Jennifer Egan and girl-on-girl crime

Wall Street Journal: 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”?

Jennifer Egan: 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.

Jennifer Egan is obviously a big topic today, since she won the Pulitzer Price for Fiction for A Visit from the Goon Squad. I read it last summer, and was more impressed with her ambition than compelled by her story or characters. It’s a weird novel, and that’s not really my style, but The Keep was also a super weird novel (embedded narratives galore!) and it kept me up at night, too scared to stop reading. The Invisible Circus was pretty meh, but I do remember some hot sex scenes (although the age difference nagged at me more than a little).

I was pointed towards this interview by Jennifer Weiner’s twitter. God bless her, she is never afraid to fight for the cause of women’s fiction and female writers. There are plenty of people willing to crunch the depressing numbers about how few female contributers to the New Yorker there are, or how many articles on Gary Shteyngart the New York Times will run (an interview, feature, and two reviews between July 18th and August 8th). But while those people gently tsk or make infographics (I’m thinking of one I saw today about female writers on the writing staff of the late night shows), Jennifer Weiner is the one saying, “What the fuck? This is a huge problem, and I’m going to use all the influence I have to make sure the literary establishment can’t pretend they aren’t completely sexist.” From my point of view, too many female writers try to play by the rules, not make a fuss, and just be patient until the NYT deigns to review their work—they assume that if they publicly identify themselves as lady writers, there’s no way they’ll be taken seriously. And then there are the ones who think they’ll be taken more seriously if they slam those other little lady writers.

Maybe Jennifer Egan will send out an apology soon, saying that she just wasn’t thinking clearly, was flustered over her big news, and didn’t mean to insult Megan McCafferty, Sophie Kinsella, Meg Cabot, and, hey, Salman Rushdie (the Wikipedia entry for How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life is pretty fun). But calling the books of these very, very successful women “derivative and banal” is some majorly ugly girl-on-girl crime. If her point is that female writers shouldn’t feel like they’re only qualified to write about shopping and husband-hunting, and that they should, if they want to, tackle bigger, grander subjects—yes, absolutely, I support that. But I think her subtext is that there’s something wrong with women who choose to write about female friendships or motherhood or the search for love; that they’re backing away from a challenge, going the easy route, resigning themselves to a lesser literary genre.

I read all five Jessica Darling books, by Megan McCafferty, over Christmas vacation a year or two ago. I devoured them—McCafferty completely captured the voice of a teenage girl, one who’s smart, witty, relatable, good-hearted, kind of a pain in the ass, selfish, arrogant, and a million other things. The plot can get a little silly and some of the characters are over-the-top, but I would never describe it as “derivative” or “banal.” I thought it was incredibly vivid, and Jessica Darling is one of those YA characters that will help teen girls understand their own complicated selves for the next few generations. (If I may: “You can only be in a bad mood for so long before you have to face up to the fact that it isn’t a bad mood at all; it’s just your sucky personality.”) (Ok, yes, the rest of the books don’t live up to Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings, and the fifth one is particularly ridiculous with the haikus, Barry Manilow, girl in a coma, and especially Jessica’s bullshit job. But it was neither derivative or banal! And you know what? It’s damn ambitious of McCafferty to follow one character through her coming-of-age—not just one moment of maturation, but five books on the continuing process of Jessica soul-searching, making and breaking friendships, connecting to her family, falling in love, going to college, feeling lost in her nascent career, reconciling with her past. There’s no, “The quarterback kissed me at prom, and now we shall live happily ever after!” here.)

Megan McCafferty choose to write about what it’s like to be a teenager in suburban New Jersey, and later a young woman in New York, and she did it extremely well. And one of the reasons her work was plagarized by Kaavya Viswanathan, I would guess, was because she captured that clever-but-still-realistic teenage girl voice better than almost anyone else. And you know who totally failed to write in a believable, engrossing teenage girl voice? Jennifer Egan in The Invisible Circus. But since her book had suicide and political radicalism and sex between a teenager and a 30-something man, and because she now has a Pulitzer, Egan can freely shit all over the YA genre.

It’s one small comment, but it left a very bad taste in my mouth.

Also, you know what? The Tiger’s Wife had no discernible plot. Tea Obreht might be ten times the writer Meg Cabot is, but at least stuff happens in The Princess Diaries (and it’s like fifteen times more fun to read). Oh, and The Cookbook Collector is excellent, but Freedom is better than all of these books put together. (My one complaint about Freedom is that Franzen backed away from the challenge of fleshing out his clever-but-realistic teenage girl character, Patty and Walter’s daughter, perhaps because it’s harder than it looks. I hope in thirty years, someone writes Jessica’s story in a Wide Sargasso Sea-type parallel novel.)

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