What We Call What Women Write

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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.

In Defense of Editors

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For a while now, I’ve tried to think of an apt analogy for the relationship between writers and editors; the best thing I’ve come up with so far is this: writers are to editors as Scarlett O’Hara is to Rhett Butler–the former, passionate to the point of temporary blindness; the latter, surefooted and collected, all the while attempting pragmatism, though it must be passion, in the end, that drives them in the same direction.

Maybe it’s not a perfect analogy. In fact, in my experience, more often than not, writers are grateful for a second set of eyes committed to improving the work. But as history will have it, the most fascinating of the writer-editor relationships are the most contentious, the boldest edits the most memorable: Maxwell Perkins cut 65,000 words of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel; T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland was published at about half of its original length based largely on Ezra Pound’s edits, and the deft opening of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises was a result of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s criticism. For all the ego warfare, the three sets of relationships survived, if tenuously. But more notably, works that were deemed “unreadable” (to borrow Perkins’ description of the early Wolfe) and “unpublishable” (to quote Perkins on the first draft of The Sun Also Rises,) emerged as some of the most lasting pieces of 20th century American literature.

Most recently, Carol Sklenicka’s new biography of Raymond Carver, Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life, dredges up yet again what has perhaps become the messiest of all writer-editor relationships, between the Carver and his editor, Gordon Lish. Prior to Sklenicka’s book, in 1998 the New York Times published D.T. Max’s unprecedented account of Lish’s extensive edits followed by an interview with the embittered editor. What was established in the article and is readdressed in Sklenicka’s book is that Lish did not edit Carver’s monumental collection; rather, he commandeered it. Ten out of thirteen endings were changed, stories were drastically cut, and Lish took liberties with rewriting, to say the least.

I first read What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, the collection most notoriously edited by Lish, nearly twenty five years after its 1981 debut, and despite all the debate over who’s responsible for its brilliance, it remains one of my all-time favorite short story collections. And so during the time I was discovering that Carver wasn’t so much an author of this tremendous book, but an author in the shadow of it, a sense of indignation burgeoned inside of me. To quote D.T. Max: “I wanted Carver to win, whatever that might mean. He had shown writers the value of measuring your words.”

The thing is, as I’ve gone back to the collection over the years, I’ve gone back and forth on why I’d ever adopted this sense of outrage over Lish’s edits. It’s part human compassion, sure–you want Carver, the once alcoholic janitor, to be the genius his book suggests he is. But why is it upsetting when it’s the editor that was in large part responsible for it? Every writer needs an editor, and if Lish took more artistic license than most, he was doing his job–namely, he was making the changes he thought necessary to make the book as good as it could be. Does it matter that he manhandled the manuscript if it’s better for it? Even Carver, in his letters to Lish published by the New Yorker in 2007 acknowledges that Lish “made so many of the stories in this collection better, far better than they were before.”

His reluctance to have the edited versions published was out of fear that his peers–Richard Ford and Tobias Wolff among them–that had seen earlier drafts would hardly recognize the stories as the ones Carver had originally written. “Maybe if I were alone, by myself, and no one had ever seen these stories,” his letter explains, “maybe then, knowing that your versions are better than some of the ones I had sent, maybe I could get into this and go with it.”

As we know now, Lish got his way by ignoring Carver’s pleas. Thus, the point of contention among the old friends: What We Talk About transformed Carver into a darling of the literary world, and despite his last-minute reservations and desperation, he didn’t deny himself the glory the book won him, and he remains one of the most revered writers of the 20th century. From the New Yorker article, a quote from Tess Gallagher, with whom Carver lived after his divorce from his first wife until his death in 1988:

What would you do if your book was a success but you didn’t want to explain to the public that it had been crammed down your throat?…He had to carry on. There was no way for him to repudiate the book. To do so would have meant that it would all have to come out in public with Gordon and he was not about to do that. Ray was not a fighter. He would avoid conflict because conflict would drive him to drink.

As Carver’s celebrity grew, so did his confidence; Cathedral came out two years later, and at Carver’s behest, Lish hardly touched it. If it’s not the monument What We Talk About is, it is his most decorated work, with a Pulitzer and National Book Critics Circle Award nomination, and is generally regarded as Carver’s “truer” work. While I certainly agree that it contains some masterful fiction, I stand by my preference for What We Talk About. What some critics and peers have called greater “heart” in Cathedral Lish referred to as Carver’s “creeping sentimentality,” and while the subject matter of a middle class in ruins remains undeniably Carverian, the tone takes a noticeable shift–to put it one way, there is optimism in the latter book, where the prior is renowned for its lack of it.

Though Sklenicka’s biography raises the issue of Carver’s true identity as a writer once again, after all is said and done, the fear of his being exposed as a no-talent buoyed by his editor is irrational. It’s been over ten years since Lish’s heavy hand has been revealed, and Carver’s place among the masters of short fiction still stands. On the other hand, Lish has taken something of a beating for it; “I can only be despised for my participation,” he told Max during the interview. He may always be revered as an editor and credited with launching the careers of writers like Richard Ford and Amy Hempel who emerged in Carver’s wake, but in an abstract sense, Lish–or rather, his aggressive editorial approach–is easy to demonize. He expressly went against Carver’s wishes and instead did what he thought was best. He doesn’t seem like a terrifically nice guy, albeit pretty funny (see The Believer interview excerpt.) But niceness is, by and large, irrelevant to art.

I certainly don’t mean to suggest that editors ignore their writers’ requests altogether, but in this particular instance, Lish usurped Carver’s work, and with it, some of his identity. It was traumatic at times for both parties, but in terms of art and aesthetic, wasn’t it worth it? There will be those that disagree that preservation of the artist’s vision is secondary to the art itself, but ultimately, art exists to affect, and the greater the affect, the greater the art, regardless of who’s responsible for it.