What Can “Women’s Fiction” Do for Women?

“I am the proud and happy writer of popular fiction,” says novelist Jennifer Weiner, “and I would never argue that it matters as much as the award-winning ...

“I am the proud and happy writer of popular fiction,” says novelist Jennifer Weiner, “and I would never argue that it matters as much as the award-winning, breathtaking, life-changing meditations on love and humanity and the Way We Live Now.”1 This is an admirable attitude, but a misapplied one—in 16 books Weiner has meditated on love, humanity, and current mores. In fact, Weiner’s Mrs. Everything, as well as Elizabeth Gilbert’s City of Girls, two of the blockbuster publications of 2019, are both decades-spanning historical novels about women in America that together pose an important question about the “Way We Live Now.” Specifically: Can fiction be adequate to represent the lives of women while offering both solace and entertainment?

Best-selling writers many times over, Weiner and Gilbert tend to be called “women’s authors,” with Weiner often characterized as a chick-lit novelist and Gilbert as a chronicler of women’s stories. Among the many preconceived notions about authors-who-are-women that get called “women’s authors” is a mistaken idea: that their stories are merely romantic, their plots moving ever-toward marriage, relationships, or just love.

Weiner and Gilbert have both written about their own sometimes-uneasy relationships to such labels. Weiner in particular has become a proponent of more inclusive criticism on women writers, with mixed results: she has pointed out, backed up by extensive research, how many more book reviews are written about men and by men than about women or by women, but she also recently entered into a Twitter fray by criticizing a now-graduated college student who campaigned against choosing a young adult novel by Sarah Dessen for her college’s common read. In criticizing the student for dismissing young adult literature, Weiner elevated a single piece of not particularly virulent criticism into a bonafide news story. Weiner later apologized for ignoring the power inequity between herself and the student, but her initial reaction (abetted by the amplifying tendencies of Twitter) is symptomatic of her general profile as a controversialist around issues of genre.

Yet, offline and in their novels, Weiner and Gilbert have consistently eluded their critics, simply by excelling at chronicling the lives of women. In Mrs. Everything and City of Girls—two books that announce themselves as being about women in their very titles—they do just that, while incorporating questions of trauma, memory, and history.

In Weiner’s Mrs. Everything, two sisters narrate their lives in alternating chapters. When we first meet Jo Kaufman (after a brief prologue), she is fidgeting with a new pink gingham dress, itchy lacy socks, and pinched shoes; her younger sister, Bethie, delights in a matching costume. “Bethie loved being a girl,” we learn. It is a conventional setup—a girl who loves being a girl, and a girl who does not—and one that Weiner swiftly deconstructs, as the sisters spend the rest of the novel fleeing from and pursuing convention in unexpected ways.

Jo—who knows early on that she is attracted to women—struggles with being ostracized and closeted, on a long road to being out. Bethie, too, will endure several early traumas. In grimly narrated scenes set during her teenage years, she is abused by her uncle, who regularly gropes her at the end of forced car rides home from babysitting his children. Though eventually she and Jo cathartically confront him, Bethie is subsequently haunted by depression, insecurity, and disordered eating.

Describing one brief moment of respite a few years after the abuse, Weiner writes that Bethie “was so happy she barely noticed feeling hungry, and these days her hunger was a constant presence, like a pet that followed her everywhere.” Her misery follows her almost unwaveringly until she endures another attack. When she has a bad trip at a music concert, Bethie wanders through the crowd alone, gets lost, and then suddenly, in a haze—“willing the world to stop spinning”—finds herself being raped by multiple men.

When Bethie discovers she is pregnant, Jo rushes home from a graduation trip in Europe and, after activating an informal phone tree of people-who-know-people, pays for Bethie to get an abortion. Because of her return home, Jo meets a man, starts on the conventional track that her sister Bethie had once seemed destined for, and stays closeted for decades.

Can fiction be adequate to represent the lives of women while offering both solace and entertainment?

As for Bethie, when the surgery is over, her practitioner tells her: “Next time, try keeping your legs together.” These words haunt her even in the moment of their being uttered: “In Bethie’s head, the voice of the doctor—if that’s what he had been—was loud as a shout. Next time, try keeping your legs together. She knew she’d be hearing that voice, those words, on an endless loop in her brain, maybe for the rest of her life.”

If you know of Weiner but are not a reader of her work—or, say, if you have seen the often pink-adorned white covers of her paperbacks but not opened them—Bethie’s story might seem like unexpected material. But the cover of this latest book is still pink (hot, hot pink), and this is not new territory for Weiner. In fact, across many novels, Weiner has engaged directly with trauma, folding it into narratives about sex, romance, relationships, and parenting.

Non-exhaustively: in Weiner’s In Her Shoes (2002) a woman is almost raped in a parking lot and the consequences change her relationship with her sister for the rest of the novel; in Best Friends Forever (2009) a teenager is raped at a party and her friend covers it up, the effects of which are felt into adulthood; in Then Came You (2011) a woman remembers being assaulted by her stepfather as a child, changing her relationship to men for the rest of her life; and in All Fall Down (2014) a journalist pursues a story about rape. While technically Mrs. Everything is a post-#MeToo novel, Weiner and, by extension, her readers have been exploring these issues since 2002.

So, it is galling that, in Weiner’s 2015 appearance on CBS This Morning, Charlie Rose interrupts both his female cohosts—and Weiner herself—to  ask of All Fall Down whether “the difference in this and why this is your best [book] is how you’ve gone to the darker places.” That phrase, “darker places,” is Weiner’s, and certainly the novel dealt with difficult issues. The panel of hosts, however, seems set on attributing some of the best reviews of Weiner’s career—including her first New York Times review—to that darkness. The real question is why critics have so often ignored the fact that the darker places had been there all along.

Mrs. Everything sometimes stumbles as it proceeds too swiftly through the rat-a-tat of civil rights, women’s empowerment, acid, and consciousness-raising. Its ending, however, is extremely suggestive. Just before the 2016 election, right around when the balloons are descending on Hilary Clinton’s convention speech, Jo’s partner says confidently: “Now she just has to win.” Earlier in the novel, Jo’s daughter had said of her mother that she seemed to have missed everything in the decades that she had spent as a closeted wife and mother. Hence she coins the phrase “Mrs. Everything,” as an ironic pun on having it all. With her pre–November 2016 ending, Weiner leaves us asking—as her title cheekily does—what women’s lives would look like if they did not miss everything, but rather were able to catch each wave of history as it came.

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Muses Explain Things to Me

By Lindsay Gail Gibson

While Weiner’s characters in Mrs. Everything sometimes feel out of pace with history, Gilbert’s characters do not. Her City of Girls tells the story of Vivian, a girl who, as Gilbert puts it, arrives in New York in the summer of 1940 “so freshly hatched that there was practically yolk in [her] hair.”

Like Weiner’s Bethie, Gilbert’s protagonist begins the novel very comfortable in her own prettiness. She has just been kicked out of Vassar and is about to launch herself into New York with the help of her eccentric Aunt Peg, who runs the Lily Playhouse, a cheap-ish establishment that puts on small plays and musicals starring gorgeous showgirls and whoever else they can get on stage. At the Playhouse, Vivian becomes the de facto costume designer, creating beguiling confections of silk, lace, and feathers. In her new role, Vivian also befriends an Amazonian showgirl named Celia; the women quickly tumble into clubs and hotels and beds together. The city seems made for them, and their adventures make for irresistible reading.

And yet, Vivian is playacting and Gilbert knows it. As she receives a generous family allowance, Vivian’s penny-pinching excursions across the city in search of the right scrap of fabric at the cheapest deal are less than necessary. If her Aunt Peg rightly says that “life at the Lily Playhouse is nothing but a series of small fires,” then we are reminded often that these are not Vivian’s fires.

Things dawn on her slowly: that nights on the town might not always be what they seem, as when Celia protects her from the wrong kind of men and comes downstairs with a black eye to show for it; or that her Aunt Peg is not so much eccentric as a happily partnered person, living with a woman she loves. The story brims with energy, but it can be shallow, and not just because of Vivian’s remove from her surroundings. One promising character, Peg’s estranged husband Billy, wants to plunge into the novel with all the verve and chatter of a screwball matinee idol. While Vivian describes his repartee with Aunt Peg as flickering, bright, and sharp, on the page it does not always feel that way. In fact, nothing, including Vivian’s love affair with a young actor, feels as fun, wild, and free as Vivian’s relationship with Celia, which never quite blossoms into anything.

When a love affair goes wrong, ending her spell at the Lily, Vivian begs for a ride from her older brother Walter, who commandeers a car and a driver to get her home to the suburbs. On that drive, during a lull in Walter’s tirade against her life choices, their driver turns around and says, “Must be pretty disappointing for a stand-up guy like you, Walt, to end up with a sister who’s such a dirty little whore.” The rest of the car ride is silent, as his words ricochet in Vivian’s head: “Dirty little whore, dirty little whore, dirty little whore.” The phrase will resurface later in the novel, as will the driver.

In their novels, Weiner and Gilbert each use history not to erase or repress trauma but to soften, contextualize, and chronicle it.

Though Vivian spends years figuring out what the scene in the car means to her, she also moves on. Her aunt Peg scoops her back down to New York City in 1942 and, on another car ride, stubbornly picking up on the driver’s belittling language, Vivian determines: “I would plant my little life there and never abandon it again.”

One way of reading Gilbert is as a chronicler of women coming into their competence. Stern Men (2000), her first novel, is misleadingly labeled, as it mostly concerns the grit of one young Maine woman and her relationships to commerce, place, and family. Eat Pray Love (2006) is, of course, the much-loved, much-mocked story of a newly divorced writer discovering herself through a globe-trotting plan involving food, religion, and sex. And The Signature of All Things (2013) is a masterful exploration of one female botanist’s relationship to moss, illustration, and men, which takes her from Philadelphia to Tahiti and finally to Holland. Gilbert writes journeys that are intriguing, fabulous, and unusual, but also eminently comfortable in their endings.

And that is not a bad thing. The sheer competence that Vivian has as a never-married New York seamstress over the next few decades of her life is immensely satisfying. She sleeps with men. She makes clothes. As the years pass by, her relationship to history, like Weiner’s Jo and Bethie, can be uncomfortable: “My people got there first,” Vivian says in a particularly misguided summary of the cultural and political changes of the 1960s (“my people” here being, presumably, the mostly white, creative, downtown crowd Vivian runs in). A more interesting ending might have confronted the ways in which her people were not there first.

Weiner and Gilbert offer entertaining, touching, but not necessarily original accounts of 20th-century white American feminism. Their historical narratives, however, still do interesting work. Buried in the center of each novel is a repetition of a cruel phrase: “Next time, try keeping your legs together” and “dirty little whore.” Because they live in fast-moving and historically sweeping books, these phrases are quickly made doubly distant. They occur in the literal centers of the narratives, which means that they are also historically distant from where they end. Weiner and Gilbert, then, seem to repress the very events that they went to such pains to describe.

Unexpectedly, however, each of our heroines eventually finds happiness by plucking someone from the depths of their uneasy personal histories. Jo reconnects with an old girlfriend, Bethie finds a high school crush to share her life with and to tell her story to, and Vivian develops an unexpected and fascinating friendship with the driver who insulted her so long ago. Each character, then, is able to find a way to make their past safe for themselves again. Each author uses history not to erase or repress trauma but to soften, contextualize, and chronicle it.

Moreover, in placing historical distance between their characters and their sites of trauma, Weiner and Gilbert might also be making clear that physical and emotional abuse are such a fact of life for so many women that dwelling on them page after page after page would not do justice to the rest of women’s lives. If these writers did so, they would truly miss everything.

 

This article was commissioned by Nicholas Damesicon

  1. Jennifer Weiner, Hungry Heart: Adventures in Life, Love, and Writing (Simon & Schuster, 2017), p. 3.
Featured image: 63rdStreet: Jean Shin, Elevated (2016). Photograph by Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York / Flickr