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April 26, 2011

Meow Much?

By Sarah

Monkey Contrary to frequent lies I told my daughter throughout grade school, the playground never really disappears. There will always be the cool kids and their innately exclusive four-square game, the superior athletes zipping across the monkey bars and the outcasts doing their own thing, mostly trying not to get hit with one of those red rubber balls.

Never was the female literary playground more active than last week when recent Pulitzer winner Jennifer egan - getty Jennifer Egan, in trying to needlessly impress a Wall Street Journal reporter, noted:

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. ....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 blogs went wild in indignation. Jennifer Weiner, for whom I have both high respect and curious bewilderment, ran with it on Twitter, trouncing Egan for being so quick to draw the line between Her and Us, lest there be any confusion. Egan was on the monkey bars, flying high. We chicklit writers were rubbing our heads and wondering how come the rubber ball. What did WE do?

Jenn Finally, after a year of Franzenfroid (led, in part, by Weiner), a female author whose novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, blew me away wins the Pulitzer and immediately  trashes my personal heroes,  women who write, ahem, "very derivative, banal stuff." (Note that Egan did not get on the case of Harvard student Kaavya Viswanathan for plagiarizing - just for plagiarizing Sophie Kinsella, Meg Cabot and, especially, Megan McCafferty. Nice.) 

But what I found so interesting was not merely Egan's comment - a grasping quip one might overhear during orientation at the MacDowell Colony -  but the reaction among women writers like Weiner and, okay, like me. After all, I was once dubbed (way erroneously) by People magazine as The Chick Lit Queen so I get to claim a hooker spot on the corner of Banal and Derivative, too.

Our reaction was not simply a "how dare she" moment. Our reaction - and maybe yours - goes to an essential primitive question about female relationships:

Why must women consistently divide themselves from other women?

Because we do. Even when we don't want to.

If we were honest with ourselves, we'd own up to the fact that we mentally, even subconsciously, search for ways in which we are like or not like others in our gender. Right away, we go to appearance. There are those of us who are "overweight" and those of us who "aren't." Big divider. After that, it's those of us who work vs. those of us who don't.  Those who spend money on their hair/nails/bodies and those of us who channel our precious financial resources toward other Pink.nails endeavors. Those who read. Those who watch. Married. Single. Educated. Not. In rapid fire analysis, we can define how a woman is alike/not like us within five minutes of waiting for a dressing room door to open.

I'm sure the underlying reason is somehow biological.

Now, take that process and apply it to women competing in a field still dominated by men and watch out.  The competition can be vicious.

Recently, a mega successful author confided to me that she had no author friends. "It's as if," she said, "they think readers will only read one book a year." When she said this, I went blank because this has not been my experience at all.

Partly, that's because I forced myself early on never to check my work against that of the kid next to me. Also, this is my second career. I didn't really start writing fiction until my late thirties. By that time, I was so grateful to be free from cantankerous newspaper editors, to have found a way to earn money from home while my kids were small, that such things as not rising as fast up the bestseller list as my contemporaries didn't bug me. Much.

(Though I will admit that while in weakness I might look to Weiner, whose career started when mine did and who immediately jumped to the top of the NYT list, I shamefully never, ever compare myself to men. Never.)

I also owe a lot of my sisterly feeling to this blog and to Nancy Martin's attitude that we ALL benefit when we promote Old-school-foursquare each other. For one thing, it's fun. Writing is so solitary that it feels good to connect with other writers and you really do find yourself cheering for their successes almost as much as your own. For another, it's simply good for the soul. Karma and all that.

And maybe this is the advantage of getting older. You begin to learn that those words you slaved over ten years ago are selling for $.50 on the used book table at the PTA fundraiser. It's all dust in the wind, folks. Best not to take it seriously.

That goes for Egan, too. And Thomas Berger, N. Scott Momaday, Adam Haslett and other Pulitzer winners whose names, alas, have not exactly won the traditionally female honor of being called "household." Also, for Weiner, Kinsella, Cabot, McCafferty and Strohmeyer.

Pulitzer or not, chicklit or post modern post modernism, let us never forget John Updike's last days, Updike struggling to remember what he'd written, who he was. 

Wait. He said it better himself - of course - in his last poem: Requiem.

It came to me the other day:
Were I to die, no one would say, 
“Oh, what a shame! So young, so full
Of promise — depths unplumbable!”

Instead, a shrug and tearless eyes
Will greet my overdue demise;
The wide response will be, I know, 
“I thought he died a while ago.”

For life’s a shabby subterfuge,
And death is real, and dark, and huge.
The shock of it will register
Nowhere but where it will occur.

Kind of deflates the red rubber ball, huh?

 

Sarah

 

 

 

 

 

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Comments

After reading a few discussions on comments about authors choosing certain genres it occurred to me that maybe some people judge readers by their reading choices.
If there were no choices including women's fiction, mysteries, paranomals, history etc. where would the fun be?
There is something for everyone and that is why walking into a bookstore makes the experience so rewarding. The reader walks out of the store, or loads his kindle and is given a chance to be entertained with hopefully no one judging his choice.

Maybe you could get lucky, and someone could shoot a documentary on you, like the one I watched on Jim Jones at Jonestown. Now, that has lived on in my memory.

Seriously, I think that having caused amusement in some people is worthy of remembrance, as they think of that small ray of sunshine through good times and bad.

You've given me a few things, people really, to look up.

All through school, my choice of reading matter was criticized by my teachers. In college, I really hated the books they assigned, and when I had the opportunity to choose a book on my own, I picked out something I thought I would enjoy. What torques me, especially now that I know better, is the message that I would be stupid if I read enjoyable fiction, that reading entertaining material was somehow lesser than boring books. Only by the reading of unpleasant and difficult to read books could I develop my intellect? Graduate school was great, because mostly we got to choose the reading we wanted to use, to learn whatever it was we wanted to learn, and to fulfill the requirements of our program. I cried when I saw the first 50 page syllabus for my first term. One day the professor told me that it was only a list of suggested books and articles, and that I didn't have to read any of it. She told me I could read what I wanted, that really what I needed to do was understand. How I got there was my business. Imagine - reading without guilt.

Sarah, you make so many good arguments, but then you snark the MacDowell Colony because, I assume, it's literary. Doesn't that make you guilty of what you're criticizing?

I've applied to MacDowell. If I get in, do I have to stop posting here because that will make me a Them? I don't feel that way, but does that comment mean that you do?

The MacDowell Colony's fine and I hope you are accepted, Ramona, because it seems like heaven.
But, geesh, I can poke a little bit of fun at them, right? I mean, that wasn't even a very snarky snark.
I tried to be very careful not to slam, in any way, the literary genre here. I DO like Egan's writing, having read both Look at Me and Goon Squad. With 3 credits shy of receiving my master's degree in English, I alsto took a twirl on the literary merry go round so I don't think I'm either an Us or a Them. That's the point - there is no US vs. THEM. Or, at least, there shouldn't be.
BTW - I paid for my master's by teaching writing to biomedical engineers, many of whom harbored a revulsion toward the written word the way I blanched at sine curves. I had to get them to read anything - the comics, People magazine, the back of cereal boxes - just so they would get over their fear.
In their cases, too, they'd been taught there was worthwhile reading vs. non worthwhile reading and they were so freaked by what they loved (sci fi, fantasy) that they refused to admit their own literary passions.
Just READ for crissake. Egan. Pynchon. Fitzgerald (who never won a Pulitzer) Sparks, Patterson (or his committee), doesn't matter to me. Just read!

Comment attempt, Take 2. Mr. Typepad must have had a rough weekend.

First, PLAGIARISM is CHEATING. I scream this because it appears that Pulitzer Prize winning authors are as confused as college freshman on this issue.

One does not ENCOURAGE CHEATING. One points out that cheating, like lying, is WRONG. Good grief.

Second, there are hundreds of wonderful authors out there. There are also real jagoffs. I am going to place Pulitzer Frick and Frack up there in the jagoff category. Why? Because if they were lucky enough to make it (and if you think luck has nothing to do with it, check your ego - it may no longer fit in the overhead compartment) they have a responsibility to at least be gracious, even if they make lousy mentors.

Sarah is right - the authors at TLC are all supportive of each other, and that is a good thing. As Hagrid told Harry, not all authors are good.

Here is another shocker - not everyone likes to read the same thing. Gasp. i read all day for my job. It's not fun reading, either. So when I read outside of work, I don't want to have to parse out sentences or analyze complex theories, no matter how worthwhile. I want to be entertained, and if I learn something, more the better.

Finally - here is what I have to say about women who turn on their sisters - karma is not called a bitch by accident.

Kathy: Karma is not called a bitch by accident. Is that a bumper sticker? 'Cause it should be.

Hah. I just made it up. We should add it to the TLC Bumper Sticker Collection.

Sarah, you nailed it, Sister! I hate that so often we're so pigeon-holed. I like variety. Sure, I love to cook (and last night made a to-die for risotto with prosciutto and peppers that I served with roasted asparagus), but sometimes I just want a really good bar burger and a frosty mug of beer. I loved OUT OF AFRICA, but I admit laughing so hard at TOMMY BOY That I almost cough up a lung. I was an English major and English teacher so I can wax on and on about Faulkner and Steinbeck and Shakespeare (and yes, I read poetry for pleasure), but sometimes I want a "vacation" book--a complete escape. And, as a writer, I learn from all of it.

I've been a working mom and a stay at home mom. I've been thin and not so thin. Married. Divorced. Happily remarried.

I don't want to be defined by any ONE thing . . .

Just bought Egan's book last night. Hope I haven't made a mistake! Can I read it without my opinion being colored by her--I have to presume--off the cuff remarks?

I'm getting way too much credit for the karma thing. It was Victoria Thompson, who writes the Gaslight Mystery Series, who first said to me: A high tide raises all boats. Now, she's a class act.

I love Victoria.

The book's great, Nancy. The characters are soulless, natch. But who wants to read about a soul, really.

Egan's statement drips of preening self-satisfaction. Good for you for shooting for the stars, sweetie. Now, how about developing a personality?

Thanks for the Updike poem. It is beautiful and powerful. Reminds me of Arnold's Dover Beach (but, I suspect, is more honest)

Kathy -- you are a genius! Karma is not called a bitch by accident. Holy cow, I have a new screensaver!

Oh, Sarah, so much of what you said is just what I woke up feeling today and I hadn't yet heard of Jennifer Egan (or if I had, I probably thought she was an actress).

I love John Updike. (sob.)

Recently I taped this to my refrigerator. It's an old favorite from Erma Bombeck, after she found out she had cancer:

"Don't worry about who doesn't like you, who has more, or who's doing what. Instead, let's cherish the relationships we have with those who do love us."

Poor Jennifer Egan. She needs to join a blog group with a bunch of authors writing in all sorts of genres, and fall in love with them all.

First, I agree with Kathy. Plagiarism is always wrong and it's troublesome that some younger people don't get the concept. It's stealing. Don't do it.

Second, having been a journalist, playwright, and mystery writer, I've always found mystery writers to be warm and inclusive. And mystery readers are wonderfully accepting of many styles and authors. As for Ms. Egan, perhaps she wasn't really thinking about what she was saying. Has she even read the people she slammed? Or was it the kind of cocktail chatter that the literati like? But then I haven't read her, so I can't comment on her book. My TBR stack is too full.

Just count me happy to be in the mystery field.


Sorry, Sarah. I suppose I am overly defensive on this topic, so my apology for calling you out on something that didn't need calling out on. (Please don't edit that sentence.)

I've have two artist colony/retreat experiences, one in Delaware, one in Bryn Mawr. Both were good for me as an individual writer and as part of the literary community. I'd like to do MacDowell, as well as Virginia Center of the Arts and Sewanee. Everybody needs goals, right?

Unfortunately, people are going to judge others on so many intangibles it's a real problem trying to define it all. I quit trying years ago, and have accepted I am truly what an old girlfriend once called an 'acquired taste'.

These days, I try and follow along the lines of what Harley said: appreciate what you have, value those who love you, and the world will take care of itself.

More or less....

No need to apologize, Ramona. This is what TLC's all about - venting....everything.

Personally, I'd give my left foot to be in a supportive community where I didn't have to worry about dinner because, I swear, my writing always gets going around 4:30 - right when a kid needs to be picked up or chicken needs to be shoved in the oven.

Though I fear, too, that I'd sit there and twiddle my thumbs....

Well now, here's a sh*tstorm in a wind tunnel, indeed.

Agree with everyone here, so far. But it seems to me the lady doth protest too much--speaking of Ms. Egan here. And the whole Pulitzer Prize thing has gone right to her head.

As an author myself I can say this: Printed words are ephemeral. If you're lucky, they will be requoted, and someday enjoy a resurgence, but the publishing industry itself gives any published book no more than four months to make it. The sheer volume of books being published today (pun intended) makes it so incredibly difficult to stand out from the field. Ms. Egan hit the jackpot, and she's being awfully damned smug about it.

As for the Pulitzer, after I read Junot Diaz's winning book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the prize no longer carries any weight for me, when I decide what to spend my hard-earned cash on to read. My book club chose it, and it's one of the most self-indulgent tomes I've ever had to read, complete with four-letter expletives in every sentence (multiple times), and a shocking lack of plot, or indeed, any redeeming feature whatsoever, as far as I'm concerned. It was a close-the-book-and-throw-at-wall kind of work for me, and I was left to wonder at the sanity of the prize committee.

Also, Junot Diaz is a man. For some reason, literature written by men seems to carry more gravitas with the literary community, despite the lack of evidence for such gravitas. If a woman had written Corrections it would never have made it out of the editor's office. That doorstop of a book has almost no true insight into its purported purpose of shedding light on family dynamics, yet it drones on and on about it, anyway. I've more and more found myself gravitating to books written by women; they're far more appealing to me, both for the content and for the way it is expressed. And an editor's fine hand is usually discernible (except in the case of Danielle Steele, whose books I have not been able to read for years).

Worst of all, Egan's comments made other women authors feel bad. It's hard enough, for crying out loud; why make it worse? She should be treated to the same prank Gino Martinelli suffers towards the end of Sticky Fingers. Oh, yeah.

I was criticized by a book book seller for not reading "real fiction." Their bookstore is a bar now. It's words on a page read for enjoyment. Its a book. I have plenty of textbooks that do not quite qualify as enjoyable reading, I read what I like.

There are a large number of women who do see other women as pure competition. It may really be a leftover from millions of years ago and that whole natural selection thing. I do know many women who do not like female bosses for this very reason. I only dislike incompetent female bosses. Guys simply don't work that way. Sorry, we don't.

I forgot to mention earlier that women picking on each other isn't just a publishing phenomenon. When talking about horizontal harrassment among hospital workers in hig stress jobs, my daughter says, "Nurses eat their young."

My mother used to say this is why the ERA didn't take off - because women couldn't see past their own differences.

I disagree. I think the ERA failed because people were stupid. Even scarier, when I look back, the 70s seem so freaking liberal in comparison to what we have now.

I DO think women are evolving beyond the pettiness. As each of us becomes more secure in our own skills (and failings) and begins to accept what we can and cannot do, I believe we will learn how to unify. This blog is an excellent example as I'm sure other blogs are, too.

Egan is brilliant. Her writing is brilliant and I highly recommend the Goon Squad. That said, I think I "understand" her partly because I, too, am a former journalist with journalism in my blood. There's something very soulless in her characters, something that makes you cringe. A lack of love. Of humanity.

But, wow, talk about great inventive technique. That she has in spades!

I've heard that about nurses, too. Also, teachers.

But we authors can be a squirrelly bunch.

Sarah, we're our own worst enemies, I'm afraid. It's lovely to spend time with TLC daily, and other author blogs that are equally supportive of each other, though. You have risen above the pettiness, and it's so refreshing.

Hijack: Doesn't Harley have a story in the released-today anthology, “The Rich and the Dead”?

Which includes such literary lights as: Ted Bell, Peter Blauner, K. Catalona, Tim Chapman, Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Frank Cook, David DeLee, Nelson DeMille, Joseph Goodrich, Daniel J. Hale, Roberta Isleib, Harley Jane Kozak, David Morrell, Caroli Mullen, Twist Phelan, S.J. Rozan, Jonathan Santlofer, Elaine Togneri and Angela Zeman.

Squeee!

Lately I find myself being introspective and tellling my friends that my life's countdown has begun and thought about the song "My Way".

http://www.lyricsfreak.com/f/frank+sinatra/my+way_20056378.html

Uh oh. Ms. Egan is flying close to the sun. I find myself feeling pity for her and wanting to yell, "Come back, come back!" I hope she has good women friends to catch her in their gentle arms.

I find the division, or the dividing of, women to be especially painful. But I don't find it as hurtful as male dominance - not to be compared to other wrong divisions the world supports, in any way. While we're discussing the women's division thing, though, I suspect it not only comes out of evolution in the competition for reproduction. But now it has the added dimension of breaching the gender division with the acquisition of a new set of competitive skills. This is probably a culture-bound theory, though, as Scott Momaday might point out. Aaaah Scott Momaday, I love. His ancestral voice comes clearly through the spirit of nature and women, "singing the 49."

I've written it here and elsewhere, how frustrating I find the disdainful reactions to reading books that are considered "fluff", whether it be romance, cozy mysteries, science fiction, or "chick lit". I don't understand why people don't get that there is great writing and horrible writing in every genre. I'm tired of trying to explain it, just as I'm tired of explaining why I like country music. I like what I like, and I've finally reached a point in my life where I really don't care if others look down on me for it. Like others have said, I'd rather be entertained and amused when I read; that's my personal reason for reading.

I have noticed the woman vs woman stuff in the arena of working mom vs stay at home mom. Both sides can be vicious toward the other; at least, I saw it a lot when my daughter was small. I went back to work when my daughter was 8 weeks old, because I had to - my then-husband worked part-time, I carried the medical insurance and most of the bills. I don't think feminism means you have to work to be equal to a man; I think feminism means you get to choose what you want to do, not be told what you have to do. When I was getting my psych degree (bachelor's - I went back to school part-time and finished when I was 40), we did a study in my research class about college-age kids' perceptions of working mothers, and how much it correlated with whether their own mother worked. It also encompassed prior research into whether children are "better off" if they have a stay-at-home Mom. Big shock - it didn't matter.

Anyway, sorry to ramble. I just wish we could all just get along. :)

I get grief not only for what I read but also for how much I read. Does that mean I get to be judgemental of people who don't read books?

At my 10 year high school reunion I was judged quite pitiful because I had not had children. Since I knew at 24 that I didn't want to make babies, getting judged at 27 for not having any was a non-issue for me. It was interesting to watch other women's faces when I asked nicely about their kids but firmly stuck to my decision to not have any.

I say read whatever you want and so will I. I don't think I have ever read a Pulitzer book and can't tell you the name of a winning author. But if you want to talk about SF or Fantasy authors, I can go on for hours!

I always tell my kids, that if someone has something unkind to say...it's really not about you, but about them and their inability to deal with their weaknesses! You just can't sweat everything...unless menopause kicks in! Love this thread! Women can be horrible to each other....judging others is a hobby for me, but to tell someone is another thing. Kathy....karma, love it! Nancy, don't care who said it, but I hope a tide can lift my big ass (boat)! Keep it up ladies! Makes these long nights fun reading you all!

'Nurses eat their own young', indeed. Not a nurse, but at the university where I supervise acupuncture/Chinese medicine interns in their senior internship, I'm always bemused when the women interns assume that the only reason I would say anything to them about their skills or patient care habits is to put them down . . . apparently the notion of having another woman want to arm them with every possible strength so they can be a superb practitioner, is a foreign one. Interestingly, the male interns often (not always, but often) tend to be very open to interacting about what they're learning and how to find what they can improve and expand upon.
I was a skinny kid and a slender young adult--I didn't have a 'great' figure, but a good-enough one, that let me feel invisible in a crowd when necessary and usually not self-critical. It always hurt that women who weighed more than I did assumed I was judging them as 'fat' or 'bad'. But, now that I'm possessed of, ahem, softer curves than I once had, I do judge myself quite harshly for the extra pounds, whether five or twenty, and assume that others do, as well. Hmmmm.
I love that the Tarts love and promote each other and each other's work. Truly. Respect you ALL.

Re: MacDowell
I've never been there, so have no right or intention of saying anything about it. But, my friends who have been at MacDowell one or more times are first to say snarky things about the atmosphere, the behavior of other residents (and themselves), etc. Maybe, if writer's colonies were all women, MacDowell would just be the most successful one, and thus the target of envy? Who knows. I wouldn't turn down a chance to go there, I can tell you that. (Or anywhere that would give me three squares a day and the freedom/privilege to focus on my projects and rest.)

My mother told me, when neighborhood "best friends" were squabbling and each wanted to be my friend, that two girls can play together but not three (and that soon the two of them would be friends again and I'd be out -- so I stayed out of it). I have witnessed the "queen bee" phenomenon in business situations as well. I hope we can learn better, but we haven't yet.
Harking back to the discussion of Gone With the Wind, the upsurge of feminism made me re-think Scarlett. She used everyone, but was particularly cruel to other women.

I was at a conference last fall with three other writers. A man stood up and asked us all how we felt being categorized as writers of "women's fiction." I went first, and my answer was short: "I feel fine about it. Most readers of fiction are women." The other three were offended by the question.

Just yesterday, my new novel was criticized for being "too literary."

We can't win, so I think we should stop trying. I once thought that literary fiction meant: beautiful sentences, not much happens. These days I think novels often cross genres. In my opinion, that's a good thing. Categorization limits creativity.

I'm tired of the "us vs. them" attitude. Writing is damned hard (she said halfway into her two year deadline). Anyone who does it should automatically be part of the club.

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