A Tale of Two Jennifers

Jennifer Egan had a pretty great week last week. She won the Pulitzer for her novel The Goon Squad and the news broke that HBO optioned her work for a television series. Then she did an interview with the Wall Street Journal, an interview I read and thoroughly enjoyed. She talks about winning the Pulitzer, fielding the usual questions one might get about how it feels to receive such recognition, how she found out (at a restaurant as she was sitting down), and a little about the work itself. Because she is a woman who writes, and does so prominently, Egan was asked about gender and how male and female writers come off in the press. The exchange looked like this:

Q. Over the past year, there’s been a debate about female and male writers and how they come off in the press. Franzen made clear that “Freedom” was going to be important, while others say that Allegra Goodman was too quiet about “The Cookbook Collector.” Do you think female writers have to start proclaiming, “OK, my book is going to be the book of the century”?

A. Anyone can say anything, that’s easy. 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? I’m not saying you should say you’ve never done anything good, but I don’t go around saying I’ve written the book of the century. My advice for young female writers would be to shoot high and not cower.

I thought it was a pretty great answer, which may surprise you, but it is important for all writers to aim high, to be bold, to not cower. I am all for anyone who encourages ambition. I did not really give Egan’s answer more thought but then Jennifer Weiner started to talk about the interview on Twitter. I follow Jennifer Weiner. I read Good in Bed when it first came out and loved it. I also read and loved In Her Shoes. I follow her blog.  My point is, I’m a fan and have been for years though I haven’t read her more recent work. Somewhere along the way, she became pretty famous and now her name is bigger on the book cover than the title. I am glad to see how her career has taken off. She has also, as of late, developed a bit of a reputation for being outspoken. Whenever someone prominent expresses an opinion they are labeled as outspoken. That label is rarely a compliment. Weiner (along with other writers like Jodi Picoult) had a lot to say when the literary world was agog with excitement over Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, for example. I get it. The hype was exhausting and disproportionate to the critical attention other writers receive. In this most recent incident, it seems Weiner felt Egan was disparaging “chick lit,” with her response because the books the aforementioned Harvard student plagiarized, those books alluded to in Egan’s response, were from the “chick lit” genre.

Deena Drewis wrote a great essay on the subject for The Millions detailing a lot of the “backlash,” as well as thinking through the implications of this current discussion/debate, the term “chick lit,” and the idea that all women writers should be ideologically unified. I agreed with most of what Drewis had to say on the subject though I’m pretty sure “chick lit” writers didn’t coin the genre themselves. Any debate about that genre, the name of that genre, and how women writers function within that genre needs to acknowledge the origins of the term “chick lit,” as a faulty construct of the publishing industry.  Still, I particularly appreciated Drewis’s focus on the impossible expectation of ideological unity. It is rather unrealistic to expect people who share a certain set of characteristics to agree about much of anything. Just because women share a gender and also happen to be writers does not mean we’re all going to sit around sipping tea agreeing about everything. I hate tea, for one.

Interviews are complicated. A friend recently said to me, “Press isn’t what you want. It’s what you get.” I’m pretty sure Egan participated in countless interviews that day, flush with the news of the Pulitzer, probably being asked the same set of questions over and over. I believe she meant what she said but I don’t believe she was being malicious. The backlash surprises me, seems unfair. Egan was being honest, speaking off the cuff. Sometimes our honest opinions are not the most politic. When you’re in a position such as Egan’s I don’t know that there is a “right answer,” when it comes to potentially explosive questions. You cannot please everyone and as evidenced here and there and everywhere, it is quite difficult to discuss gender and [insert field]. I don’t know why Egan is expected to love certain books just because they were written by women. It could certainly be said that she doesn’t have to go out of her way to tear those books down, either, but she doesn’t really do that. She makes one statement and doesn’t name any books by name, and then those of us who read that statement assign all sorts of values and responsibilities and motives to her words.

I’ve read two of the books vaguely referenced in Egan’s interview, Confessions of a Shopaholic and The Princess Diaries. They are wonderful books—warm, witty, and very charming. Are they books I would  use in my creative writing class as examples of writing my students should aspire to? No. Maybe that’s a failure of imagination on my part but I like grit in my reading and those books do not have the grit I am looking for. When I think of all the books I love that I want to show students as examples of writing to which they should aspire, I don’t think about a novel about a girl who spends too much money and then has to work her way out of debt, falling in love along the way. However much I enjoyed it, that book doesn’t even come close. The reality is that there are a lot of books and there are a lot of great books. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. A book can be great without being great. Those particular books and the writers of those books are doing quite well for themselves without receiving the imprimatur of the critical world. Isn’t that enough?

Perhaps not.

For the past few days, Zadie Smith’s rules for writers have been circulating the various social networks. Smith’s rules are as sound and intelligent as you would expect. Her final rule states, “Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand – but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.”

Are writers truly never satisfied? The thought that, as writers, we will spend the entirety of our careers trying to be happy while accepting the constancy of dissatisfaction depresses me. But then I think of Jennifer Weiner. She has sold, I am guessing, hundreds of thousands of books, if not more. She is the executive producer of a television show debuting on ABC family this year. One of her movies, In Her Shoes became a major studio film (and a great one) starring Toni Collette and Cameron Diaz. Other books have been optioned and may someday make it to the big screen. I cannot imagine why Jennifer Weiner cares about the critical attention a Franzen or Egan receives or what Egan says about “chick lit.” Until last year I had never heard of Jennifer Egan (whose writing I’m really digging too) but I’ve known about Jennifer Weiner for nearly ten years. By most measures, Weiner has achieved the kind of success few writers will ever know and still, when you see her discussing literary writers and voicing her opinions on “literary fiction,” versus, “chick lit,” you get the sense she is not satisfied despite everything she has achieved. She has built a brilliant career for herelf and still, she wants more (respect? critical attention? recognition for the power of the genre she writes in?). I love that she wants more.

I understand what drives Weiner to discuss these issues and to continue to be outspoken. Jennifer Weiner is actually doing exactly what Jennifer Egan wants young women writers to do, to “shoot high and not cower.” If the two Jennifers sat down and had a drink I’m pretty sure they would find they are not at all far apart in their thinking about women and writing. Maybe they already do this. I imagine all famous people know each other.

It is unfortunate that Jennifer Egan is being held responsible for a complicated issue that reaches so far beyond her statements in one interview, the day she won the Pulitzer. Egan finds the titles a Harvard student plagiarized ten years ago derivative and banal. So what? That’s her right. She is not the spokesperson for women or literature or women writers or anyone or anything but herself and her own writing. Like all of us who are outspoken, she’s entitled to voice unpopular opinions (though I don’t think her opinion is that unpopular). By the same token, people are entitled to react to those opinions.

Getting into a frenzy over Egan’s comments ultimately feels like a complete waste of time. This current backlash is the tempest in the proverbial teapot. Instead, we could (and should) discuss why certain kinds of stories are labeled as “chick lit,” and why those stories and the people (often women) who write those stories don’t receive the same critical attention as writers of “literary fiction” (often men), and how we might change our attitudes toward “chick lit,” and how we might teach young writers to shoot high and not cower. In The Merchant of Venice, Portia says, “It is a good divine that follows his own instructions.” I’m going to try and do that by finding a productive way to use a “chick lit” book in my fiction class next fall. It’s a small step but even small steps eventually get you where you’re going.