books and reading · pop culture

Female Writers, Chick Lit, and Name-Calling

So I don’t know if you heard, gentle readers, but fiction writer Jennifer Egan recently won the Pulizter Prize for her novel A Visit from the Goon Squad.  In the interest of full disclosure, I haven’t read it.  However, I have read The Keep, which was very good (and terrifying), and Look at Me, which wasn’t so good.  It’s awesome that a lady won the Pulitzer for fiction, and I’m glad that she’s finding success in the literary world.  However, she made some comments in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that I take issue with, and that is what I’m here to talk about with you all today.

In the brief interview, Egan talks about her reaction to finding out that she’s won and talks a bit about how her book is being considered post-post-modern (I’m not touching that one).  Then this happens:

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 emphasis in her answer is mine, of course.  this is problematic for several reasons, Gentle Readers.  Let’s talk about it like a lot!

The Harvard student that Egan is referring to is Kaavya Viswanathan, author of the novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life.*  Viswanathan wrote the novel right after graduating from high school, and shortly after it was published, some claims about her having plagiarized parts of the novel surfaced.  The authors whose work was plagiarized included Megan McCafferty, Sophie Kinsella, Salman Rushdie, Meg Cabot, and Tanuja Desai Hidier.

What I take issue with, of course, is Egan’s disparaging tone about the authors Viswanathan plagiarized from.  She seems to be taking on these incredibly successful female writers and saying that because they write books about women and friendship and love, their work is somehow less important or less valid than the work that she herself does.  Calling these authors “derivative and banal” isn’t even fair, because it isn’t remotely true.  The women she’s describing as “derivative” are the pioneers of the chick lit and YA genres, and they deserve to be given accolades for their accomplishments, not sneering condescension.

Maybe Egan wasn’t thinking clearly.  Maybe she was still really flustered about winning the prize when she gave the interview.  Maybe that isn’t what she meant–maybe she meant that women should aim high and not shy away from dark, difficult topics.  That’s certainly a hypothesis that The Signature muses over on her blog post about this same issue.  Even if that’s the case, though, she’s caused some hurt feelings and indignation.

The fact of the matter is, it’s much harder to be a successful female writer than it is to be a successful male writer.  There are depressing statistics about the number of female writers working for the New Yorker and for late-night shows.  On International Women’s Day, Pajiba published a run-down of the number of females writing and directing projects for movies and television, and…it was not good, you guys.  What is needed, then is for female writers to stand up for other female writers and not tear them down because of what they choose to write about.

Talk back, readers.  What do you think?  Am I blowing this way out of proportion?

*That link takes you to the Wikipedia page about the book.  I encourage you to look at the comparisons between Viswanathan’s book and the other authors’ work in question.

If you want to read more about what’s going on:


4 thoughts on “Female Writers, Chick Lit, and Name-Calling

  1. Awards are not usually worth melting down for a cup of coffee, and often seem to be fulfilling the award board’s need for something. The best reward for a writer should be the readers – lots of them who (try to) understand or just enjoy. As for me, I started to read Goon Squad, could not get into it, and returned to the library unfinished. As for the author’s comments, a simple thank you would have been better.

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