I emerge from my half-a-year silence to talk about women. And writing. Surely, there was no shock in that.

The Pulitzer, by my own  count, is one of the more gender-balanced literary prized out there. By my count, 29 out of 86 Pulitzer awarded for fiction or novel (as the award category was once called) were awarded to women. That's 33 percent.Its not great, but its better than the other book awards.

The National Book Award has been awarded 68 times, 15 times to women (22 percent)  Twelve out of the 43 books awarded the Man Booker Prize were women (27 percent).  Twelve out of 107 Nobel Laureates in literature are women. That's 11 percent.

So, of all the prizes to win as a female fiction writer, the Pulitzer is the one where gender should be the smallest, issue. But, news questions are, to some extent, predictable, so a short Wall Street Journal interview with Jennifer Egan, who won the prize for her book Visit From the Goon Squad ended with this:

Over the past year, there’s been a debate about female and male writers and how they come off in the press. Franzen made clear that “Freedom” was going to be important, while others say that Allegra Goodman was too quiet about “The Cookbook Collector.” Do you think female writers have to start proclaiming, “OK, my book is going to be the book of the century”?

Anyone can say anything, that’s easy. 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. Look at “The Tiger’s Wife.” 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.

The authors Kaavya Viswanathan plagiarized were Megan F. McCafferty, Meg Cabot, Sophie Kinsella, and maybe Salman Rushdie. With the exception of Rushdie, where the plagiarism was also the least clear, Viswanathan plagiarized well known, successful chick-lit / YA authors.

Chick-lit authors and fans took offense at Egan's description of the genre (or, really, the parts plagiarized) as "very derivative, banal stuff" and bloggers suggested that Egan was guilty of  "girl-on-girl crime" and called for an apology. ( As for the three women themselves, Cabot, posted on her Facebook wall "I'm certain Jennifer Egan didn't mean to be rude." McCafferty was a lot more angry and also received an apology. I don't see anything from Kinsella, did I miss it? ).

Here's the thing: the genre is derivative and banal. Sometimes an author's work is even derived of her own previous books. I spent sometime in a bookstore looking at the backs of Kinsella's Shopaholic books (which is a different series than the book that was plagiarized from), and each one of them had the same book summary: Becky shops a lot, Becky is in trouble because of shopping (financially and romantically) Becky's troubles are resolved and deferred. Becky lives a glamorous life full of hot men (or man, she's loyal to her husband once they marry), cute shoes, gossip, and occasional career.

I've read books by each of these three authors. When I was in 12th grade, my English teacher asked me if there were any books that I was secretive about reading, ones that I didn't want to tell anyone else I was reading. I don't think she was asking me about books I was embarrassed about, but right now that's what I think of. I am embarrassed to admit that I have read these books because I believe in the power and importance of Literature, and I don't think those books are Literature (the pretentious capitalized L is intentional).

My English teacher's question came in the form of a question written in the margins of my final high school English paper. The paper prompt was "what is literature." My answer was "a work of writing that makes the reader feel something." Now, years later, I would change that to "makes the reader feel something that lasts beyond the time it takes to read the work itself or makes the reader re-appreciate the power of language." The second part allows for some of the post-modernist writers to be included as part of Literature and the addendum to the first part is reflective of my belief that not everything that is written is Literature. I write every day. Nothing I write for work is literature. It's written to inform and nothing else. Writing that entertains--even if it makes the reader laugh or cry--but leaves little emotion once the act of reading is completed falls into the same category.

I recognize that my answer is somewhat subjective; maybe there are people who read the works of McCafferty,  Cabot, and  Kinsella and find themselves marveling at the books weeks after the reading is complete. But for me--and clearly for Egan as well--these books fall short of being Literature.

They certainly fill a niche; the authors are wildly successful, and deserve to be. But the books are not memorable. They don't linger. There were no sentences that made me marvel at the possibilities embedded in the English language. At best, they are brain candy, light, entertaining fluff that fills the time well enough while being read but leaves nothing lasting.

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I have read the books when my concentration was shot and I needed a distraction. McCafferty,  Cabot, and Kinsella wonderfully filled that need. At worst, the books perpetuate the idea that women  should dream about finding the perfect guy, that balancing a career and romance (and occasionally kids) should be hectic and hilarious, that Princess is a job title to strive for, and that shopping is a hobby worth pursuing in its own right.

Obviously, that idea would be perpetuated with our without this genre, (see: obsessive coverage of the royal wedding, almost every romantic comedy movie ever made), but for the most part the books don't do anything to elevate conversation, expose readers to new ideas or language, or even make them grapple with deep characters.  There are other genres that have the same brain-candy role. The romance novel, the thriller, the cop novel, the mystery novel. And, of course, there are some novels in all of these genres-- including the boy-meets-girl-hijinks-ensue and girl-wants-everything-but-most-importantly-a-man genres that most chick-lit falls into-- that turn out to be a whole lot more than brain candy, that linger deliciously once the last page is turned and that give the reader substantive elements to revisit. There are also books that are supposed to be above brain candy but ultimately  leave no lasting impression at all.

The same teacher who asked me about secret books, asked me, this week over Facebook, what makes a book chick-lit. After thinking about it here's my answer: a book targeted to girls or women in the boy-meets-girl-hijinks-ensue genre, girl-wants-everything-but-most-importantly-a-man genre, or  best-female-friends-help-each-other-through-tear-jerking-troubles-likely-involving-a-man genre and that has nothing--not characters,  sentences, or fresh ideas--left to mull over once the book is finished.

A greater cynic would point to the New York Times article about the book "packager" that helped set Viswanathan up with a book deal in the first place. "Chick-lit (and other books for girls and women that are widely popular but would be unlikely choices for literature classes) is manufactured, not written," the cynic would say. "It's a product, not Literature."

I think that that's probably a step too far. It's certainly clear that the Shopaholic  and Princess Diaries books hit on a winning formula, but the books' formulaic nature is a choice the author made, not necessary an outside marketing plan.

 But here's the thing, the books will never win awards. The books in the chick-lit genre as I defined it will never be contenders for the Great American Novel. And that's OK. It's OK, maybe even important to write things that are fluffy and distracting.

Egan is a female writer. For better or for worse, as indicated by the questions she got after winning the Pulitzer, she is partially defined by her gender.

It seems to me that Egan sees a role for herself in encouraging female writers, in pushing women to write more books that might shift those awards percentages listed at the top of this post. If more women strove to write novels that rise above chick lit (which I think is what she was trying to say in her comments about the plagiarism) then more women would be in the running for these prizes and less need for outrage about byline imbalance.

Maybe Egan should have used her space to promote some of the amazing female writers who are writing today and deserved to be recognized again and again--Aimee Bender, A.S. Byatt, are two I've read recently --but I don't think she had any responsibility to defend all female writers just because they are female.

Back when Jonathan Frazen got glowing reviews from the New York Times for Freedomland, chick-lit author Jennifer Weiner tweeted "In summation: NYT sexist, unfair, loves Gary Shteyngart, hates chick lit, ignores romance. And now, to go weep into my royalty statement." Slate investigated the sexism allegation and found that 38 percent of books reviewed by the Times were written by women (higher than the above awards percentages, but still not 50) but only 29 percent of books that got two Times reviews were written by women.

So yes, by the numbers, the New York Times favors male writers, but I think grouping that in the same Twitter complaint about the Times not liking chick lit and ignoring romance does women a disservice: the times favors literary authors. Women can be literary authors, so people like Weiner and Jody Picoult who I understand are not (Weiner differentiates herself, calling herself a "commercial" writer, I have not read any Picoult, but I understand that her writing is mainly widely popular tear-jerkers) perhaps can and should complain about the gender imbalance, but not about the absence of their own names in the Times.

A female writer, just like a male writer, has the right to make known which books she thinks are worth reading and which ones she thinks are not. Egan did that. It's not a cat fight or girl-on-girl crime. It's saying that women, like men, can and should write both the fluff and the serious literature, and that women, like men, should feel that they can and should strive to write prize-winning literature.

I don't see any betrayal of the sisterhood in saying that.

1 Response to 'Pink Covers, Pulitzers, and Petty Grievances'

  1. tom4 said...
    http://writtenpyramids.blogspot.com/2011/04/pink-covers-pulitzers-and-petty.html?showComment=1304298680531#c3351967006731908094'> May 1, 2011 at 9:11 PM

    I agree completely, Leora. I've read some good YA, and one of our mutual friends writes great YA stories - but there is no illusion that it is the same thing as literary fiction, which is more ambitious.

    It's also more pretentious and more tedious (often) to read. The pros do not necessarily outweigh the cons.

    Plenty of YA and chick-lit books get awards, they're just different kinds than the awards the NYTimes cares about. Whether that is good or bad, right or wrong, is not a question I care to worry about answering.

    It all comes down to marketing, anyway - and the Pulitzers are an example of that. But there exist a high-brow market, a YA market, a romance market, a sci-fi market, etc...

    The complaint that Egan is sabotaging the sisterhood is not only silly, it's actually an ironic contradiction: by suggesting that Egan belongs to a sisterhood of "low brow" writers by virtue of being female, the hand-wringers are propagating the same (or analogous) stereotypes about women that they claim to be condemning!

    In short, they have to decide whether they want to hate on Egan because she's a woman or because she's a "high brow" writer.


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Written Pyramids is a blog written by a journalist living and working in Washington D.C.

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