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What We Call What Women Write

By posted at 6:01 am on April 25, 2011 71

coverLast week, when it was announced that Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, I’m guessing I felt something like a football fan does when his team wins the Superbowl. I loved the book, pushing it hard on my bookish friends and even harder on the unbookish ones, certain that this was one of the most broadly appealing works of fiction to have come out in a long time. After the announcement, I wanted nothing more than to high-five all my Egan-loving friends posting the link on Facebook. It was heartening to see that the sentiment seemed widespread and magnanimous. Surely the celebration had to do with the brilliance of the book, but also the fact that a woman won in a year of several lively discussions regarding gender inequality in publishing (see the VIDA report on publication statistics and the backlash to Jonathan Franzen in general.)

Alas, the feeling of deserved recognition was short-lived. In a Wall Street Journal interview that Egan gave shortly after receiving the news, her advice to young writers ruffled some feathers:

My focus is less on the need for women to trumpet their own achievements than to shoot high and achieve a lot. What I want to see is young, ambitious writers. And there are tons of them. Look at The Tiger’s Wife. There was that scandal with the Harvard student who was found to have plagiarized. But she had plagiarized very derivative, banal stuff. This is your big first move? These are your models?…My advice for young female writers would be to shoot high and not cower.

The Harvard student Egan is referring to is Kaavya Viswanathan, whose novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life was much lauded until it was discovered that large sections had been lifted from other books; among the plagiarized authors were Meg Cabot (The Princess Diaries), Sophie Kinsella (Confessions of a Shopaholic) and Megan McCafferty (the Jessica Darling series), all of whom are best-selling authors of the “chick-lit” genre.

Chief among the offended was the oft-outspoken author Jennifer Weiner (In Her Shoes), who was also a prominent voice of the aforementioned Franzen backlash. A tweet from Weiner shortly after the WSJ piece ran: “And there goes my chance to be happy that a lady won the big prize. Thanks, Jenny Egan. You’re a model of graciousness.” Following Weiner’s lead, devout fans of chick-lit sounded off; over at The Frisky, in an essay titled “In Defense of Chick Lit,” Jamie Beckman, who opens her essay declaring that Egan was “one of her favorite authors of all time,” expresses doubt that she’ll ever recommend Egan’s work to a friend again.

It’s not hard to see how Egan’s statements offended—“very derivative and banal” isn’t exactly timid diction, and it’s a real downer to have someone you respect make you feel like you’ve got bad taste. But before anyone accuses anyone of “step[ping] on other women as [she] makes [her] way to the podium,” as Beckman puts it, we should consider a couple of things.

First: the offended parties lay claim to a genre ubiquitously referred to as “chick-lit”, a term used to describe fiction that relays, as Beckman puts it, “thoughtful, funny, relatable voices for the everywoman who’s looking for her personal pieces of life’s pie, including the career, the apartment, and the guy.” I don’t aim to scrutinize the content of the genre so much as the fact that the chick lit demographic has fully embraced the term. Ladies, it’s 2011. Who refers to women as “chicks” aside from Ed Hardy-wearing man-children? Uninspired as it may be, detractors calling the work “fluffy” can’t really be blamed—it’s built into the name, for god’s sake. It’s difficult to move forward in an argument about the sexist climate in publishing when a group that is supposedly trying to push for more equality has accepted and even defended a derogatory label. Granted, the term was probably coined by some marketing department somewhere, but authors of the genre stand by it unflinchingly (see Michele Gorman’s article in The Guardian). It’s no secret that the chick lit authors are outselling their literary fiction counterparts by far. What’s alarming is that the tremendous success of the genre is largely because it’s marketed to women who identify themselves “chicks.”

Perhaps the bigger issue at hand, though, is the severity of the backlash to Egan’s comments and the reasoning behind it. Bloggers at the The Signature Thing declared it “majorly ugly girl-on-girl crime,” and numerous commenters declared a boycott of everything Egan from this point forward. Another blogger at NerdGirlTalking was utterly perplexed: “Jennifer Egan, have you even MET Meg?.. Because how could you meet Meg and then call her work banal or derivative? I don’t care if you think those things, Meg is so nice that saying those things are almost like kicking a puppy.”

These former Egan fans are uniting under the notion that in addition to being a meanie, Egan is setting feminists back 50 years. How could she? In the male hegemony of publishing, us gals are supposed to stick together. Which is all well and good, in theory. But to suggest that a woman writer should not be critical of other women writers is counter to progress. It reminds me a little bit of the 2008 election. There was a certain kind of Hillary supporter that believed all women should be in support of our potential first woman president mostly on the basis that this could be our first woman president! Which is all well and good, in theory. But to express any sort of dissent guaranteed you a look of pity mingled with disgust: Poor thing. She must secretly hate her vagina.

This kind of mindless unity is counterintuitive. What kind of feminist movement condones a suppression of opinion on the basis that we should all be nice and stick together, because we’re girls? What Egan said wasn’t nice. It was honest. It reflected her opinion of a certain type of fiction. Publishing should strive to be a meritocracy (though whether it succeeds is a whole other issue,) and Egan’s comments are an acknowledgment of that. On the other hand, in the chick lit realm, amid the outrage and demand for more respect, there is, in fact cowering: observe Weiner selling herself short (and acknowledging a literary hierarchy) in an interview she gave to the Huffington Post: “Do I think I should be getting all of the attention that Jonathan “Genius” Franzen gets? Nope. Would I like to be taken at least as seriously as a Jonathan Tropper or a Nick Hornby? Absolutely.”

In 1971, Gore Vidal compared Norman Mailer’s The Prisoner of Sex to “three days of menstrual flow.” Mailer then proceeded to head-butt Vidal before they appeared on the Dick Cavett Show, and six years later at a party, he threw his drink in Vidal’s face and started a fistfight. While I’m not suggesting that this is admirable behavior (though it is pretty funny,) it does nothing for leveling the playing field if every time a woman author remarks on the quality of a work of fiction, hysteria ensues, she’s thought of as a catty bitch, and there’s a concerted effort to rally the troops against her.

In a year when a male author (Franzen), appeared on the cover of Time for the first time since the last male author (Stephen King,) appeared on the cover ten years ago, the significant success of Goon Squad shouldn’t be drowned out by bitterness because Egan encouraged young writers to aim higher than a genre whose very name degrades its creators. What we should be concerned about is that glaring inequities exist in publishing. So, ladies, one more time, in case you didn’t hear Egan over Weiner’s whining: shoot high and don’t cower. We can’t very well get much done with the kid gloves on.

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71 Responses to “What We Call What Women Write”

  1. A Tale of Two Jennifers | HTMLGIANT
    at 1:43 pm on April 26, 2011

    […] Drewis wrote a great essay on the subject for The Millions detailing a lot of the “backlash,” as well as thinking […]

  2. Alfred Smith
    at 2:33 pm on April 26, 2011

    Wow. All this over an off-the-cuff comment in which Egan criticized an author for bothering to plagarize material that was in her mind “derivative and banal “. When I read the quote, I understood her to say ” Aim as high as possible – strive for imortality rather than best selling formulaic Chic-Lit… you can do better, but not if you don’t aim high.” And in my mind, I say “Yes. Why not!” If I could write – would I rather be remembered for having penned a Great American Novel, or would I want to be a successful writer, who made a lot of money, but somehow fell short of the apellation “Great”. I’d desire Greatness. Is it elitist? Yes. Is it wrong? Not necessarily. It’s Egan’s opinion (and mine). There’s certainly nothing wrong with writing popular best-sellers. Jennifer Weiner has nothing to be ashamed of and will easily outsell Jennifer Egan, but give me a break, I never heard Dannielle Steele complaining that she wasn’t respected….

    So, Jennifer Egan’s novel has been critically lauded, and she encouraged others to match her high standards…. what’s wrong with that? This backlash is simply sour grapes from those who’ve chosen to write novels that appeal to readers whose tastes are somewhat uncomplicated. Apparently, they’d have prefered that Egan would have said something like ” Just write something… it’s all good”.

  3. Gemma
    at 2:49 pm on April 26, 2011

    The fact that there are still issues about Egan making that sort of comment shows how biased the literary world is against women. If any male author had made a similar statement no one would bat an eye. This isn’t Egan making an attack on “chick lit”, the label of which IS demeaning all on its own. But that genre is not a serious one, it’s not great literature in the literary sense of the word. And that’s not as if to say one of those books can’t be good or have merit, and certainly they’re enjoyable, but in ten years, who’ll remember? And that’s the main difference between what Egan is writing and what, say, Meg Cabot puts out. (I point her out because she’s the only one mentioned that I’ve actually read, albiet many years ago.)

    Egan isn’t saying anything against that genre that isn’t already clear: it’s not a serious literary genre. Make of that what you will. What Egan is saying is that more women should be aspiring to that higher tier, to go beyond the will-sell and target-demographic nonsense. Mind you, that’s the category for Tropper and Hornby too. It’s not a gender matter.

    Now what in the hell is so wrong with telling young women to work for more than a one-shot bestseller? Why not aim high? Why not be truly great? Egan has done this, and it’s a message that shouldn’t be met with offense and outrage.

  4. DAS
    at 4:20 pm on April 26, 2011

    Hugh Walpole, anyone? A once popular and well-respected English author. Even got himself a knighthood.

    If you’ve heard his name in the last 40 years its probably because you heard it in a Monty Python sketch (‘Rogue Herries’ by Hugh Walpole.)

    Jennifer Weiner is our generation’s Hugh Walpole, if that.

  5. Meg Waite Clayton
    at 5:41 pm on April 26, 2011

    My problem with the whole “chick lit” thing is the tendency to categorize family/relational fiction written by women about women as such and then dismiss it as prada shoe stories (whether there are any shoes involved or not), while family/relationship fiction by men is seen as “literary” and lauded, whether it is written about men or women. It’s enough to make one consider throwing a male protagonist into the mix.

  6. Deena
    at 6:15 pm on April 26, 2011

    Meg, you bring up a point that I wish I could have fit into the article. I actually don’t think subject matter is the issue with chick lit, although it’s often the point of contention on behalf of both its detractors and defenders. As several commenters have pointed out, Egan’s subjects–supermodels, high-powered PR women, stylists, and generally glamorous women–are often the same subjects of chick lit authors. The difference is the brilliance of Egan’s execution, which is in large part why it’s so great to see her winning the Pulitzer.

    It would indeed be ludicrous to say that families and relationships are an unworthy topic, because the thing is, there are many women writing well about these topics. I’d be hard pressed to think of someone who wrote about being a housewife and mother in a more hilarious and heartbreaking way than Grace Paley did. More recently, Danielle Evans wrote a beautiful short story collection largely revolving around the experience of being a teenage girl, and she got a lot of recognition this year. I remember reading Lorrie Moore in college and being absolutely astounded at the way she was portraying the lives of everyday women, and she’s pretty well respected across gender lines. My issue with the chick lit debate is that the conversation is misdirected: the lack of credit has very little to do with subject matter so much as the way it’s being portrayed.

    Thanks for the comment.

  7. Merideth Hartsell
    at 10:41 pm on April 26, 2011

    I think it’s interesting that you mention the Vidal-Mailer squabble, Deena. It would be interesting in and of itself but I find it even more meaningful because the insult that Vidal used is specific to women. Would Mailer have been as offended – and as inclined to violence – if Vidal had compared his work to something male-specific? Probably not.

  8. Notes on a Non-Scandal |
    at 12:20 am on April 27, 2011

    […] then, here I am again, reading all about the Jennifers. And when I came across Deena Drewis’s post in The Millions on Monday about the whole Egan/Weiner kerfuffle — and her strongly held views on […]

  9. gabrielle
    at 6:23 am on April 27, 2011

    this was great! and i loved that story about mailer and vidal.

  10. lisa
    at 7:11 pm on April 27, 2011

    I don’t think Egan was being mean. Her point was that a Harvard student’s literary models were all popular fiction instead of, say, classic humorists like Rabelais or Jane Austen or Voltaire or Shakespeare or Moliere or Swift.

  11. MJ
    at 12:21 pm on April 30, 2011

    For the record, not everyone in the publishing industry is satisfied with the term “chick lit” and many refer to it as “women’s fiction” (fiction of interest to women’s issues) — it’s practically a movement because editors who love women’s fiction don’t think that fiction is dumbed-down and don’t like that “chick lit” connotes that it is.

  12. Jennifer Is So Hot Right Now, But Not In A Sexist Way « Found Footage
    at 12:40 am on May 10, 2011

    […] that a lady won the big prize. Thanks, Jenny Egan. You’re a model of graciousness.” Others followed suit with similar […]

  13. After Franzenfreude, DerivativeAndBanalGate « Other People's Ideas
    at 12:41 am on May 13, 2011

    […] responses to them, and the very fact that the debate was happening in the first place. This is very enlightening reflection on the controversy, which takes in many of the relevant points of view, as […]

  14. bobbygw
    at 7:31 am on May 24, 2011

    I agree with Sarah – Egan was being patronising and elitist about certain types of fiction. Egan may also think she’s original and literary, but I for one found Goon Squad banal, pretentious and derlivative (of the likes of David Foster Wallace, whose footnote style she attempts to copy, but without any of Wallace’s wit or originality). All her characters, male and female, in the novel were horribly self-obsessed, ego-inflated, narcissistic bores. As a portrait of the American zeitgeist vis-a-vis the microcosm of the music scene – there was nothing of insight or intelligence that she offered.

    What astonishes me and frankly confuses me, is how on earth Goon Squad ever managed to be popular, and how it managed to garner two major awards. I think it was a perfect example of the Emperor’s New Clothes of modern fiction, and one of the most boring novels I’ve ever read.

  15. bobbygw
    at 7:32 am on May 24, 2011

    Oops – sorry for the typo – obviously i meant ‘derivative’, not ‘derlivative’!

  16. Louise
    at 2:28 am on June 2, 2011

    Thank you, I couldn’t agree more.

    I say that as someone who reads both “chick lit” (dread word) and literary fiction.

    I loved Goon Squad, I bought it in a tiny bookshop in Paris recommended by the bookseller, I had heard nothing of the hype and didn’t know she had won the Pulitzer until later. I will remember the disjointed slightly dystopic effect created for a long time, it gave me plenty to think about.

    Obviously I will also remember the last “chick lit” I read, because the stories are all the same, the characters are all very similar. It’s the book equivalent of a soap opera or a warm bath. Easy to read and comforting.

  17. Jennifer Schuessler: “Literary Occupation: Housewife”
    at 11:38 am on June 6, 2011

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  18. Jennifer Egan: “I Needed to Let Go of Chronology” | Talking Writing
    at 7:06 am on June 13, 2011

    […] like Jennifer Wiener and fans of that market, a segment sometimes tagged “chick lit.” (See “What We Call What Women Write” by Deena Drewis for a good […]

  19. Holly St Clair
    at 5:38 pm on September 19, 2011

    I often say I don’t read a book unless I think it will change my life. I do not go into bookstores because they feel phony and I am a non-shopaholic. I am beginning to realize that I haven’t read much “contemporary” lit because I am alienated from so much of modern life. I should say the parts of modern life that are bureaucratic, fascistic, destroying the planet and humanity. Maybe I don’t get out enough. I was a “chick” at one point in my life, and I count as my heroines Gracie Allen, Lucille Ball, Lily Tomlin, etc–were they chicks? I am a feminist. I believe in freedom of speech and think “famous” people should be able to say what they think. I also tend to be very tolerant and believe that EVERYONE’s contribution is valuable.

  20. Best of the Blog 2K11 (Part 1) | Full Stop
    at 1:15 pm on December 28, 2011

    […] then, here I am again, reading all about the Jennifers. And when I came across Deena Drewis’s post in The Millions on Monday about the whole Egan/Weinerkerfuffle — and her strongly held views on “chick […]

  21. We still need critics | Carissa Halston
    at 6:01 pm on August 5, 2012

    […] who disagree with us. Frequently, we confuse disagreement to argumentativeness. We assume it’s an attack on our taste. And sometimes, it is. But in the instances wherein we feel attacked, we should stop and consider […]

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