Thursday, May 30, 2013

Top Shelf

ISBN-10: 1594488398 ISBN-13: 9781594488399 Published: Riverhead Hardcover, 04/09/2013 Pages: 480 Language: English
"Over centuries, the broad literary brush strokes and the big-canvas page have belonged mostly to men, whereas 'craft' had belonged to women, uncontested. It’s no wonder that the painted-egg precision of short stories allows reviewers to comfortably celebrate female accomplishment, even to celebrate it prominently in the case of Alice Munro. But generally speaking, a story collection is considered a quieter animal than a novel, and is tacitly judged in some quarters as the work of someone who lacks the sprawling confidence of a novelist."

This is a passage taken from Meg Wolitzer's fantastic essay The Second Shelf: On the Rules of Literary Fiction for Men and Women, wherein she explores the gender inequality still deeply rooted in so-called "literary fiction," especially with regard to sprawling "event books" such as Freedom or The Marriage Plot. She correctly points out that while the literati have made room for closely observed, powerful, and-- more significantly-- slender novels such as Toni Morrison's Home, the grander stage of Great American Novels has largely remained the province of men. 

Enter Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings, which thankfully lacks none of the sprawling confidence of a true epic. Her recently published novel is about a group of angsty teenagers-- is there any other kind?-- that find each other at a hippy-dippy summer camp for artistically inclined youngsters. After this meeting of unformed minds, the book explodes outward far into the future and even into the past of each of these teenagers, with a special focus placed on the acerbic Jules. The Interestings is a meditation on a generation of dreamers that grew up to find out that talent and luck aren't distributed equally.

It's also very, very good. Wolitzer avoids, for the most part, the clinically detached omniscience that Franzen and his male counterparts seem to cultivate, perhaps out of a desire to avoid sentimentality. Wolitzer doesn't inflict suffering on her characters like a bored scientist plucking legs off of an insect-- she cares about her characters, and their sufferings seem all the more real and tragic for her "sentimentality." 

Wolitzer may have confidence and ambition, but she thankfully also avoids the oft-committed sins of arrogance and self-indulgence. There are no radical changes of voice in The Interestings, no-books-within-books-within-books, no page-long footnotes. She doesn't need to do the prose equivalent of a triple back flip in order to tell her story, which is fascinatingly dense and rich with-- I can hardly think of a way to say it that won't come out sexist-- emotional intelligence. Wolitzer's characters aren't pieces that move around her richly imagined world-- the characters are her world, and they sprawl and sprawl. There shouldn't be anything inherently feminine about a book that revolves around relationships and emotion, but we live in an imperfect world, so I have already read a fair amount of vaguely condescending reviews that subtly suggest Wolitzer should have edited her book down into a slim volume to jam into a corner of their shelf alongside Woolf, Atwood, Lahiri, etc.

The Interestings is a proof of concept for the author's essay in more than one way. First, she proves with her own book that women deserve a bigger piece of the literary fiction pie. Second, critics respond in virtually the same way she implicitly predicted, even though nary a review goes by without mentioning The Second Shelf. Seeing The Interestings already shunted into the category of Women's Fiction is depressing and retrograde, but hardly surprising. Take heart, though. Perhaps hers is the crest of a wave. I am reminded of this passage from The Interestings: "He paused to wonder which Disney character Jules was, and realized that Disney did not make women or girls or woodland animals that were remotely like her."

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