For Fat Girls, We Don’t Sweat Much

A lot of novelists I like and admire are linking happily to this Meg Wolitzer piece, via Facebook and Twitter. I link less happily. Because her argument against bias depends on bias. 
When I refer to so-called women’s fiction, I’m not applying the term the way it’s sometimes used: to describe a certain type of fast-reading novel, which sets its sights almost exclusively on women readers and might well find a big, ready-made audience. I’m referring to literature that happens to be written by women. But some people, especially some men, see most fiction by women as one soft, undifferentiated mass that has little to do with them.
My issue with Wolitzer’s article is not so much her attempt to define a genre (literary fiction) that depends on cutting other women out, but her failure to acknowledge that it was two female writers with big audiences who stuck their necks out first in advancing a similar argument — and were pilloried for it. [Insert multi-purpose backgrounder here on Jonathan Franzen, Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult.] [Not an error, just me being silly.] And, by the way, Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult’s audiences were far from ready-made. Yes, I suppose their work can be describe as popular fiction, if one wants to put a name to their genre. But, really, both women work in very particular genres, sui generis genres if you will. Jennifer Weiner writes Jennifer Weiner novels. Jodi Picoult writes Jodi Picoult novels. They worked tirelessly over a period of time to build their audiences. Other writers who have created their own singular genres — IHMO, in case that isn’t always implicit here — are Lee Child, Stephen King, Tom Perrotta, Kate Atkinson, Elinor Lippman (no relation) (sadly). On a sharper day — I just finished reviewing all the copy-edits for my next novel — I could name dozens of writer who are genres unto themselves. Perhaps, if we really think about it, most writers are genres unto themselves. I’ve read everything Meg Wolitzer has written. She’s not quite a genre unto herself; I can think of some other writers who make me happy in the same way she does. (Allegra Goodman, for example.) But I buy all her books. Heck, I bought the last one as a hardcover and a digital copy because of my peripatetic life. Still admire her, still think The Wife is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Years ago, in a very different context, Nora Ephron had a line about wishing to march in someone’s parade, only his actions made it impossible. I now know how this feels. “Soft undifferentiated mass” — it almost reads like body snark, doesn’t it?  Don’t taint me with your flabby words. I’m over here, knocking on the door to the boy’s clubhouse, desperate to get in, and if that means throwing you over the side*, so be it.  *As someone who just — just! — read the first book in The Hunger Games trilogy, this image has a lot of resonance.  

6 thoughts on “For Fat Girls, We Don’t Sweat Much

  1. You are a genre of your own now because when I first read the summary of Megan Abbott’s first contemporary novel I thought, “Hey, she’s writing a Laura Lippman novel.”

    Of course now you’ve gone and written a Megan Abbott novel just to be screwy.

  2. you (and Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult) when I read the Wolitzer piece yesterday). As I was reading it, I was generally agreeing but also had a feeling of quiet unease that I of course did could not identify. I think you did.

  3. Yes, Megan is another writer I should have name-checked, along with Gillian Flynn, many others.

    Wolitzer made a lot of good points. I think she could have made them without being so adamant about which writers she needed to exclude.

  4. When I taught English to high school students in the 60′s, through the 90′s in Maryland I also sensed that male students looked at fiction by women writers as indeed “one soft, undifferentiated mass that has little to do with them.” After many comments from teenage boys about having to read “girls’ books” by Austen, Bronte, etc. I saw that change when I taught Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. Certainly the growing feminist movement was part of it, but for the first time I began to hear male students say that they clearly understood why their female classmates were both moved and angered by this novel.

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