When those Big Swinging Dick writers - you know, guys like Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides and Tom Perrotta - stuck to writing macho stories starring male characters, I didn't mind so much that they earned advances that were 5,000 times as big as mine and won all the major writing prizes and attracted the kind of attention that women usually can't command while fully clothed.
I tamped down my envy by telling myself that those guys were doing something different from what I was doing. Contemporary domestic comedies about love and romance, marriage and family featuring female protagonists, the kinds of books that I and most of my female novelist friends usually write, rarely merit a mention in the Times Book Review, much less dominate the bestseller lists or win Pulitzer Prizes.
And then a handful of the most successful American male novelists turned everything upside down by writing novels focusing on female themes and characters. There was Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, the story of a love triangle with heroine Patty at its center. Tom Perrotta's The Leftovers was a suburban romantic farce encased in a futuristic veneer. And Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot was, well, just what it sounds like.
Guys: you had the whole swing set to yourselves PLUS the monkey bars PLUS the entire blacktop, so why did you have to invade the girls' side of the playground and swipe our Barbies?
Some of my women novelist friends claim that the only difference between the books these guys are writing and the ones we are writing is that in their case, the author has a penis. Freedom and The Marriage Plot are just like any number of books written by any number of female novelists in any recent year, the women say, with comparable characters, plot, language, theme, literary merit.
It would be as comforting as it is infuriating to believe that, but I'm not so sure. It's not so much that Jonathan Franzen is eating my lunch, I'm afraid, as that he's eating the lunch I should be eating, could be eating, but, through my own damn fault, have not been freaking eating.
Sorry, girlfriends, but here's what Franzen and his brothers are doing differently and better than me and most of you:
- They're more baldly ambitious
Instead of calling his book Patty's Two Lovers like a girl might, Franzen titled his novel Freedom. It's not about a housewife torn between her husband and a hot rock star, it's about freedom! About America and the very foundation of our culture and values! And Eugenides, he's not writing some little Jane Austen homage, but an examination of how the abiding literary theme of our age plays out in modern life! Or something like that.
Women novelists may write similar books, but they position them (with their publishers' "help") as the stories of individual characters acting on a narrow stage: Think of Cathleen Schine's lovely The Three Weissmans of Westport, whose title alone makes my point. The BSD writers, by virtue of bravado or marketing savvy, feather their otherwise small domestic stories with Big Swinging titles and issues like The Rapture and the meaning of God.
- They're writing authentic novels
Love or hate these writers or books, Freedom and The Marriage Plot and The Leftovers are all actual novels with throughlines and shifting points of view and character arcs. Point to a recent book by a female writer that's achieved some measure of the literary respect and commercial success of Franzen or Eugenides - Jennifer Egan's Visit from the Goon Squad, for instance, or Olive Kittredge or The Emperor's Children - and it's often really linked stories and not a true novelistic equal to the guy books the way that Wuthering Heights, say, or Middlemarch is to David Copperfield.
Of course, there are women who write big fat real novels, too, that are the literary peers of the guys' work: I'm thinking of Geraldine Brooks' Year of Wonders or Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible or Zadie Smith's On Beauty. But for the most part, these novels are set in a different time or place or culture; to be taken seriously, most women novelists can't and don't write about contemporary American suburban characters wrestling with love, marriage, work, parenthood.
- They're funny and serious at the same time
One thing I really admire about all three of the male authors' books I mentioned is that they manage to be funny, sometimes just wryly humorous but often laugh-out-loud hilarious, while also tackling serious issues such as mental illness or rape or murder or divorce. Franzen has said that he believes that making his writing funny is just about the same thing as making it good.
I agree, except when I've written funny, as I did in my novel Younger, readers loved it, Spielberg optioned it, but it wasn't considered literature. And when I set out to write more literary fiction with my new novel The Possibility of You, I devoted five years to researching the 1916 polio epidemic and racism in the 1970s, to creating vivid characters and weaving a story that connected them in surprising ways. But I hardly dared to crack a smile for fear of ending up back on the mommy lit table.
Some of my female novelist friends say we shouldn't even try to compete with Franzen and Perrotta and Eugenides and their big, serious, funny, important, commercial and literary books. Unless we figure out how to grow Big Swinging Dicks of our own, they say, we'll never be considered on the same level as the boy writers, even if we write books that are exactly as good as theirs, in exactly the same way.
But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try. We should let ourselves be funny and sexy and ambitious and individual all at the same time, just the way the guys do; we should write grand stories that feature both male and female characters and that aren't afraid to sweep backwards and forwards in time but also to settle for a while in present-day New Jersey or Minnesota, books that explore what it means to try to save the world but also what it means to be a good mother, or how it feels to fall in love.
We might end up, as my friends fear, on the mommy lit table, watching Jonathan Franzen eat our Cobb Salad, girly dressing on the side, and then wash it down with boyish beer. But at least then we'll be sure that we have as much right to the full literary meal as he does.
Pamela Redmond Satran is the author of the novel The Possibility of You, out from Simon & Schuster's Gallery Books on February 21.