In the current issue of Bookforum, David L. Ulin of the Los Angeles Times picks up and runs with a topic we’ve written about here – the current boom in fiction about the counterculture of the ’60s. Ulin’s long essay, called “Go Start Anew,” revisits recent books by Christopher Sorrentino, Dana Spiotta, Hari Kunzru, and Zachary Lazar (whose “Year in Reading” picks bespeak a certain fascination with the ’60s). Moreover, Ulin asks why the curdling of Aquarian idealism speaks so strongly to the current moment. I’m not sure I agree with his answer, but the argument is, as usual, provocative and deeply felt. It’s a Bookforum highlight, as is the entire “Fiction and Politics” supplement, and we urge you to check it out.
This week’s New Yorker is already on newsstands, but before last week’s issue is a distant memory, I wanted to praise it for being one of the best issues I’ve read in a while. Calvin Trillin’s piece on an episode of vigilante justice in Canada was engaging and well reported and David Owen’s profile of the Arup structural engineering firm was an interesting departure from the magazine’s usual coverage of cultural luminaries in the architecture field (neither article is available online.)The issue was anchored by Seymour Hersh’s most important article since he helped break the Abu Ghraib story in 2004. In this follow up, Hersh delivers compelling evidence that responsibility for Abu Ghraib goes well beyond the handful of soldiers who were said to have acted on their own.But what really capped off the issue for me was Helen Simpson’s refreshing story “Homework,” which had a startlingly different tone from the typical New Yorker short story. Instead of brooding and cereberal, the story is almost joyful from start to finish, augmented by a wry undercurrent of second meaning. Whereas many contemporary stories are played in a minor key, thriving on disfunction, “Homework” is built on a healthy relationship between mother and son as she helps him complete an assignment to describe a “life-changing event.” Rolling her eyes at the silly assignment, the first person narrator mother dictates a made up life to her son, one that includes divorced parents and in particular a globe trotting, carefree mother. There are a few subtexts below the surface as she crafts the story for her son: her own difficult childhood, her desire for a more exciting, less domestic life. But the story is also about imagination and being a kid. I thoroughly enjoyed it.I hadn’t read Simpson’s work before, but I’ll keep an eye out for it now. She’s penned several short story collections over the years, including In the Driver’s Seat, which came out last month.
They eat babies in Guangzhou. This appalling side note appeared in this week’s issue of Newsweek International in an article about problems with Chinese food safety. The article profiles Chinese journalist Zhou Qing who was nominated as a finalist for the Lettre Ulysses Award for his work covering food safety issues. According to Zhou, Chinese captains of industry blithely pickle vegetables with agricultural strength insecticides to keep flies away and sprinkle preserved fish with “sulphur salt,” an industrial additive deadly in amounts as small as three grams.None of this is very surprising, after a recent shipment of poisoned Chinese toothpaste and cough syrup caused a spate of deaths in Central and South America. What is surprising, however, is the inspiration for Zhou’s book: an unusual dish he claims was served to him in a Guangdong restaurant. From the Newsweek article:[The soup was] placenta soup… The placentas come from the aborted fetuses of migrant women workers who are unmarried or out of line with the government’s one-child policy. During dinner, Zhou peeked into the back kitchen and saw the cooks scooping out fetuses.While this tidbit doesn’t seem to have earned even a blink from the jaded staff at Newsweek, I practically spit my morning coffee across the monitor.Could this really be the one child policy in action? Or is it a hoax perpetuated by an overzealous reporter? Poisoning cough syrup is one thing, but eating babies? Although stories of women eating their own placentas abound, the issues raised by the potential commodification of the placenta are profoundly troubling. China’s moral compass must be spinning like a dervish.A cynicism well honed on long exposure to fabulist reportage on Asia, immediately took me to Snopes.com, the vaunted debunker of rumors and urban legend. The Snopes team decries a similar story as nothing more than racist claptrap. But a quick trip to Google uncovers a wealth of articles, including one from Bloomberg in the International Herald Tribune (which introduces a new wrinkle… the placentas are imported from Japan) and one from the Daiyuan Times… in Chinese. Who to believe?The blood libel has been around for at least as long as the Jews, and probably well before. There are few crimes more transgressive and titillating than cannibalism, and people with an axe to grind are often quick to call their enemies out as baby eaters. A quick background check on the Daiyuan Times, for example, shows that it is owned by the Falun Gong, a Chinese religious organization that has experienced ruthless oppression at the hands of the Chinese government. If you can’t trust the food from China, how can you trust the journalism?Not that the United States is much better. Even putting aside purebred fictionalists like Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair, we’re still left with a herd of reporters so eager for a good story, they’re unwilling to get to the bottom of it. With old hands like Judith Miller selling entire wars based completely on rumor and innuendo, it’s hard to find fault with an ambitious tyro for practicing his chops on a bowl of fetus soup.So do they eat babies in China? Newsweek, at least, is sticking with Zhou’s account. His book, What Kind of God?, is currently only available in Chinese, but the general hysteria building up around Chinese exports seems to be making room for a bestseller. Eat your heart out Upton Sinclair.See Also: The Lettre Ulysses goes on hiatus
Last 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.
This morning, when I finished reading George Packer’s long article in this week’s New Yorker, I felt like crying. Not out of sadness so much as out of frustration. Reporting from Iraq, Packer discovers yet another in a seemingly interminable series of managerial and moral failures: the U.S. government’s failure to support the Iraqis who have risked their lives serving the occupation as interpreters and administrators. I hope to have more to say on this article, and on Packer’s book, The Assassin’s Gate, sometime soon. In the meantime, I wanted to point out an area where similarly frustrated Americans might be of service.Packer introduces us to a U.S.A.I.D. official named Yaghdan who has been exposed by extremists as an aameel – a collaborator – and threatened with beheading. His request to be moved to a post outside of Baghdad is ignored. And so he flees on his own. Having amassed years of U.S.A.I.D. work, he ends up working for a United Arab Emirates cleaning company. Yaghdad’s U.A.E. visa expires; Qatar rebuffs his request for a visa; the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has no personnel in the Emirates. “Yaghdan had heard that the only way to get a U.S. visa was through a job offer – nearly impossible to obtain,” Packer tells us,or by marrying an American, so he didn’t bother to try. He had reached the end of his legal options and would have to return to Iraq by April 1st. “It’s like taking the decision to commit suicide,” he said.It occurred to me that there may be well-placed Americans at various firms who might be willing to tender job offers to Yaghdan or to other qualified Iraqis in Yaghdan’s position. A young American U.S.A.I.D. named Kirk Johnson has, Packer reports, compiled a list of current and former occupation staffers who have put their lives on the line for us, and now that they face death at the hands of militias, would like to live here in safety. Packer argues convincingly that this is a growing crisis, and that American leadership lacks the political will to deal with these invisible refugees. I have no way of knowing if job offers do indeed lead to visas, but perhaps some enterprising person looking for an administrative assistant will, after reading Packer’s article, want to get in touch with him or with Kirk Johnson. Perhaps the sense of helplessness might, however briefly, abate.
The “My First Literary Crush” piece that Slate posted on Tuesday, in which various notable folks discussed the books that they swooned over in their younger years, has generated some great blog posts. Ed, Jenny and Liam (guesting at Old Hag) all wrote about their literary crushes. Before I get to mine, I noticed some entertaining juxtapositions in the Slate piece. In particular, it was interesting to see that George Eliot was a favorite of both Neal Pollack (who loved Middlemarch) and Christopher Hitchens (a fan of The Mill on the Floss).My first literary crushes, in high school, were for Kurt Vonnegut, T.C. Boyle and John Irving. In college, I first read Ernest Hemingway and was quite taken. Feel free to share your literary crushes in the comments.