Would I have heard of you?

Lauren Oyler

  • The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer
    Chatto, 464 pp, £14.99, June 2018, ISBN 978 1 78474 236 2

In chronological order, starting with her debut, Sleepwalking, which she wrote as a student at Brown and published in 1982 when she was 23, the page counts of Meg Wolitzer’s novels are: 272, 294, 352, 213, 224, 219, 307, 383, 304, 560, 464. A couple of young adult novels, published in 2011 and 2014, hit 304 and 272 respectively. Does this matter? To Wolitzer, yes. ‘I sometimes wonder if book length, intentionally or inadvertently, signals to readers a novel’s supposed importance,’ she wrote in 2012, during the dip between the politely 304-page The Uncoupling and The Interestings, a 560-page saga about friendships formed at an idyllic arts summer camp for teenagers in New England.

With some notable exceptions, women have not published many well-known doorstops since Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook … does the marketplace subtly and paradoxically seem to whisper in some men’s ears, ‘Sure, buddy, run on as long as you like, just sit down and type out all your ideas about America’ – what might in some extreme cases be titled ‘The Big Baggy Book of Me’? Do women reflexively edit themselves (or let themselves be edited) more severely, creating tight and shapely novels that readers and book groups will find approachable?

Her essay, ‘The Second Shelf: On the Rules of Literary Fiction for Men and Women’, tries to explain why ‘the top tier of literary fiction – where the air is rich and the view is great and where a book enters the public imagination and the current conversation – tends to feel peculiarly, disproportionately male.’ She doesn’t disguise that she too wants a spot up there. When novelists like Jeffrey Eugenides – who was in a writing workshop with Wolitzer at Brown – cover ‘perceived female subject matter’, they are taken seriously; their seriousness is signalled by the length of their novels as well as by the large letters on their covers and the gender-neutral marketing. But when women deal with the same themes, they’re relegated to a lower shelf labelled ‘women’s fiction’ – even when the books in question are not ‘a certain type of fast-reading novel, which sets its sights almost exclusively on women readers and might well find a big, ready-made audience’ but ‘literature that happens to be written by women’. An anecdote about casual sexism: at a ‘social gathering’, a man who had just learned Wolitzer was a writer asked if he’d have heard of her. When she told him she wrote about ‘marriage. Families. Sex. Desire. Parents and children’, he said his wife reads ‘that kind of book’ and called her over. ‘When I look back on that encounter, I see a lost opportunity,’ she continues. ‘When someone asks, “Would I have heard of you?” many female novelists would be tempted to answer, “In a more just world.”’

The essay is concerned only with publishing, not with actual writing, so it dares the reader to respond with an awkward, vulgar question: is Wolitzer as good as Eugenides? Regardless, reviews of her new novel, The Female Persuasion, a decently fat multi-character narrative about feminism and ‘women’s lives’ set between 2006 and 2019, are tinged with hard-won triumph. The Hillary Clinton campaign had planned to release confetti resembling shards of glass ceiling when she won – these reviews are the literary equivalent. A profile with the title ‘Why Now May (Finally) Be Meg Wolitzer’s Moment’ seemed to forget that this is a New York Times-bestselling author who has had three novels adapted for film and television, including one directed by her mentor Nora Ephron (The Female Persuasion has just been optioned, as announced by Nicole Kidman on Instagram). ‘If The Female Persuasion isn’t this era’s Great American Novel, then I don’t think there is one to be had,’ the publisher claimed in a note in my review copy. ‘The new Meg Wolitzer fuckin rules,’ the New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino tweeted. ‘The conversation I’d been hearing around the book before I even received my galley was about its resonance within our current political climate, one that is so focused on issues of women’s consent, control and intersectionality,’ Lena Dunham wrote, appearing in the New York Times one day in her surprising yet completely predictable way. ‘But when all is said and done, Wolitzer is an infinitely capable creator of human identities that are as real as the type on this page, and her love of her characters shines more brightly than any agenda.’ In the Los Angeles Times, Maris Kreizman added: ‘Here’s hoping that quotes from The Female Persuasion will be found on Tumblr blogs and needlepoints everywhere.’

This last one, at least, is consistent with reality. The novel opens with a sweeping preamble introducing the central character, Greer Kadetsky, a ‘selectively and furiously shy’ freshman, a ‘tireless student and a constant reader’ who finds it ‘impossible to speak in the wild and free ways that other people did’. The blue streak in her ‘furniture-brown hair’ may suggest ‘the possibility of boldness’, but then again ‘plenty of college girls had hair partially dipped the colours of frozen and spun treats found at county fairs’. It is 2006, and the setting is Ryland College, a fictional ‘undistinguished school in southern Connecticut’ – Greer got into Yale, but her parents, slackers who smoke a lot of pot, failed to fill out the financial aid forms – and the life-changer is Faith Frank, a dazzling second-wave feminist ‘a couple of steps down from Gloria Steinem in fame’. At 63, Faith still wears the suede boots she favoured in her glory days, and they ‘let everyone know she had once been a knockout, a sexual powerhouse, and maybe still was’. In the 1980s Faith wrote a manifesto called The Female Persuasion that argued women didn’t have to succumb to the pressures of corporate America and ‘behave as badly as men’ to be strong, and although sequels never achieved the cultural saturation of the original, she maintains an elder stateswoman quality. When she gives a lecture at Ryland the student body is riveted; to Greer, even the way Faith drinks water is ‘highly interesting’. ‘Greer didn’t really know why Faith took an interest. But what she knew for sure, eventually, was that meeting Faith Frank was the thrilling beginning of everything. It would be a very long time before the unspeakable end.’

Halfway through this book, a child dies because his mother accidentally runs him over in the driveway, but that’s not what Wolitzer is referring to. By ‘a very long time’ she means about eight years, and the thrilling beginning of everything is actually the moment when a drunk guy, Darren Tinzler, feels Greer up at a frat party, sparking her feminist awakening weeks before Faith shows up. (‘To me there are two aspects to feminism,’ Faith tells the rapt students. ‘The first is individualism, which is that I get to shape my own life. That I don’t have to fit into a stereotype … But there’s a second aspect too, and here I want to use the old-fashioned word “sisterhood”.’) Tinzler turns out to be a serial groper, and Greer’s response moves from a whispered ‘Someone did something to me’ to an insulted ‘It was like he felt he was entitled to do whatever he wanted.’ When Greer and his other victims try to rally the college to disciplinary action the administration does nothing. The young women make T-shirts with his ‘stupid face’ and the word ‘Unwanted’ on them, but it doesn’t help.

As Greer’s long-term boyfriend, Cory Pinto, follows events supportively and mildly longingly from Princeton, the incident binds Greer to Zee Eisenstat, a cool, outspoken and politically active lesbian who will become her best friend. (Unlike Greer and Faith, she doesn’t like to wear skirts.) The pair attend Faith’s lecture in matching stretched-out anti-Darren Tinzler T-shirts, and at the end, foreshadowing their fates as two kinds of professional feminist, Greer is called on to ask the last question instead of Zee. She stumbles through it – ‘What are we supposed to do?’ ‘Do about what, exactly?’ ‘About the way it is … the way it feels. Things like misogyny, which seems to be everywhere, kind of wallpapering the world, you know what I mean?’ – but afterwards Faith gives her a business card.

From here, the narrative moves in and out of each character’s background and motivations, frequently looking back as it moves forward in time. The structure is handled deftly, except for the occasional story told twice from not particularly different perspectives, and the framing of Faith’s biography as a long reminiscence told from a massage table. Ephron once said that ‘what separates me from what I write about is, I suspect, a sense of the absurd that makes it difficult for me to take many things terribly seriously’; there’s a lot of comedic potential here, but Wolitzer mostly squanders it by marvelling too often at the beautiful journey that is life, turning the entire concept – living itself – into a cliché. Her omniscient narrator frequently produces odd formalities, such as using a character’s full name though we’ve already seen it many times, using ‘for’ as a conjunction to mean ‘because’, and veering into the parental, in sentences like ‘they were growing older separately, now in their mid-twenties, this period of peak hope, which wouldn’t last that long.’ She entertains her adolescent characters’ undeveloped musings without judgment, as when a young Greer thinks it ‘unfair’ that Cory is better than she is at an arcade game, ‘Ms Pac-Man being, after all, female. Though really, Ms Pac-Man with her sunlike orb of a head, and legs in red bootlets, lacked the parts that would separate her from her male counterpart.’ Interviewers often ask Faith ‘What made you become the person you are today?’, and her answer guides the text’s therapeutic logic:

Maybe there had been a series of moments, and that this was the way it was for most people: the small realisations leading you first towards an important understanding and then towards doing something about it. Along the way, too, there would be people you would meet who would affect you and turn you ever so slightly in a different direction’.

*

Faith, though a source of inspiration and fixation for Greer, fades away from her life until she is about to graduate and needs a job. Cory, a good guy from a working-class family of Portuguese immigrants, wants to start a microfinance app with his friends but takes a consulting job in Manila instead. Miraculously, he and Greer are still together, and his decision ruins their plan to move to a cute Brooklyn apartment, but he soon returns to their old hometown after his mother accidentally runs over his younger brother and becomes inconsolable. Cory takes on her house-cleaning jobs while caring for her. (His father almost immediately abandons the family and moves back to Portugal.) Zee, passionate about many causes but never a very good student, moves back in with her rich parents, both judges, and gets a job as a paralegal. Making good on the Chekhovian business card, Greer applies to work at Bloomer, the ailing feminist magazine Faith runs, but on the day of her interview it’s announced the magazine is shutting down. A few months later she gets an email from Faith inviting her to join Loci, a women’s foundation – ‘summits, talks, conferences’ – funded by a controversial venture capitalist called Emmett Shrader, with whom Faith had an intense one-night stand in the 1970s while trying to get funding for Bloomer. (His backstory reveals him to be a classic jerk.) Loci – hard to pronounce, admittedly, but meant to signify the multitude of issues affecting women – will balance a money-making side that ‘connect[s] speakers with audiences’ with a valiant ‘special projects’ team that will ‘make an immediate difference in some women’s lives’. Criticism, Faith knows, is inevitable, but she does what she does ‘for women’: ‘I learned early on from the wonderful Gloria Steinem that the world is big enough for different kinds of feminists to coexist, people who want to emphasise different aspects of the fight for equality.’

So simple – why didn’t anyone say? Greer betrays Zee by telling her she’ll try to get her a job at Loci and then not doing it, though that gun doesn’t go off until the end of the novel. Wanting to do something ‘needed’, Zee is eventually hired by Teach and Reach, an analogue for the notoriously dysfunctional Teach for America programme that places recent university graduates in schools in poor areas, where, encountering suffering she can do nothing about, she arrives at a feminism that becomes a foil to Greer’s more glamorous empowerment model: ‘I think there are two kinds of feminists,’ Zee says. ‘The famous ones, and everyone else.’ Cory tries heroin, gets really into video games, and breaks up with Greer.

The foundation starts out well: Greer ghostwrites speeches to help marginalised women tell ‘their stories about being harassed, or denied equal pay or the chance to play sports, and trying to do something about it’. But after a few years it has become merely a corporate shill. Feminist history is full of conferences, but they bear little resemblance to the sponsored summits of today, where female entrepreneurs disseminate self-help platitudes from hands-free microphones. ‘Women were forever summiting, endlessly climbing with ropes around the waist, wielding pitons,’ Wolitzer writes. ‘The summits were about ambitious topics, such as, recently, leadership … the foundation had been encouraged to go celebrity-heavy … A shallowness had crept in.’ Neither Faith nor Greer is deluded about the impact of their work, but Faith doesn’t falter as a cheerleader. Though Wolitzer’s characters often speak as if they’re reciting dialogues from a couples therapy workbook, that tone flirts with satire in the summit passages, the most successful in the book. A feminist psychic makes a cameo, and everyone groans. Because Faith often dispenses the novel’s earnest wisdom, the effect is uncanny. You’re shocked at the obviousness and the obliviousness, wondering if this person is really serious.

Then, a scandal seems to expose Faith’s true character. The foundation has defrauded investors by failing to follow through with a special project in Ecuador; the plan was to ‘save’ a group of young women from prostitution and then set them up with mentors to teach them ‘useful skills’, but the fixer in Cotopaxi disappeared after the rescue mission was completed. Mentorship, it’s clear, is a privilege that not everyone has access to. The company – and Emmett, through negligence – has hidden its mistake from Faith, and it’s up to Greer to be the whistleblower. Faith doesn’t react as upstandingly as Greer wants: she doesn’t abandon the foundation, though it’s been tainted. ‘I’m ashamed of what happened,’ she tells Greer. ‘But those young women are free and presumably out of danger. I have to weigh that too, don’t I? That’s what it’s about, this life. The weighing.’

A conga line of female backstabbing – Faith thoroughly embarrasses Greer in front of the office, Greer confesses her years-old betrayal to Zee – follows. These little brutalities pale in comparison to the massive professional betrayal Emmett has dealt Faith, yet the women’s disloyalty seems to have a more lasting impact. Faith’s pragmatism is a relief from the hand-wringing about usefulness that pervades the rest of the book, but she eventually reveals that her cruelty towards Greer was all part of a grand plan. ‘You also take them under your wing, if that’s what they seem to want,’ she tells Emmett. ‘But then there’s another part, which is that eventually you let them go. Fling! You fling them away. Because otherwise they think that they can’t manage on their own.’

A last chapter vindicates this line of thinking. The year is 2019, and Greer is enjoying a surreal success despite ‘the big terribleness’ that has overtaken America. We meet her at another party, but this one is being held in her honour – her ‘well-meaning’ feminist self-help book, Outside Voices, has been on the bestseller list for a full year, and she’s celebrating with Cory, now her dutifully supportive husband, their baby daughter and their 16-year-old babysitter, who represents the new wave of activists and describes herself ‘without irony or amusement’ as radical. Greer knows the book, with its mantras, is a little ‘ridiculous’, but she’s also proud, and wants to tell Faith about it, though she knows contacting her might be ‘unwelcome’. There was ‘talk of an Outside Voices Foundation, but nothing concrete’. Zee, who married a woman she met through Teach and Reach, has forgiven Greer and is working as a crisis response counsellor in Chicago, a job she loves so much she can’t be swayed by Greer’s offer of a job at her hypothetical foundation. ‘One person replaces another,’ Greer thinks, assuming Faith’s role as the novel’s sage. ‘Who is going to replace me?’ she wonders, before remembering the babysitter.

It’s just like life: you ask a difficult question, and a wise novelist answers it. While working as an editor for a women’s website I learned that people can be tempted to click on an article when the headline begins with the phrase ‘what it’s like’. These kinds of article aren’t exclusive to the feminist internet, but they do show up more often in connection with a movement driven by experience and representation, where ‘women’s stories’ and ‘women’s lives’ are constantly being offered as proof for our arguments. The framing encourages a transactional sort of reading that sacrifices style and precision in favour of a generalised message. Though ‘what it’s like’ articles usually depict extraordinary experiences – ‘what it’s like running an underfunded domestic violence shelter’, ‘what it’s like being the momager of a two-year-old Instagram celeb’ – they occasionally cover more universal ones: ‘what it’s like to find out your significant other is cheating on you’. You might add ‘really’ or ‘actually’ – ‘what it’s really like to experience Hollywood sexism’ or ‘what it’s actually like to be a full-time cam girl’ – to create the sense of widespread misconception, even when, because of either rarity or typicality, there is none. Insider knowledge awaits the savvy reader and, supposing you already know what it’s like to do whatever it is, you might have the joy of recognising yourself, or be roused to righteous anger at having been misrepresented.

The internet only occasionally rears its head in The Female Persuasion, as a nuisance for Faith – ‘naturally people were writing things on Twitter like #whiteladyfeminism and #richladies’ – or a casual diversion for Greer, who Skypes with Cory when they’re apart and reads a blog called Fem Fatale that is ‘personal-essay heavy, often sarcastic, talking openly about sex acts and bodily functions, and describes itself as “sex-positive, snark-friendly, and in-your-face, but also just a damn good read”’.

I found this deeply annoying, though I suppose I find most things deeply annoying. Jezebel, the real site that most resembles Fem Fatale, would never have a tagline so cheesy. The young characters in The Female Persuasion speak in stilted dialogue, narrating fully formed ideas in a distant version of the way millennials talk – not even the hippest of them, Zee, is ever allowed to utter anything as authentically zeitgeisty as ‘fuckin rules’. Yet in a strange way this novel, at 464 pages, also seems written for online readers. With broad strokes that assert nuance with the opposite of nuance, Wolitzer has represented what it’s like to be a certain kind of woman who grew up in the last decade – the kind who reflexively cares about other ‘women’s stories’, who understands that her own is not extraordinary and doesn’t know what to do about it, who can solve all her problems (and earn a handsome living) by, to paraphrase Ephron, treating them as copy. Even the critical response, the insistence that Wolitzer has accomplished what she set out to do in ‘The Second Shelf’ aligns with a contemporary tendency: in an attempt to counteract the sexism Wolitzer describes, critics frequently overestimate work by and about women. Reading the novel while watching its reception reminded me of the way last year’s New Yorker short story ‘Cat Person’ by Kristen Roupenian went viral. The frenzy surrounding the publication of that story involved the pleasant surprise that a work of literature (that happened to be written by a woman) had made such a splash on the attention-deficit internet. But in fact it was perfectly positioned to do so: not only did it mimic the form of viral content – ‘what it’s like to go on a bad date’, as it were – not only did it tell you, at the end, what to think of it, but it did so with the illusion of a higher purpose. It was a work of literature – even if some readers didn’t recognise this, and called it an ‘essay’, or an ‘article’.