Jennifer Egan is one of my favorite authors of all time. I devour her books, care about her characters, and recommend her novels to anyone looking for a good, meaty read. I was thrilled that her latest, A Visit from the Goon Squad, a novel about the ravages of time on characters working in the music industry (to distill it way, way down) got so much attention from publications like The New York Times Book Review this past year. And when a buddy of mine sent me a link via IM to a Wall Street Journal story yesterday about Egan winning the Pulitzer Prize for the book, I was so happy for her — and for women writers everywhere. But then I scrolled down to the end of the story.Smack dab in the middle of her verbal happy dance about winning the award, while discussing what she’d like to see from other female writers, Egan trashes the chick lit genre:
“My focus is less on the need for women to trumpet their own achievements than to shoot high and achieve a lot. What I want to see is young, ambitious writers. And there are tons of them. Look at The Tiger’s Wife. There was that scandal with the Harvard student who was found to have plagiarized. But she had plagiarized very derivative, banal stuff. This is your big first move? These are your models?… My advice for young female writers would be to shoot high and not cower.”
When she says “the Harvard student,” she’s referring to Kaavya Viswanathan, a very young novelist whose first young-adult work of fiction, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, plagiarized veteran chick lit authors Sophie Kinsella, Meg Cabot, and Megan McCafferty. The book was pulled from the shelves by publisher Little Brown and Company, and Viswanathan’s contract for a second book was canceled. It was ugly.
But Egan’s disgust isn’t about the plagiarism — it’s that Viswanathan wanted to write chick lit. Judging by the quote, Egan thinks chick lit is “derivative,” “banal,” and not shooting “high.”
As a fan of both Egan and chick lit, I beg to differ. The best chick lit is terrifically well-written and entertaining. Off the top of my head, Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones books, Jennifer Weiner’s novels, and Emily Giffin’s books (I’m looking forward to seeing the movie version of “Something Borrowed” in theaters) serve as thoughtful, funny, relatable voices for the everywoman who’s looking for her personal pieces of life’s pie, including the career, the apartment, and the guy. (And note that I did say “career.”)
Last night, Weiner tweeted: “I think plenty of chick lit’s well-written and smart. And I do aim high. I think all authors do.” What’s more, the authors that Viswanathan plagiarized are pioneers of the genre, not imitators.
Is there derivative, poorly written chick lit? Sure. But there’s also derivative, poorly written literary fiction. Slamming an entire genre of novels written by women is unsavory, inaccurate, and akin to the kind of girl-on-girl crime that women should be trying to stop, not perpetuate.
There’s also a slight undertone of snobbery in what Egan says. As in, Viswanathan was Harvard-educated — how could she possibly want to write chick lit?
I’m disappointed to say the least at seeing Egan lead the charge against chick lit on what should be her day in the sun, and I hate that every time I recommend Egan’s work to others (if I continue to do so), I’ll think of her unnecessary jab at a genre I enjoy. In fact, a chapter of Goon Squad was published in a book called This is Not Chick Lit, which asserted: “Chick lit as a genre presents one very narrow representation of women’s lives.” Whether you agree with that or even like chick lit is up to you, but trying to silence it altogether is sexist.
“A rising tide should lift all boats,” a friend of mine told me last night when we were talking about this topic. That’s all I’m asking for from Egan. You won a much-deserved Pulitzer. Now’s the time to advocate for your fellow writers, not step on other women as you make your way to the podium.