Friday, June 15, 2007

The Wife, by Meg Wolitzer

I finished this book during senior week, but didn't write about it here mostly because I was stumped for something incisive to say about it. Stumped because the novel itself is so incisive, so lucid, and so graceful in fusing plot and message that all I really could do is summarize the events of the narrative. I could really add nothing more.

Then today, quite miraculously, I ran across this post by Jessa Crispin (aka Bookslut) which references The Wife and links to this article about the problem which Wolitzer illustrates so well in this novel—“Everyone is still fascinated by the inner lives of men. Women are fascinated. Men win, hands down.”

Wolitzer's novel is told by Joan Castleman, the wife of Joe, an American author who resembles (in a couple of respects) Saul Bellow or Philip Roth—a giant of American letters; recognized around the world; unbelievably self-centered, especially in terms of his writing; unabashedly unfaithful; guarded; dependent on women but terrified by them at the same time. Joan, who possesses a tremendously effective voice and a superb eye for detail, was once Joe's student in a creative writing class at Smith, became his lover and, in short order, his fellow fugitive from the ensuing scandal, married him, and has been his writing and research assistant throughout his very successful career. Buried under his successes, Joan gave up at Joe's insistence any hope of writing on her own, even though Joe recognized at Smith that she was a writer of considerable command and fluency. As the novel opens on board a plane to Finland, where Joe will receive the Helsinki prize and be feted to the skies, Joan decides to leave him (I detected echoes of Dreyer's masterpiece Gertrud here). The bulk of the novel consists, then, in her re-examination of her marriage and the gender politics of the American literary scene. And if that sounds dull to you, then you're probably male.

Joan's story allows Wolitzer—in a series of remarkably well-crafted vignettes—to probe the assumptions and conventions which deny women the chance to write anything save what would now be termed "chick-lit." That Jane Austen—who had shed the frilly feminine packaging which still attends the Brontes and could be read equally appreciatively by men and women—has been subjected to numerous recent chicky appropriations (the insufferable Bridget Jones, the Harlequin-quality Darcy "spin-offs") is all too illustrative of the inevitable packaging of almost any woman as what Joe Castleman and his novelist friends would call a "lady-writer."

What Joan makes clear, and what the above-linked article picks up on and highlights, is just this—it's a marketing and purchasing prejudice—because men do not purchase novels written by women, these novels must be marketed toward women in order to sell. But what Joan also demonstrates by the introduction of a couple of female characters who have had literary success and by the invocation of the (now-forgotten) Mary McCarthy, a woman who was able to run with the boys for a time, is that there are channels—deeply grooved and restrictive channels—along which women can move to reach literary acclaim and readership among both sexes. One is to be brash, provocative, and deeply belligerent (Mary McCarthy's strategy) or mentally unstable (the strategy that is often taken to market Virginia Woolf—Michael Cunningham, I'm looking at you). Another is to be nearly sexless (a journalist character's strategy—I thought it may have been a fictionalized Joan Didion) or, as the article puts it, "gender disguise." A third is to be non-white and to write about or from that experience (Wolitzer offers a character who uses her dubiously authentic Inuit heritage as the backbone of her fiction). All these strategies can be marketed successfully to men or obviate the need for any sort of gendered marketing strategy and thus allow these women to emerge from behind the "lady-writer" curtain.

Wolitzer's novel is not just a polemical attack on the conditions and prejudices that make these marketing strategies "necessary"; it is also a first-rate example of the phenomenon. Despite Wolitzer's all-too-obvious talent, her books seem to be read only by other women who are frustrated by the old-boys-club. But The Wife is so much more than a complaint or a protest; it is even more than a keen sociological analysis. The Wife simultaneously mimics and inverts the type of novel which has made Bellow and Roth so successful, showing how little the gender inversion of the narrator really changes.

Also: Wow, this exchange on the NYT blog Paper Cuts is topical, but far too much for me to discuss myself. It's entertaining, nonetheless—the "Jen" commenter is Jennifer Weiner, author of chick-lit novels Good in Bed and The Guy Not Taken, and her interlocutor is Dwight Garner, the NYTBR senior editor.

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