Is there a right way to be a woman? Or to write for and about them?

A few weeks ago, on my Facebook page, I created a list of my favorite novels published in 2013. The list was – of course – limited by my own tastes and time to read, and I was only a little surprised to see that 10 out of the 12 novels listed were written by women.  I read a lot of contemporary fiction. I don’t think I’m particularly snobbish about genre or literary reputation, but I avoid books that I believe are badly written, overly formulaic, pedantic, or just plain boring. Luckily, there are a lot of women writers these days that hit the mark for me.

So I was interested when I came upon a long New Yorker feature about Jennifer Weiner, writer of Good in Bed and many other Good in BedThe Woman Upstairsnovels that I consider highly readable, relatable, and fun. The piece highlighted Weiner’s “campaign against the literary media for being biased against female writers” and – to my dismay – her spats with other female novelists. When Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs (which made my “top dozen” list for last year) said regarding her unlikable protagonist, “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in trouble,” Weiner responded with this interpretation:

Novels were absolutely, positively not there to serve the petty function of helping people feel connected … And if you believed that – if you wrote that way, or if you read that way – then, by God, you were Doing Reading Wrong.

When Adelle Waldman, author of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P (another book on my list) noted that she “didn’t want to write a book with a plucky heroine,” Weiner tweeted “Girl writes about kissing from male POV, in Brooklyn, with artsy cover and The Love Affairs of Nathaniel Pimpressive blurbs. Then it’s literature.” Weiner had a similar reaction to Meg Wolitzer, another writer I admire.

I wouldn’t suggest for a moment that there shouldn’t be disagreements about what makes for good writing and good books – by women or men. I consider both professional reviews and reader reviews when I’m choosing the next book for my Kindle or bedside table. And I have clear tastes about what I like and don’t like. I really enjoy some “chick lit” (Jennifer Weiner, Jodi Picoult, and the like) but find much of it pretty insipid. Some of my favorite female authors are in the “literary fiction” crowd (Geraldine Brooks, Elizabeth Strout, Ann Patchett, to name a few) but I’m actively avoiding the current favorite in this area, The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. I just know that anything consistently described as “Dickenesque” is not for me, even though Amazon is convinced that it is the next thing I should read.

So, yeah. I get differences in taste. I appreciate discussions of quality.  But the back-and-forth comments among Weiner, Wolitzer, Waldman, and Messud don’t feel like that.

Instead, these comments remind me of the times during the late 1960s and early 1970s when Gloria Steinem and others in the women’s movement derogated the contents of newspaper women’s sections. Those sections were about “food, fluff, and fashion” in the words of Molly Ivins, and no self-respecting serious feminist would write for them, be written about in them, or read them. Gloria Steinem complained about being profiled in the women’s section, and women’s editor Marge Paxson flatly stated that “the women’s movement wanted out of the women’s pages”:

Well, when you’ve got Gloria Steinem and people like her writing in her magazine and making speeches about it – and the National Organization for Women and other women’s groups hammering at this in everything they say, every time they speak to an editors’ group … They began to hammer and pound and hammer and pound – they wanted out. They wanted to be treated equally and they wanted to be on the news pages.

Admittedly, this is not a perfect analog to the discussion about women’s novelists. Claire Messud is not Gloria Steinem and Jennifer Weiner is not a women’s page editor. But the parallels are clear. They are fighting for ground about what should count as valuable in the lives – reading and otherwise – of women. Family, food, and fashion vs. the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment. A sympathetic heroine and a happy ending vs. complexity that is sometimes unfamiliar and challenging.

Is one side of these equations the right way to be a woman? Either then or now?

I’d like to think not. I can appreciate both Cannie Shapiro (of Weiner’s Good in Bed) and Nora Eldridge (of Messud’s The Woman Upstairs). I don’t believe caring about family, food, and fashion is antithetical to caring about workplace equality and domestic violence.

And yet we keep fighting as if this is a zero-sum game. As if there need to be clear winners and losers. As if there is a right way to be a woman.

**********

Last week, my daughter and I whiled away some time taking on-line Meyer Briggs personality inventories and discussing the results. The test revealed that I am an INFJ (Introverted-Intuitive-Feeling-Judging) and the description fit amazingly well. One of many passages that resonated was this one:

INFJs are concerned for people’s feelings, and try to be gentle to avoid hurting anyone. They are very sensitive to conflict, and cannot tolerate it very well. Situations which are charged with conflict may drive the normally peaceful INFJ into a state of agitation or charged anger.

So perhaps in this discussion I’m just revealing my exceedingly conflict-averse personality. Perhaps I’m trying to smooth over disagreements that should be aired loudly in the media – social and otherwise. Perhaps I should try to calm my inner Rodney King who constantly implores “can we all get along?”

But I don’t think so. I think there is room for many kinds of fiction. I think there is room for many forms of feminism. I think the Mommy Wars – like the fiction wars – are unproductive.

I think there are many right ways to be a woman.

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