's where you get big money, both for advances and residuals and foreign rights, where you get on the lecture circuit and get paid to teach a class a semester as a visiting professor somewhere every other year, and where aspiring scholars write articles about your novel that will make it more likely it will be remembered as "important" decades from now.
posted by aught at 1:22 PM on April 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


Ms. Wolitzer makes some valid points, as when she points out 'of all the authors reviewed in the publications it tracked, nearly three-fourths were men', but I can't sympathize much with the final takeaway, that too many women authors are being unfairly ignored because their chosen subject matter is "marriage, families, sex, desire, parents, and children".

I call the type of novels Mr. Wolitzer seems to write (given that I haven't read her books) 'domestic literature'. Maybe it's an even more problematic label than 'women's lit', but to me it delineates the genre better. For instance, I'd definitely put "The Marriage Plot" in this category and it would partly explain why I didn't care for it much. (And I certainly wouldn't call it important either.) Personally I prefer more escapism in my literary entertainment, like works of Ann Patchett and A. S. Byatt...
posted by of strange foe at 1:30 PM on April 4, 2012


These guys are falling all over themselves in a sycophantic panic to praise what looks like a perfect example of the typically vapid stunt book that's been so popular lately

Spot on. They are only blurbing to catch some of the book's publicity wave.

I've generally noticed that blurbs in general have distinctly made the transition from "literary character witness" to "related-product ad placement". ("WOW! I LOVED THIS MAGNIFICENT BASTARD OF A BOOK!! NOW, Notice ME and the name of MY BOOK and rush out and BUY IT TOO!")
posted by aught at 1:32 PM on April 4, 2012


I guess I'm having a hard time seeing what can be universal about a book that has no women in it.

So you'd say the defining characteristic of a woman is that she doesn't have a penis?

Not to really harp on this specific issue, but just because you can't relate 100% with characters in a book doesn't mean you can't relate to the book.
posted by Patbon at 1:33 PM on April 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


To bring up some counterinstances she fires a preliminary shot at:

The NYT's end of year list of the best fiction books seems to me like it might be a pretty good proxy for cultural influence: these are, supposedly, the most significant books published in the last year. What's the gender breakdown like for the last ten years?

2011: 3 women/2 men
2010: 3 women/2 men
2009: 4 women/1 man
2008: 1 woman/4 men
2007: 0 woman/5 men
2006: 3 women/2 men
2005: 3 women/2 men
2004: 2 women/4 men
2003: 1 woman/3 men
2002: 0 women/3 men

In total, then: 20 women/28 men. Clearly the men have the upper edge here, but not to the degree that I think Wolitzer suggests.

No doubt Wolitzer would claim (as she does with the National Book Critics Circle awards) that making the NYT list isn't the same as making an "enormous cultural splash," but I'm a little puzzled how she would define that "splash." Is it entirely subjective?
posted by dd42 at 1:33 PM on April 4, 2012


I have worked in both chain and independent bookstores, and shopped in more than a few. I've seen 'Women's Studies' sections but never a 'Women's Fiction.' YMMV

Yeah, this. I've been in tons and tons of book stores from Elliot Bay Books to Strand to BookPeople to Barnes & Nobles and I've never ever seen fiction written by women separated and put on a different shelf. The whole conceit there seems bogus.
posted by xmutex at 1:34 PM on April 4, 2012


For instance, I'd definitely put "The Marriage Plot" in this category and it would partly explain why I didn't care for it much.

Fine, but isn't her point that books like Eugenides' and Franzen's latest could easily be called "domestic lit" too -- yet for some reason they are taken much more seriously by reviewers?
posted by aught at 1:35 PM on April 4, 2012


And what's wrong with calling something "Women's Fiction"? By playing along with the stigma of "Women's Fiction," don't you buttress the idea that something which appeals strongly to lots of women must be ideologically defective, vacuous, or just unimportant?

The assumption that women's interests are defective and vacuous is already present within the culture. ALSO, marriage, families, sex, desire, parents, and children all conspicuously involve both men and women! If the people involved are straight, then male and female involvement is, in fact, a requirement. How are those things women's interests? It's a way of telling women their point of view about love, sex and families is feminine, while a man's is universal.

Saying her books are about "marriage. Families. Sex. Desire. Parents and children" is a strange choice if she's trying to avoid a label.

This is like, exactly what Johnathan Franzen writes about, and no one anywhere is calling his work women's lit (even though it's quite bad and often trashy).
posted by stoneandstar at 1:37 PM on April 4, 2012 [6 favorites]


These guys are falling all over themselves in a sycophantic panic to praise what looks like a perfect example of the typically vapid stunt book that's been so popular lately

To be fair, Curtis Sittenfeld is a woman.
posted by orrnyereg at 1:37 PM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Not to really harp on this specific issue, but just because you can't relate 100% with characters in a book doesn't mean you can't relate to the book.

Unless you're a man being asked to relate to "women's fiction", "domestic literature", etc.
posted by immlass at 1:41 PM on April 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


“Sometimes they’re about marriage. Families. Sex. Desire. Parents and children.” After a few uncomfortable moments he called his wife over, announcing that she, who “reads that kind of book,” was the one I ought to talk to.

Clearly he'd mistaken Meg Wolitzer for George R. R. Martin.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:43 PM on April 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


The assumption that women's interests are defective and vacuous is already present within the culture. ALSO, marriage, families, sex, desire, parents, and children all conspicuously involve both men and women! If the people involved are straight, then male and female involvement is, in fact, a requirement. How are those things women's interests?

You're conflating presence with interest. There's probably an issue with denigrating women's interests, but it's anti-truth to ignore the difference in preference between the two major genders
posted by MangyCarface at 1:43 PM on April 4, 2012


What?
posted by stoneandstar at 1:44 PM on April 4, 2012


> I've been in tons and tons of book stores from Elliot Bay Books to Strand to BookPeople to Barnes & Nobles and I've never ever seen fiction written by women separated and put on a different shelf.

As I recall, Left Bank Books in Seattle did that. I don't know if they still do.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:45 PM on April 4, 2012


What?

You're implying that because men are in heterosexual relationships and domestic situations, they must be interested in reading about that subject matter
posted by MangyCarface at 1:46 PM on April 4, 2012


You're implying that because men are in heterosexual relationships and domestic situations, they must be interested in reading about that subject matter

They are. In fact, they write about it. This article and my post give examples of men who write about domestic situations (Eugenides and Franzen). And yet nobody claims that their choice of subject matter limits their ability to comment on the human condition.
posted by stoneandstar at 1:48 PM on April 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


Wolitzer wants to be where Franzen is, where the Venn circles for Literature and Bestseller overlap...That's where you get big money, both for advances and residuals and foreign rights, where you get on the lecture circuit and get paid to teach a class a semester as a visiting professor somewhere every other year, and where aspiring scholars write articles about your novel that will make it more likely it will be remembered as "important" decades from now.

According to wikipedia, google, and Amazon, she has taught at Skidmore, and Iowa, and does lecture, and is available in foreign languages, and has even sold screenplays to Hollywood. Produced screenplays. And gotten seriously reviewed. Whether she (or Franzen, for that matter) will have any kind of staying power, will be "important", remains to be seen, and nothing that the Cabal says today will make much difference. In the meantime, if she hasn't sold Franzen big, I think you have to chalk it up to niche writing or simply, for the best seller buying public, uninteresting writing.

(Or maybe not. Myself, I'm baffled that someone like Franzen is a best seller.)
posted by IndigoJones at 1:49 PM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


What?

Another way to look at it, we all eat food (even homosexuals and transgender and everything else) but I possibly wouldn't care to read a glorious essay on the act of eating food.
posted by Patbon at 1:49 PM on April 4, 2012


Also maybe check out the entire history of literature, for more examples.
posted by stoneandstar at 1:49 PM on April 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


Unless you're a man being asked to relate to "women's fiction", "domestic literature", etc.


Well no, that's not the point. The point is that whether or not I (SPOILER: a man) relate to characters in a book is 1. Not solely or even partially dependent on their gender and 2. Not the only factor in whether I enjoy a book.

I have always assumed this is the same for women, because we're all humans and are like, what, 99% the same. I don't think this is wrong.
posted by Patbon at 1:53 PM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Women excluded from Germany's opinion pages.
posted by bukvich at 1:55 PM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


The "Women's Literature" issue has more to do with marketing than with readership. Take The Sugar Queen, a delightful literary book by Sarah Addison Allen. Bookcover 1 (hardback), Bookcover 2 (paperback). Let's just say I would not have even looked at the sleeve of the hardback copy in a bookstore, but I was intrigued by the paperback cover enough to read the back and then buy it. I think Wolitzer's gripe has more to do with publishers, marketing and media portrayals than with consumers. I also think that she has very legitimate gripe there.

But she really needs to find a better way to describe her work.
posted by jabberjaw at 1:57 PM on April 4, 2012 [6 favorites]


I think reducing Wolitzer's essay to a question of money is reductive. The same goes for the essays by Woolf and Prose. I honestly think that it's an obvious truth that women writers face additional obstacles to gaining recognition compared to their male peers. When it comes to our short-hands for categorizing writers, all female authors face the possibility of being thought of principally in terms of their gender. No man of letters is ever thought of in terms of his sex. Wolitzer is analyzing the particulars of how modern American publishing perpetuates a system which disadvantages women.

Most writers write in the hope that they will be read. One way of measuring that is money, i.e. how many copies have been sold. But what money doesn't measure is how many people remember what you've written, or how they're affected by your work. Literary criticism, whether it is in academia, magazines, newspapers or online, does record how people engage with your book. If female authors are less likely to be critiqued, that's a problem. Cultural capital flows to writers who are discussed in widely respected media. Being reviewed by The New York Times Book Review doesn't just mean that more copies are sold, it also means prestige. Most writers want to be taken seriously, and how much the media pays attention to your work is a way to measure that.

How people talk about a book at dinner parties, over coffee, on discussion boards, also has an effect. Yes, it's word-of-mouth marketing, but it's also something that makes a book more likely to be remembered. I don't know about you, but I'm more likely to remember a book that I've discussed with friends than a book that I haven't. If a large chunk of the population dismisses books written by women as "women's fiction" then they are less likely to be discussed because it's less likely that you'll find people to discuss the books with. Writers want to be remembered. I'm not talking about eternity here, so much as the next day. There are few worse epithets for a writer than "forgotten." Especially while the author is still living.
posted by Kattullus at 2:03 PM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


According to wikipedia, google, and Amazon, she has taught at Skidmore, and Iowa, and does lecture, and is available in foreign languages, and has even sold screenplays to Hollywood. Produced screenplays. And gotten seriously reviewed. Whether she (or Franzen, for that matter) will have any kind of staying power, will be "important", remains to be seen, and nothing that the Cabal says today will make much difference. In the meantime, if she hasn't sold Franzen big, I think you have to chalk it up to niche writing or simply, for the best seller buying public, uninteresting writing.

Right? I don't want to read into her opinion piece too much, but I worry if the underlying text is that she thinks she's as good of a writer as Franzen or McCarthy or a bunch of well-received male writers, but she hasn't been recognized, and she thinks it's because she's a woman. But, perhaps, the issue is that she hasn't written a book that resonates like Franzen, or McCarthy, or Egan or Lahiri or a bunch of other literary writers.

Of course, her new book - The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman - looks very promising!
posted by jabberjaw at 2:07 PM on April 4, 2012


Fine, but isn't her point that books like Eugenides' and Franzen's latest could easily be called "domestic lit" too -- yet for some reason they are taken much more seriously by reviewers?

Ur, I assume that Eugenides' "The Marriage Plot" gets so much attention largely thanks to his previous success, "Middlesex". There's also the boost from its cute/hip self-referential title. (Can't speak to Franzen but frankly the description of "Freedom" puts me off him too. Fwiw, I can't get through John Updike either.) So I'm mainly trying to say that regardless the author's gender, this 'domestic lit' genre can put off some readers.
posted by of strange foe at 2:08 PM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


But she really needs to find a better way to describe her work.

Do you mean "Women's Fiction"? I thought she was clear that's an arbitrary and absurd label, and not one she has chosen. Unless you meant something else?

I have always assumed this is the same for women, because we're all humans and are like, what, 99% the same. I don't think this is wrong.

Uh, it kind of is. Humans may be, like, 99% the same, but our opinions and experiences and presuppositions aren't. I can (and do) enjoy a great book written by a man, but there are a lot of great books that outright deny that I have basic humanity, so yeah, that impedes my reading pleasure. There are also plenty of books that completely ignore what it's like to interact with the world as a woman, which is pretty unique to women, as Simone de Beauvoir has helpfully pointed out. This is a major part of how I experience life, and I'm not thrilled to give it up in order to read yet another book about a womanizing protagonist. (There's nothing wrong with womanizing protagonists, but my point is that no one has a problem with male-centric novels talking about experiences fairly unique to men.)

Another way to look at it, we all eat food (even homosexuals and transgender and everything else) but I possibly wouldn't care to read a glorious essay on the act of eating food.

I can't help but think this is kind of ridiculous. The point is that men can write about marriage and families and it's like oxygen, or drinking water, no one thinks about it. But a woman has to hedge and lie about the same interests if she wants anyone to take her seriously.
posted by stoneandstar at 2:08 PM on April 4, 2012 [5 favorites]


Unless you meant something else?

I meant something else. As noted above, Worlitzer describes her work as being "about marriage, families, sex, desire, parents and children."
posted by jabberjaw at 2:16 PM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


If a large chunk of the population dismisses books written by women as "women's fiction" ...

But, see, that is the point: I don't a large chunk of the population does do that. I have never, once, ever heard a friend or acquaintance suggest a book was "women's fiction" just because it was written by a woman. In fact, I'd suggest very very few people would do that. Maybe those very few people are literary critics, but they most certainly do not make up a large chunk of the population.
posted by Bovine Love at 2:16 PM on April 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


I worry if the underlying text is that she thinks she's as good of a writer as Franzen or McCarthy or a bunch of well-received male writers

Well, there's no way for a female author to talk about this problem without being accused of precisely that. But I can say first hand that I've heard dozens of men at university tell me that they're really into modernism... but haven't really gotten around to reading Woolf yet. They haven't even tried to read her yet. She seems kind of girly and uninteresting, it seems. I feel like this is a problem that talent alone will not resolve.
posted by stoneandstar at 2:24 PM on April 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


...and phrases like "literary fiction" make me vomit a bit inside my mouth. Maybe that's why I liked Vonnegut so much...he makes his point without using 1,000 words and a thesaurus. Few writers today see the value in that.

This sort of comment gives me hives.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:37 PM on April 4, 2012 [9 favorites]


bovine love do we still get the points if they devalue it because of the misogyny inherent in the culture or do we only get marks if they call it "women's fiction"
posted by beefetish at 2:53 PM on April 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


The point is that whether or not I (SPOILER: a man) relate to characters in a book is 1. Not solely or even partially dependent on their gender and 2. Not the only factor in whether I enjoy a book.

No, that was your point. My point was that women are expected to identify with male characters and "male-oriented" stories, because male characters and stuff men are perceived to be interested in (true or not) is "universal", but the reverse is not true (men are not expected to identify with stories and interests perceived to be women). While I'm sure there are folks who have evolved beyond their cultural conditioning toward gender bias, I'm always a bit eyerolly about people who have to announce that they have done so and that only other people and their weird unreasonable demands are the problem with literature (or whatever the topic under discussion is).
posted by immlass at 3:05 PM on April 4, 2012 [12 favorites]


At the danger of repeating myself from an earlier thread, let's all read How to Suppress Women's Writing by Joanna Russ and meet back here in a week, OK? The prologue is here, should you want a taste, but the whole book is concise, cogent, and really depressing.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:14 PM on April 4, 2012 [7 favorites]


I understand and agree with Wolitzer's larger point about women writers getting the shaft. At the same time, I'm an avid reader who abstemiously avoids contemporary novels about marriage, families, sex, desire, parents, and children, no matter the author's gender, and I know I'm not alone.

heh, I agree. It's strange because back in school we read a lot of books by women who were considered worthy of tremendous literary attention. The trouble was I found Jane Austen and Margaret Lawrence intensely boring. Kinda liked Harper Lee though. I suppose that the fact I typically choose trash over books that "have received a great deal of serious literary attention" given the option means I should probably just take peoples' word for it.
posted by Hoopo at 3:16 PM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Perhaps if you haven't been around a large bookstore in awhile you may not understand the type of 'women's fiction' Wolitzer is trying to distance herself from:

Jodi Picoult
Sophie Kinsella
Charlaine Harris
Nicholas Sparks
James Patterson (publishes occasionally a 'soft' book about love and gooey stuff, instead of violence porn)

And there are new contenders published every week, trying to hop on this train of Sameness so that they might get what amounts to publishing tenure, like the above listed.

Patterson, Picoult and Sparks pop out new books constantly. At least EVERY MONTH Patterson has something released, often with a collaborator (read: ghostwriter). Sparks is almost as prolific, being the creator of 'The Notebook' and a never-ending stream of like-minded pop fic. Most of Kinsella's books are about a character called the 'Shopaholic' in the title of most of the books, which I'm sure all you women would agree is a positive feminine stereotype, am I right? Or am I right?

Wolitzer is up in arms because those authors don't give a fuck about actually writing well, and she apparently does. She doesn't want to be associated with writers who have learned to tug a heartstring this way or that way and pump out books as quickly as possible, so as to have the most big release days possible, and make the most money possible.

And women who try above all to write well don't want to be called 'Women's Fiction.' Adding the qualifier in front of 'fiction' tends to imply that the writing is only good enough to be noticed when compared only to other women's fiction.

The same goes for 'Religious Fiction.' That name only ever gets applied to (what always look like) facile Jodi Picoultish fare only with a little bit of scripture injected, so that in can go in it's own special section where apparently a lot of Christians shop, because they know the characters will share their point of view and not do anything particularly offensive. 'A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man' has quite a fucking bit to do with religion, along with countless other 'literary' novels, but it is not shelved in the 'Religious Fiction' section because it is good enough to be successful without having to rely on pandering to a specific group.
posted by TheRedArmy at 3:37 PM on April 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


“Would I have heard of you?” many female novelists would be tempted to answer, “In a more just world.”

Yeah, a writer who feels that their specific genius is going cruelly under-recognized, that really is a phenomenon unique to women authors... </sarc>
posted by midmarch snowman at 4:34 PM on April 4, 2012


Which is not to say serious women authors aren't getting a raw deal somewhere. I have absolutely no experience with that industry, but in general when someone asks the question "Are women under-represented in $_blank serious endeavor?" I've read and lived enough to know that the answer is usually "Yes."

But that NYT piece really grates on me, perhaps because it runs on with a stupefying series of proof by hypothetical and cherry picked examples... which I guess is par for the course for NYT culture reporting.

"there's no way for a female author to talk about this problem without being accused of precisely that"

Then maybe it's too personal of an issue for a female writer to effectively champion. Maybe a female literary critic needs to take up this fight. Maybe if you want to make a convincing point your essay needs to not have the aire of "published novelist gearing up for promotion tour for her new book."
posted by midmarch snowman at 4:54 PM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's perhaps somewhat tangential, but this askme is very interesting.

There's also this askme.
posted by rtha at 5:00 PM on April 4, 2012


> Yeah, a writer who feels that their specific genius is going cruelly under-recognized, that really is a phenomenon unique to women authors... /sarc>

She was sort of joking, as perhaps you were, but she has a point. She's published enough that it's reasonable to expect name recognition.
posted by The corpse in the library at 5:05 PM on April 4, 2012


Yeah, it's amazing to me how that kind of weird essentialism is still so prevalent (cf. V. S. Naipaul). Francine Prose's essay skewers the kind of world-view that's presented in the two AskMes rtha links to (i.e. that of the uncle in the first and the friend in the second).
posted by Kattullus at 5:11 PM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Then maybe it's too personal of an issue for a female writer to effectively champion. Maybe a female literary critic needs to take up this fight.

Uh, like they haven't? And wow, no, I don't think that's true at all. You could say the same thing about women who feel underpublished in academia, but in that case, the studies show proof. Who were they supposed to wait for? Male academics? So it seems quite worthy of consideration, even if it seems self-aggrandizing for a female author to insist on it.
posted by stoneandstar at 5:30 PM on April 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


See, women, like John Updike and John Irving, tend to write about marriage and parenting and family and women stuff. On the other hand, men, like Margaret Atwood and Connie Willis, tend to write futuristic dystopias and time-travel science fiction. You know, guy stuff.

Am I doing this right?
posted by Cookiebastard at 5:58 PM on April 4, 2012 [9 favorites]


I can imagine if an unknown author of any gender had written The Marriage Plot. It wouldn't have been published and if it had it would have sunk like a stone because it wasn't that good of a book. But gee, maybe you should try to discount the fact that it was the first novel in a decade from a pulitzer prize winning novelist and instead call to attention that the author is male.

You know, I fully agree that there's a problem with female artists of all types having two strikes against them from the get-go, but complaining that a Pulitzer Prize winner gets more attention? Really? What's next, complaining that a first time author doesn't get the same exposure as Rowling?
posted by aspo at 6:21 PM on April 4, 2012


Am I doing this right?

Yup, you really nailed the smug, dismissive tone.
posted by shakespeherian at 7:21 PM on April 4, 2012


> Then maybe it's too personal of an issue for a female writer to effectively champion. Maybe a female literary critic needs to take up this fight.

...where it will be immediately ignored as part of the even more marginalized ghetto of feminist literary criticism, the best of which is studied by college studies in...oh, right, mostly just the women's studies classes.

Unless the critic says something extremely controversial, in which case she'll be granted fifteen minutes of fame as a popular culture punching bag before she's called an attention-whore and dismissed.

Not knocking women's studies, quite the contrary, but there's no good reason why general lit classes shouldn't include undersung but better writers who are female rather than middling male authors who happen to fill out the chapter in an anthology.
posted by desuetude at 10:05 PM on April 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


My film club in college once watched Reservoir Dogs, and in the discussion group afterwards, I brought up the fact that there are basically no women in that movie. There's the woman in the car at the beginning, and a woman seen crossing the street at a distance, and part of a waitress's arm, and that's it. The men in the group were dumbfounded as to why that would be a problem, and immediately started attacking me for being so reductionist, bigoted, and gender-identified that I needed there to be a woman in the movie in order for me to like it. (Which, for the record, is not true. I like Reservoir Dogs very much.)

So I asked, "How many movies do you watch that have no guys in them? I mean, none at all?"

There was a brief pause, and then one of the guys said "Well, I don't, because I don't like those kinds of movies, they just don't have any appeal to me."

Irony: lost.
posted by KathrynT at 10:53 PM on April 4, 2012 [16 favorites]


aspo, I don't think the point is that Eugenides is getting attention, I think it's that Eugenides can get away with writing a soft book about relationships with some dippy art on the cover and no one is assuming tampons will fall out when you open it. It seemed the article is mostly about dumbass sexist attitudes, not strictly lack of attention. In fact, she admits that many women have won recent awards. But then shares this quote:

“I think the prizes for men just underscore something already there for them,” Lorrie Moore, the novelist and short-story writer, said. “In many cases the prizes themselves may not have as much independent power as corroborative power.”

And makes this point:

But the top tier of literary fiction — where the air is rich and the view is great and where a book enters the public imagination and the current conversation — tends to feel peculiarly, disproportionately male.

Both of which seem absolutely true to me, since I've heard much more about Eugenides and Franzen than most other recent Pulitzer winners, as someone who doesn't keep her finger on the pulse of contemporary lit. (Maybe the fact that Franzen and Eugenides wrote one good book between the two of them is enough to justify being kind of angry that they're getting laurels while most contemporary female novelists might as well be nameless.) So, that is the reason why it's annoying, and why it's worthwhile to consider Eugenides' gender, and why it's not as though people suddenly drop all their preconceived notions about gender when someone wins a Pulitzer.


Eh, but please, someone, tell us again how we're supposed to frame this argument. Because for a bunch of people who actually do think this is a problem, it seems like you think anyone writing about it is obnoxious and you can make the case way better. (So please do.)
posted by stoneandstar at 11:32 PM on April 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


Being taken seriously as a writer -- in the way that Eugenides or Franzen are taken seriously -- is probably a bigger deal than money to most people who are writing that kind of fiction.

Being taken seriously as a writer, or rather, as a literary writer, is actually also a big deal in terms of monetary reward as well as critical cachet. If you're a literary writer who writes serious and difficult novels but are pigeonholed as writing chicklit, then the kind of readers who would enjoy your serious/difficult novels will not know you, while those who pick up your books expecting another The Devil Writes Prada will be disappointed, won't buy your books and your career will flounder.

Not to mention also that critical cachet means winning awards and macarthur grants and all other kinds of literary bennies that can bring a lot of do-re-mi with them.

Pointing at a Rowling or Collins and arguing that women writers can too make it big outside of the literary establishment is missing the point. If you're not writing the kind of books with which you can duplicate their success, you do need to be taken seriously by the literary establishment to have a shot at the brass ring.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:34 PM on April 4, 2012 [5 favorites]


Also, in this contex, another book worth reading ala Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own is Joanna Russ' How to Surpress Women Writing. Now boys and girls, can you tell which of the following techniques mentioned on the cover are demonstrated in the linked posts and the discussion here:

“She didn’t write it. But if it’s clear she did the deed… She wrote it, bit she shouldn’t have. (It’s political, sexual, masculine, feminist.) She wrote it, but look what she wrote about. (The bedroom, the kitchen, her family. Other women!) She wrote it, but she wrote only one of it. (“Jane Eyre. Poor dear. That’s all she ever…”) She wrote it, but she isn’t really an artist, and it isn’t really art. (It’s a thriller, a romance, a children’s book. It’s sci fi!) She wrote it, but she had help. (Robert Browning. Branwell Brontë. Her own “masculine side”.) She wrote it, but she’s an anomaly. (Woolf. With Leonard’s help…) She wrote it BUT…”
posted by MartinWisse at 12:01 AM on April 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


Eh, but please, someone, tell us again how we're supposed to frame this argument. Because for a bunch of people who actually do think this is a problem, it seems like you think anyone writing about it is obnoxious and you can make the case way better. (So please do.)

The thing about the article, and some of the arguments here, that ticks me off is when she takes the fairly well supported argument about 'serious' literary critics not giving a fair shake to female writers and seems to attempt to generalize it, wandering off in the land of Amazon classifications (which are kinda crazy on good days) and typeface on the cover. Her generalizations certainly come across as ignorant (or very disrespectful) of non-literary writers and readers. And I think her anecdotes are very painful and, quite honestly, really hurts her case, tending to paint her as another whiny artist who thinks they aren't getting their due for any number of reasons which aren't the work. I've not read her so I can't judge the work at a personal level, but it looks fairly well received so perhaps does deserve to be more appreciated. But, I think if she wants to take up the cause of serious literature written by women, she would be much better off championing someone other then herself; that would probably eliminate a lot of what sounds self serving and make it sound a lot less like sour grapes. That has nothing to do with championing this cause, that goes for anyone. Championing yourself will always tend to make a lot of peoples hair stand up.
posted by Bovine Love at 5:36 AM on April 5, 2012


So, the problem is that she isn't humble and modest enough for your liking, Bovine Love?
posted by Kattullus at 5:40 AM on April 5, 2012


Yeah, that is exactly what I was saying (sarcasm for those sarcasm impaired). Next you'll be saying that I must like all my women modest and humble.

Sheesh. Look if you are going to accuse people of being biased (a very serious accusation), you need to not come across as a self serving, whiny elitist who is out of touch with anything other then your bubble. If you want to call that needing to be humble and modest, fine go ahead and call it that. I call it making a case without coming across as an ass.
posted by Bovine Love at 5:53 AM on April 5, 2012


Her essay was interesting and funny while discussing a serious and infuriating subject; that's not easy to do. I suppose it could be self-serving in that she's a female writer calling for fiction by women to not all be lumped together in one blob, which could increase her book sales. "Elitist," okay, it's largely about literary fiction and that could be seen as a topic of the elite (although I've seen many of the books mentioned in big piles at Costco).

I have no idea where you got "whiny" from. And "out of touch" from what? I must be in the same bubble.
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:49 AM on April 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


It comes across as self serving because she starts out complaining about her work's reception. If she held up someone else's work as being under appreciated right from the start, it would have less of that flavor. Advocating on behalf of female literary writers does not in general seem at all self-serving or obnoxious to me, or just about anyone outside of [possibly] literary critics.
posted by Bovine Love at 7:11 AM on April 5, 2012


The thing about the article, and some of the arguments here, that ticks me off is when she takes the fairly well supported argument about 'serious' literary critics not giving a fair shake to female writers and seems to attempt to generalize it.

But earlier the thing that ticked you off about the article was that you thought it ignored 'recent massively popular writers [...] Rowlings, Meyer, Collins' and that 'if there is some kind of problem of people not buying books written by women, I submit that it is a phenomena restricted to some small subgroup of the general populace.' (emphasis mine)

And then what ticked you off about the article was that you 'object strongly to the suggestion that "men" don't like books written by women.' And you helpfully suggested 'if you don't want to be classified as womens lit, don't write womens lit,' which sort of begs the question of the whole article, but anyway.

You seem to be shifting the goalposts here quite a bit. I'm not really sure what your actual position is on this other than that you don't want to agree with anything in the article for reasons I can't figure out.
posted by shakespeherian at 7:29 AM on April 5, 2012


So I asked, "How many movies do you watch that have no guys in them? I mean, none at all?"

How many movies - or books, for that matter - have only or almost only female characters? I can't think of any - even fiction or movies primarily about the relationships of women with each other tend to have fairly substantial male characters in the forms of husbands, boyfriends, etc.
posted by jb at 7:34 AM on April 5, 2012


I was trying to think of some last night, and I mostly came up with Morvern Callar (not man-free but all the developed characters are women), The Day I Became a Woman (although that has a couple decently big male child roles) and Friends with Money and The Hours, although, yeah, husbands. This is as opposed to like Lawrence of Arabia which has zero women in it.
posted by shakespeherian at 7:47 AM on April 5, 2012


I hadn't realized that all replies had to be coherent and consistent regardless of context and which point they were replying too.

Movies make literature look wildly enlightened about just about anything.
posted by Bovine Love at 8:14 AM on April 5, 2012


How many movies - or books, for that matter - have only or almost only female characters?

At least one.

Then too, besides The Women, there's the stage version of Steel Magnolias.
posted by IndigoJones at 8:48 AM on April 5, 2012


> It comes across as self serving because she starts out complaining about her work's reception.

I disagree. It takes until the third paragraph for her to bring up her own work, and that's in a self-depreciating anecdote that I think is amusing.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:52 AM on April 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'd be curious to know what if any sorts of books the unnamed fellow of paragraph three does read. Quite possibly, even probably, he's a non-fiction or schlock thriller kind of guy. This is perhaps something of a derail, but had she written the kinds of books that her husband writes, it might have been a very different conversation.

(And was he present that night, I wonder? "You might enjoy my husband's work, here, let me introduce you to him." A different kind of lost opportunity.)
posted by IndigoJones at 9:16 AM on April 5, 2012


Eh, but please, someone, tell us again how we're supposed to frame this argument

Seriously? You think I'm objecting to tone? No I'm objecting to starting off a serious topic that I generally agree with the author of with an atrocious example. Imagine if a non famous person (and in the literary world having a Pulitzer makes you famous) did something a famous person did! I mean the other day I went to the store and noone even tried to take my picture! That's not a tone complaint.
posted by aspo at 11:48 AM on April 5, 2012


I didn't say anything about tone, in fact I spent the rest of my comment explaining why I thought you misread her argument. You're assuming that "famous" is some great equalizer, when her point is that 1) it's not a meritocracy in the first place, and 2) famous men get way more cred than famous women. The second point in particular seems relevant to your comment.

IndigoJones, that is... possible, but these are not isolated incidents in most female writers' lives.

Wow, it is really sad how few examples there are of literature containing no men vs. lit containing no women. I never realized so many books were entirely absent of women.
posted by stoneandstar at 2:27 PM on April 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


How about frame it as "why can men write novels like this and get a pulitzer and women can't?" That's a huge difference from "why can men who already won pulitzers write novels like this and get lots of reviews and stuff and women can't?" (Especially considering, unlike The Marriage Plot, I wouldn't call Middlesex a novel that fits her argument.) Her argument is incoherent, and even though she's arguing a position I somewhat agree with, the incoherence still bugs me.

And I still say The Marriage Plot was a mediocre novel that noone would have cared about if it hadn't had the pedigree behind it.
posted by aspo at 4:53 PM on April 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


I shouldn't think getting glassy eyed response after the first five seconds of conversation is unusual in any writers life. Absent personal celebrity, good gossip or stock tips, I'm guessing both she or Mr Eugenides would have gotten the same reaction. But as I said, a slight derail.

Out of curiosity, I went to the Pulitzer prize crew to see how they've been doing lately. Slight skew towards men.

Then there's the National Book Awards list for the past twelve years. Fifty fifty! Here's how the fiction category shakes out:

2000: In America by Susan Sontag
2001: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
2002: Three Junes by Julia Glass
2003: The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard
2004: The News from Paraguay by Lily Tuck
2005: Europe Central by William T. Vollmann
2006: The Echo Maker by Richard Powers
2007: Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson
2008: Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen
2009: Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
2010: Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon
2011: Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
posted by IndigoJones at 9:33 AM on April 6, 2012


I still don't think that's what she's saying. More like a female Pulitzer winner probably wouldn't have gotten the attention that Eugenides did. Eugenides (Pulitzer or not) wrote that novel, and no one was gushing about how feminine and delicate and interior it was, whether in praise or criticism. Even Franzen's book, which Oprah selected for her book club, didn't get that kind of commentary. (Not to mention that he was pretty straightforward about claiming that his book transcended the plaudits of her book club, at first.)

I've read Middlesex, and it's not exactly a work of formalist genius. It was okay, and kind of a shitty portrayal of intersex people, according to intersex people. It still boggles my mind that people talk about it in rarefied terms. In the literary university atmosphere that I occupy right now, it's quite obvious how men and women bond over their love of contemp. novels by men, but women have to band together to talk about new novels by women.

So in other words, if Eugenides were a female Pulitzer winner, I really think the conversation would be held in different terms. (Not to mention that Middlesex probably wouldn't have been as feted in the first place.) It's possible to disagree, but I don't see how winning a Pulitzer equalizes the conversation. Not every Pulitzer winner gets the same degree of "serious literary attention" for their new novels, clearly.

Also, IndigoJones, the article mentions the relative equality between male and female recipients of book awards, so... you are repeating the article. Her point is that the Pulitzer winners who non-contemporary-lit-geeks know about and who are assumed in the very most upper eschelon of fiction are generally men. Which seems quite strange, unless you believe men really do just write more ingenious works of fiction.
posted by stoneandstar at 11:56 AM on April 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


I still don't think that's what she's saying. More like a female Pulitzer winner probably wouldn't have gotten the attention that Eugenides did.

I don't think she does a good job backing up that argument.
posted by aspo at 12:48 PM on April 6, 2012


I think she does a pretty good job throughout of illustrating the different ways women's writing is denigrated (comically overused adjectives like "spare" and novels vs. short stories). Also, the Eugenides example is literally the first sentence, meant to begin a discussion about how the trappings of "women's lit" are used very differently for male writers. She returns to him later to talk about cover art again (even to state that his is subtly different than what would be on a Sparks book cover, indicating its seriousness), but it's really not the overall focus of the article. She actually acknowleges that the hype is because of his Pulitzer:

Certainly “The Marriage Plot,” Eugenides’s first novel since his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Middlesex,” was poised to receive tremendous literary interest regardless of subject matter,

but continues on to mention that the subject matter and presentation bring to mind the risks female writers have to avoid to be considered "serious":

but the presence of a female protagonist, the gracefulness, the sometimes nostalgic tone and the relationship-heavy nature of the book only highlight the fact that many first-rate books by women and about women’s lives never find a way to escape “Women’s Fiction”.

The article seems mostly about the pitfalls female writers have to avoid which male writers really never need to think about. In fact, the title is "The Rules of Literary Fiction for Men and Women." I took the first sentence as a good-faith thought experiment, not a claim that any female writer should garner the same attention as Eugenides right off the bat.
posted by stoneandstar at 1:12 PM on April 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


If “The Marriage Plot,” by Jeffrey Eugenides, had been written by a woman yet still had the same title and wedding ring on its cover, would it have received a great deal of serious literary attention?

And I say that yes, yes it would if that woman had been a Pulitzer winner. That's why it's a stupid opening lead. And the rest of the new york times article is very poorly argued and very poorly supported.

That said I agree with you in general, but I just find that the arguments this author makes are not very good ones. Not because she's wrong, but because she doesn't really do a good job of defending the cruz of her argument, or even making it clear what her argument is.
posted by aspo at 4:00 PM on April 6, 2012


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