In 2012, the novelist Meg Wolitzer—respected if not quite famous after three decades of publishing—wrote an essay in The New York Times Sunday Book Review. Playing off Simone de Beauvoir's feminist classic The Second Sex, the article was titled "The Second Shelf: On the Rules of Literary Fiction for Men and Women."
"If The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides, had been written by a woman yet still had the same title and wedding ring on its cover, would it have received a great deal of serious literary attention?" Wolitzer began. "Or would this novel (which I loved) have been relegated to 'Women's Fiction,' that close-quartered lower shelf where books emphasizing relationships and the interior lives of women are often relegated?"
The persuasive answers that follow these two questions are a no and a yes, respectively. But this shouldn't surprise anyone in a literature industry where novels by women are often burdened with a possessive noun while novels by men are just called fiction. Wolitzer deftly dissects the overt and subtle ways that the same kind of book is presented and received differently depending on the gender of its author.
On the covers of men's novels, SUV-size sans-serif titles idle eventfully on stark backgrounds; on women's, frilly fonts flit around watercolors of sandals in the sand. ("These covers might as well have a hex sign slapped on them, along with the words: 'Stay away, men! Go read Cormac McCarthy instead!'" Wolitzer writes, with her usual wry humor.) Long books by men are ambitious; long books by women are unfocused. (Reviewers, Wolitzer thinks, look to women for the "painted-egg precision of short stories," not the big zeitgeist-y novel.) The double standards roll on, powered by gender imbalances not only in who gets published, but in who gets major prizes, who gets reviewed, and who reviews them.
On the cover of her new novel, The Female Persuasion, which she brings to Flyleaf Books on Sunday afternoon, Wolitzer has gotten her "jumbo, block-lettered masculine typeface." As a signifier of seriousness, it is deserved. The novel razors apart power and influence across age and gender almost as deeply as The Interestings, Wolitzer's 2013 commercial breakthrough and one of the finest novels of the decade, did to talent and ambition across friendship and family, charting the fortunes of a group of performing-arts-camp kids across their lives.
Still, the marquee font is set on a festively colored (if undeniably powerful) background of nested triangles, as if someone in marketing at Penguin Random House had begged, "Please, Meg, just a bit of color."
If the cover gives you pause, the obliviously condescending quotes about The Interestings on the back will bring you to a screeching halt. No matter how many ingenious books Wolitzer writes, reviewers continue to seem startled that she has written a proverbial "novel of ideas" rather than a cookbook or a dishy beach read.
"[I]t's also stealthily, unassumingly and undeniably a novel of ideas," says The New York Times Book Review, something no one would say about a novel covering this broad a tract of modern life and recent history if it were by a man. The ideas boom from the page; the stealthy thing, apparently, is that Wolitzer snuck in man-size thoughts with the Trojan hobbyhorse of her gender.
But that's nothing compared to this howler from Entertainment Weekly: "She's every bit as literary as Franzen or Eugenides. But the very human moments in her work hit you harder than the big ideas. This isn't women's fiction. It's everyone's."
The Female Persuasion is the story of the complex relationship between Greer Kadetsky, an achieving but insecure millennial college student with a suppressed sense of injustice, and Faith Frank, a famed second-wave feminist in the mold of Steinem for whom Greer eventually goes to work. The novel is set in a vividly recognizable contemporary world, with its own versions of Ms. and Jezebel; Greer's halting activism buds from a campus sexual assault. On this ample diagram, Wolitzer schematizes the concords and conflicts of intergenerational feminism. I suppose the "human moments," which are indeed wonderful, hit you harder than the big ideas if that's what you expect of female writers. But can you imagine affixing a quote such as EW's, even in relation to a prior book, to material such as this?
Wolitzer writes the kind of prose old-guard literary gatekeepers approve of in men: decisive and fleet, with subjects charging hard through verbs, sinewy with confidence, spiky with wit. Her novels thrive on her incredible powers of observation, inference, and synthesis, cultural and psychological, and her idiosyncratic but apt metaphors and similes. On each page, a description draws an appreciative chuckle—a group of new college friends in The Female Persuasion clings together "like children inside a camel costume"—and a snarky aside draws a laugh, as when Greer is described as "appealing in a very specific way, small and compact and determined, like a flying squirrel." Dorm-room walls aren't beige, they're "the disturbing color of hearing aids," and a sexual predator's hair looks like "a circle of lawn that had been trapped and left to die under a kiddie pool."
Wolitzer is playing at the same level as her male contemporaries, but without the roaring blind spots of, say, Franzen, who can't help but ruin a book as compelling as Purity by deploying an insane straw-woman character that by all appearances is his ex-wife. The moral objection to this vengeful caricature of a hysterical woman is obvious, and it's compounded by an aesthetic one. Franzen (this is also true of Freedom) will write a micro-compression of some vector of history and culture that takes your breath away but then turn around and squander your trust in his intellectual control of material that is clearly getting the better of him emotionally.
Even though sexist attitudes and practices function within and outside of Wolitzer's books, she writes men with the same considered clarity with which she writes women. (And why not, after a lifetime of reading men writing about themselves?) Greer's long-distance boyfriend, Cory, embodies the male learning process of the past decade; he's a "good guy" from the start who still has to discover, embarrassingly late, things like manspreading and how turning Greer's rating from a six to a nine when the boys in the hall rated her looks wasn't as valiant as he thought it was in high school.
The literary establishment probably has been wary of Wolitzer not only because of sexism, but also because of its corollary, fear—not what women can't do, but what women might do. With a force they regard as masculine, she notices things a man would not, landing scarily heavy blows. They might strike in passing: Greer notes with irritation that her professor's book is dedicated to his wife for "being willing to type my long manuscript for her hopelessly 'butterfingers,' husband never once complaining." Or they might stretch out to book-length, as in Wolitzer's brilliant, exasperated 2003 novel The Wife, about a talented writer's absorption into her less talented husband's career as a Great Man of Letters.
As we chip away at the idea of "women's fiction," we should also be careful not to downplay the importance of what it can uniquely do. "This isn't women's fiction" is a strange protest if the term is used pejoratively, but in significant ways, this is women's fiction—by and about women—which is part of what makes it worthy of reading by all.
We need to understand that in a culture where pervasive imbalanced gender constructs are quaking apart with new energies, Wolitzer's gender—and Gillian Flynn's, and Tana French's, and Jennifer Egan's, and Nell Zink's, and Jeanette Winterson's, and Lydia Davis's, and Elena Ferrante's, and Chris Kraus's—is a power she draws on, not a limitation she overcomes. In recent years, there has been a flood of blog posts about reading only books by women for a year. But you don't even have to do this as some kind of ethical project. In light of where we've been and where we are, in light of fiction's imperative to unleash truths and change perspectives, you can just read them because they're better.