The results of this year’s Goodreads Choice Awards are in, and a debut novelist took home Favorite Book of 2011 honors. Veronica Roth, author of Divergent, thanks her fans in this video. Other notable winners include Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 and Tina Fey’s Bossypants, which won the Best Fiction and Best Humor categories, respectively. (They were also reviewed on The Millions here and here, respectively.)
The photo on the cover of Bossypants embodies–in all senses of the word–Tina Fey’s comic schtick. Her auburn-colored hair is lustrous and a touch windblown, her face artfully made up, but not too much so. Even with that jaunty black hat on, which, to me, reflects her improv/drama kid dorkdom, she is attractive, in a non-threatening, accessible way. But one can’t look at the photo for more than a millisecond before cognitive dissonance sets in: Wait a minute! She’s got the huge, hairy arms and hands of a huge and hairy man! It’s disgusting. Some have called it upsetting. Most people call it funny.
It’s also a sharp commentary on being a powerful, successful American woman in 2011. As Fey says in the prologue of her book, people often ask her if it’s uncomfortable being the boss, “You know, in the same way they say, “Gosh, Mr. Trump, is it awkward for you to be the boss of all these people?”” Fey loves to point out the double-standards and unfair expectations placed on women: in high school, in motherhood, in the world of entertainment. But she always does so with a wink; she disparages herself, making herself the butt of the joke, so that the joke sings louder and better than you thought it would. She undermines her own femininity with her tongue placed firmly in her cheek. Yep, Tina says, I’ve got man hands.
So do I. (Well, that’s not totally true: my hands are less mannish and more just, well, ugly: crooked and dry and wrinkly, no matter how much expensive hand cream I slather on them. But I digress.) My point is, a lot of women I know identify with Tina Fey, or at least with Liz Lemon, her character on 30 Rock. Liz is a broadly-drawn character in a sitcom of broadly-drawn characters, but, as with all good satire, there’s zing of truth to her. She is an overworked, unmarried woman whose hips, to her chagrin–and it seems, to everyone else’s–are a little on the wide side. Even if that doesn’t describe me exactly (though, dear reader, my hips are wide!), I see myself in her. She’s competent, and she’s a mess. She’s running the show, and no one will listen to her. She’d make a terrible hooker.
It’s in this spirit of fandom that I picked up Bossypants. My first celebrity memoir! I thought. I wonder who ghost wrote this! I thought. (I’m actually still wondering: Did Tina Fey have a ghost writer or not? Is that a stupid question? Can anyone shed some light on this for me?) I read the book in 48 hours–probably in 4 of those 48. It was a fast and entertaining read, and I laughed aloud many, many times. A few turns of phrase really pleased and surprised me, my favorite one being, “A sweet, quiet girl with short curly hair and a face as Irish as a scone.” Man, I wish I’d written that! The chapter about her father Don is a concise and sharp character sketch, and Fey’s assessment about her own complicated homophobia as a teenager was honest and perspicacious. She admits of her gay friends:
They were supposed to be funny and entertain me and praise me and listen to my problems, and their life was supposed to be a secret that none wanted to hear about. I wanted them to stay in the “the half closet.”
When I read this, I felt a shameful twinge of recognition.
But even with the one-liners and the nuggets of wisdom and honesty, the book lacked structure and direction. It didn’t seem to know what it wanted to be. One chapter was about her childhood, one was about standards of beauty for women, one was about her honeymoon cruise with her husband, and on and on. The placement of these chapters seemed almost arbitrary, their relationship to each other tenuous. The chapters about Fey’s stint as Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live struck me as workman-like, as if Tina were describing a day of errands. Even as I was laughing, I wondered what I was supposed to glean from these stories, these jokes.
It became clear to me, over the two days that I lapped up this book, that Tina Fey is a true comedic genius, but she isn’t a master of prose. Bossypants was a delight, but it lacked power, intention. Perhaps that’s what happens when someone wants you to write a book before you’ve actually written it. I mean, let’s get real–that’s what happened, right? She sold this book on the idea of it alone, and then she had to whip it up for her editors like a creative mom whips up dinner on few ingredients. The meal is tasty, but is it inspired? Will it keep you full?
I wish that this book were organized better, with a stronger sense of purpose. I wanted to trace Fey’s evolution better, from dorky little girl to dorky, successful woman. I would have liked more interpretation from her, about 30 Rock, and her character Liz Lemon–it’s not enough to just recount experience. I would have liked a deeper investigation into this notion of being a bossy woman. I just wanted something deeper, I guess.
But, you know, it is a celebrity memoir. I think I’ll go read some other examples of the genre, so that I understand better how it works.
But next time, Tina, maybe you can hire me to be your ghost writer. (You know there will be a next time!) Lord knows I would benefit from hanging around with you. Also, like all fiction writers-turned-ghost writers, I could use the money. Call me!
The gorgeous paperback edition of our own Garth Risk Hallberg’s A Field Guide to the North American Family is now out. Also new and noteworthy are Francisco Goldman’s New Yorker excerpted story of the death of his young wife Say Her Name, Meg Wolitzer’s The Uncoupling, Ann Packer’s Swim Back to Me, Blake Butler’s There is No Year, and Phillip Connors’s intriguing debut, Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout. Elsewhere, we’ve got Tina Fey’s raved about memoir Bossypants and a new and long in the works biography of Malcolm X, whose author, Manning Marable died just last week on the eve of the book’s publication. Finally, now out in paperback is the fiction blockbuster The Help.