Picture this: A female author writes a novel about a middle-aged woman struggling through something of a mid-life crisis. She’s been divorced for several years, but she’s still reeling with the aftermath, coasting along in something she calls “The Existence Period”. She’s dated some, but she has recently suffered a crisis in her current romantic relationship and she ponders whether she’ll ever be able to love again. She’s ambivalent about her career and spends much of the book pondering what she should do with her life. She spends a weekend with her troubled teenager, wondering whether she failed as a parent and what she can do now to make things better. The experience awakens her, and she ends the book determined to make things better with her children and her current lover.
What would happen to this book? I have a pretty good idea: it would be labelled “women’s fiction”, it would be given a soft, pastel cover, and it would be dismissed by the critics.
But in reality, this book had a better life. Because it was written by a male author about a male protagonist (with everything else being equal) it was hailed as “a major American novel” (Washington Times) and given the Pulitzer (1996).
The book is Independence Day by Richard Ford. Some other reviews include: “Exhilarating,” it creates “a great mythic American character” (Newsweek), “genius” (Detroit Free Press), “a literary event” (New York Daily News), “the definitive novel of the postwar generation” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette), “a fully realized portrait of modern American life as filtered through the mind and heart of a unique yet typical American man” (Christian Science Monitor), “a beautiful, enriching book” (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel), “a tour de force, with wonderful characterizations” (Cleveland Plain Dealer).
Honestly, I didn’t think it was all that good. There was no plot to speak of, which isn’t always bad, but here it leaves the book flat and lifeless. For the first 200 pages I thought it was just a book about real estate. I also personally struggled with Ford’s tendency to start sentences with “Though . . .” and then never add a dominant clause, leaving them not actually sentences at all. Every single time it pulled me out of the story because I’d stop at the end of the “sentence” and think, “Wait, did I just miss half that sentence?”
But let’s put my personal thoughts aside. Even if it is a really excellent book, that’s not the point. Female authors are belittled from the beginning, forced in queries to identify their writing as “women’s fiction” if they want a chance at getting published, given soft covers that imply their books aren’t as serious as their male counterparts, marketed exclusively to women, and never or rarely critically reviewed. Which, of course, shortchanges both men and women, since plenty of men might actually enjoy these books.
Look, I get it. Some men are really excellent novelists, and they should be rewarded as such. I could list about 50 male novelists off the top of my head that I think are fantastic. I’m not saying anything against male novelists. Or even stories about men. Some stories simply are about men and it would be ridiculous to have it any other way. When Faulkner writes a Pulitzer-winner about soldiers in WWI, of course every single character in the book is going to be a man (except that helpless, fainting girl at the beginning. Ahem.). It makes sense.
But what irks me so much about Independence Day is the double whammy of the fact that I truly didn’t think it was that great, and that it’s exactly the kind of book that would be dismissed as fluff if it were by and about a woman.
Women authors, of course, are sometimes taken seriously. Some recent Pulitzer-winners by female authors include A Visit from the Goon Squad, Olive Kitteridge, and Gilead. All, in my opinion, excellent books. But these are not “women’s stories”. Gilead, in fact, is all about men. A Visit from the Good Squad is largely about men. And even Olive Kitteridge, which is ostensibly one woman’s story, is actually a vehicle for telling many stories, of both men and women.
There’s no denying it: the story I described at the beginning – about a woman going through a midlife crisis and finding redemption through her child – would be critically dismissed. And that’s exactly what Independence Day is, except it’s about a man. So the critics loved it.
Maybe George Eliot had it right – maybe we women still need to write under male pen-names if we want to be taken seriously. Excuse me while I start to think of mine.