Women’s Lit

As an English major in a small Midwestern college in the early 70s, plowing my way through the required Emerson and Conrad and Melville and James, with brief side trips into Alcott, Woolf and Wharton (which sounds like an excellent law firm), my pleasure reading, apart from Marvel comics and paperback sci-fi, consisted of the work of the duly anointed and almost exclusively male literary novelists of the time: Heller, Vonnegut, Updike, Roth, Pynchon, Cheever, Salter, Salinger. Just to read that partial but imposing list of names tells us something about the degree to which the American novel, both as a reading experience and as a commercial artifact, has been transformed in a few brief decades.

Recall that at the time, all of those authors were writing and publishing simultaneously. One year there’d be a new Updike and a new Pynchon, the next a new Mailer and Roth. (Heller was much stingier, but you could read Catch-22 yet again while you were waiting for Something Happened.) At the time, we thought such a profusion of talent and literary ambition, and of financially secure publishers to nurture it, was normal. It’s only now, 40 years on, that we can begin to see that yes, these were novelists whose work would stand the test of time, and no, the publishing environment in which they prospered was not normal, would not last, perhaps could not; that as readers we were living in a charmed interval.

Is this just sexist nostalgia? Certainly styles change, what’s considered “literary” changes, and I don’t mean to make, at least not here, an argument about declining quality, nor to pine for the bad old days of literary patrimony. But what is accepted from time to time as excellence in narrative prose tells us worlds about ourselves, and notice should, I think, be paid to the American novel’s shift, in a short span of decades, from an expression of principally male experience rooted in the quotidian, to an expression of principally female experience rooted in the exotic and, dare I say, the melodramatic. And that each is culturally registered as equivalent in artistic terms bears examination.

It’s unremarkable today that a strikingly large percentage –one might argue a majority – of novels being promoted by mainstream publishers as literary or “upmarket” fiction are written by women rather than men, a complete reversal of the literary wind direction of my college days. Demographics, education, feminism, and professional self-selection have resulted in book market in which it’s increasingly women who represent, edit, publish, market, review and ultimately buy books of all sorts, and fiction in particular, with the result that what used to be called women’s fiction, formerly a backwater of bodice-rippers and domestic vignettes set in quaint seaside towns, has become, in vastly mutated form, the American novel’s dominant ecosystem. And with this development come consequences for the novel of both style and substance.

My Gang of Eight was a stylistically motley crew. Pynchon, Vonnegut, and Heller mined veins of satire and counterculture fable; Updike, Salter, and Roth combined an almost photorealistic rendition of scene with equally precise psychological empathies; Cheever and Salinger were impressionistic, moody cartographers of the fault lines of family life.

What they had in common despite their diverse styles and subjects was their assumption of the task of the postwar fiction writer as it had been defined by Hemingway, Faulkner, and Steinbeck: to render human (or at least male) experience with as much verisimilitude as possible and, to that end, to allow character and tone to supersede plot. Indeed, for the postwar generation of American novelists, plot per se had a distinctly antique, old world taint, redolent of the popular entertainments of Trollope and Dickens. We don’t live plotted lives, and neither would their characters.

The passing of the literary baton to the current, increasingly female coterie of literary novelists has meant, among other things, that the range of life experiences informing a writer’s work, formerly rooted in the pedestrian working world of men and women who had no other option, has narrowed to the bandwidth of an MFA program. What’s being lost is the kind of novel on which the reputations of writers like Updike, Salter, Roth, Cheever and, more recently, Richard Ford, Kent Haruf, and Marilynne Robinson were built: the novel of the sacred everyday, the divine domestic, the luminously quotidian, what Salter called “the glory of certain moments in life,” illuminated and made extraordinary not by a clockwork plot or outlandish events and characters, but by the author’s deep understanding of and compassion for the prosaic lives that we and his characters live.

It’s ironic (or perhaps inevitable) that women, formerly typecast as guardians and interpreters of domesticity, have become the standard-bearers of a distinctly exotic, anti-domestic form of American novel. Either there’s something in the water at the myriad institutions currently offering MFAs in writing, or our best, often female writers have cast a cynical eye on the publishing business and rightly concluded that it has so thoroughly become a bastard child of the entertainment industry that even the most erudite and potentially serious novelist must serve up wild-eyed exoticism to have any hope of recognition.

Take three novels currently on the bestseller lists, all of them “literary” in their ambitions and their marketing: Manhattan Beach, a sprawling period novel by the much-lauded Jennifer Egan; The Immortalists, a family fable by the young Chloe Benjamin; and Fire Sermon, a deeply internalized novelette of frustrated love and lust by the poet Jamie Quatro. (Alert: spoilers follow.)

Manhattan Beach is a period pastiche, one of the most common forms of what we might call the New Women’s Lit. Set in the reliably melodramatic decades spanning the Depression and World War II, and written in the sort of synthetically dated syntax perfected by Amos Towles, one of the few successful male practitioners of NWL (Rules of Engagement, A Gentleman in Moscow), whereby characters say things like “Have you a photograph?,” it braids together the stories of Anna Kerrigan, a young girl whose family is dually (but, in NWL, necessarily) burdened by the sudden absence of her father and the presence of a fatally disabled but requisitely beautiful sister; of the handsome, controlling Dexter Styles (a NWL name if ever there was one), who employs Anna’s father and who of course works for the mob; and of Anna’s father Eddie, who, having abandoned his family for implausibly short-sighted reasons, ends up in the Merchant Marine and in a gruesome, thematically tangential tale of survival at sea that seems lifted from Nate Philbrick’s magisterial In the Heart of the Sea and bolted onto a manuscript that someone must have decided was too short.

Many of the touchstone NWL tropes are here: the young female protagonist who must make her way in a male-dominated world (Anna decides she wants to be, of all things, a dry suit diver at the Brooklyn Naval Yard); the illicit romance with the controlling, dangerous, but irresistibly attractive male (Anna and the long-married Dexter do it in a barn, where he is later killed, gangland style); the feckless mother-figure contraposed to the salacious but competent aunt; the accidental pregnancy by the departed love interest, redeemed by the eventual (but equally inevitable) reconciliation with the long-lost father. And so on.

In fairness, this jaundiced outline elides Egan’s facility with description and dialogue, and the extensive research required to pad out the narrative with convincing period detail. We learn the precise models of vehicles (Dexter drives not just a Deusenberg, but a Model J), what movies and novels were popular during the Depression, how women dressed and styled their hair, and more about the pre-war New York waterfront, and about dry suit diving in that era, than one ever wondered about. It’s absorbing and occasionally mildly moving, and though there are odd liberties taken with shifts of perspective (at one point we segue, mid-paragraph, from Dexter’s dying thoughts to Eddie at sea), the writing is a cut above the standard bestseller list fare.

But in the end it’s classic NWL: incident heaped upon incident in the service of a Dickensian plot, characters and settings drawn with just enough writerly detail to serve the narrative before lapsing into comfortable cliché, no attempt –because it’s not the goal – to inhabit and illuminate real lives as they were or are actually lived. Is it “literary”? Will people read it 40 years from now, as they are now, still, reading Updike and Roth? It’s doubtful, because its reach is too tame and too consciously commercial. One can be certain, however, that the movie rights have long since been purchased and that a script is already in the works.

Similarly doomed to six months of acclaim is Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists, a thematically more ambitious though even more formulaic book than Egan’s, for which one might readily forgive an author not yet out of her twenties. It opens with a simple MacGuffin: in New York City in 1969, four young Jewish siblings, two boys and two girls, visit a fortune teller and are separately told the date on which they will die. More than just a plotline, it’s an agent’s elevator pitch.

The rest of the novel, dutifully segmented into four parts, consists of what amount to four novellas, one for each sibling, of varying degrees of nuance and believability. In the first, the youngest sibling, a boy, moves to San Francisco, gets happily caught up in the Castro Street scene, contracts AIDS, and dies on his appointed day. The second sibling, the younger of the two sisters, is a manic-depressive whose ambition, in homage to her dead brother, is to be a death-defying magician but who, on her assigned date, hangs herself in a Las Vegas hotel room. The third is a doctor who, in vengeful pursuit of the fortune-teller after the deaths of siblings 1 and 2, grabs a revolver conveniently stashed in his nightstand and dies in a shootout, again on schedule. And the fourth, the eldest, is a biologist working with primates who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder, gave up her child for adoption after (yes) an accidental, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and is confronted by her now-grown son, masquerading as a journalist researching her work. She alone among the four siblings, having been told that she will die at age 88, outlives the end of the book. We get the idea; implausible incident heaped upon incident in the service of a Dickensian plot, in this case leavened with a large dollop of coincidence too intricate and implausible to recount here.

To her great credit, Benjamin’s themes are loftier than Egan’s: fate versus choice; the varieties of individual engagement with mortality; the bonds that tear and heal families. The stuff of adult literature, in other words. And she manages to imbue her characters, for all their NWL idiosyncrasies, with more visceral humanity than most. Her language sometimes sings; I wept at the last page, as the author must have intended me to, and must have herself.

But why must these deeply philosophical themes come, once again, wrapped in melodrama and abnormality? Because that’s the NWL formula that the marketplace promotes as literary fiction, and that a generation of young novelists has willingly adopted.

It’s a relief, then, to find that Jamie Quatro’s Fire Sermon diverges from the pack. It comes as no surprise both that a poet wrote it, and that it’s received far less attention than Egan’s or Benjamin’s offerings. In a short 200 pages full of white space, alternating between the first and third person in internal monologues, emails, and transcripts of the narrator’s therapy sessions, it’s the rather ordinary (by NWL standards) story of an ordinary woman who, in a single night of infidelity, casts her marriage and her everyday life first into turmoil, and lastingly into a struggle between love and duty, desire and companionship, faithfulness and self-realization, that ends in an entirely plausible, emotionally satisfying, believably undramatic way.

It manages to do, in a woman’s voice and suffused with a distinctly female sensibility, what my all-male Gang of Eight tried to do in their various ways all those years ago. Updike captured it best, as he often did, in a passage from one of his earliest short stories where he describes the task of his kind of novelist, now nearly lost to us but perhaps noodling away somewhere still: the ambition, never fully accomplished, to capture ordinary life as it’s actually lived, “all set sequentially down with the bald simplicity of a litany…ecstatically uneventful, divinely and defiantly dull.”

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