Jennifer Egan Wins Pulitzer Prize, Commits Girl-on-Girl Crime
When I found out that Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, I was thrilled. Girl power! That lasted about two minutes until someone pointed me to a Wall Street Journal post in which she calls chick-lit genre writing banal and derivative and that her advice to young writers is to aim higher. Oh goody, some literary girl-on-girl crime.
"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. "
That Harvard student she is referring to is Kaavya Viswanathan, a young woman who, in 2006, published a novel right out of high school called How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life. For a short period of time she was the golden child of publishing. Then it was discovered that she had heavily borrowed from other authors, including Megan McCafferty (the author of the Jessica Darling series), Meg Cabot (The Princess Diaries), and Sophie Kinsella (the Shopaholic series). I've read those banal, derivative authors. I liked them. I may not like every work they've published but I have enjoyed their novels. Oh, and Salman Rushdie made the Opal's hit list too, but I'm guessing Egan wasn't referring to Rushdie when she said that Viswanathan copied banal writers... but then again maybe she was.
This is the thing that gets me -- after a year where we saw a lot of talk about how women do not get the same attention from literary publications as their male counterparts --- #Franzenfreude anyone? -- I should be thrilled that a woman won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. I was. It lasted about two minutes, which is how long it took to someone to point me to the Wall Street Journal article. I wasn't alone in that. Jennifer Weiner was right there with me on Twitter.
And so was Julie, the author of the The Signature Thing:
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.
Is there derivative, poorly written chick lit? Sure. But there’s also derivative, poorly written literary fiction. Slamming an entire genre of novels written by women is unsavory, inaccurate, and akin to the kind of girl-on-girl crime that women should be trying to stop, not perpetuate.
Jennifer Egan was a contributor to the 2006 anthology, This Is Not Chick Lit, so I'm not exactly surprised that she's not fond of the genre. I am disappointed that she used the Pulitzer Prize platform to stomp on and dismiss an entire genre of women's writing. The list of things I don't understand in this world is long but this here's one that's near the top of the list -- why must people put down another's preferences in order to elevate themselves?
I read across a lot of genres. I've been called out on all my reading choices at some point. When I read literary fiction, I'm elitist. When I read chick-lit or romance, I'm just a silly woman with fluff for brains. When I read young adult fiction, I am immature. When I read non-fiction books about women's or social history, I'm not reading "real" history. It says much more about the person making the statement than it does about my choices.
Like any reader, there are genres I don't read heavily but it doesn't mean I think that they are any less worthy than the ones I do read. I don't read a lot of mysteries, for example. When I read mysteries, I'm an impatient reader who just wants to get to the end to find out who did it. As as result I rush through the book and miss out on all the lovely bits of writing. The problem isn't the mysteries themselves -- it's my impatience. Mystery novels aren't bad; I am a bad reader of mysteries.
We don't all have to read and like the same books and the world would be a boring place if we did. One's reading, or writing, choices don't make them any better or worse than the next person. Jamie ends her post with a statement from one of her friends: "A rising tide should lift all boats." I wish that Egan hadn't felt the need to try to sink a few.
Photo Credit: David Shankbone.