Click here for some girl-on-girl action
It’s been a good week for Jennifer Egan. She found out on Monday that her latest novel “A Visit From the Goon Squad” has won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal featured an interview with her, and she has hardly been out of the book pages since.
What might possibly have taken the gilt off the gingerbread for her has been the positively tsunami-like backlash against certain comments she made in that self-same WSJ interview. This has taken the form of high-profile criticism by some of her more influential and outspoken colleagues; several scathing blogs; and numerous erstwhile Jennifer Egan fans swearing they will never buy another book of hers or recommend her work to anyone at all. Ever.
So what exactly did she say to provoke such widespread ire? It’s all there in the WSJ interview, although if you blink you might miss it. But however brief her comments were, they were pointed and they cut deep.
The interview starts off innocuously enough with Egan playing the charmingly flustered Pulitzer Prize recipient: “It’s absolutely nutty to win something like this. I feel weird. I wish I had something more articulate to say. It seems so fantastical, like I’ve exited from real life. I found out 20 minutes ago.” She then goes on to talk about previous Pulitzer winners and to discuss her narrative style, which she and the interviewer between them choose to call post-post-modernity or verisimilitude. (There’s a chapter that’s written entirely as a powerpoint presentation, if that whets your appeitite at all.)
So far so extremely par for the course. Egan only really starts to go off script when the interviewer asks her about, “the debate about female and male writers and how they come off in the press”. She starts off by urging women writers to shoot high and achieve a lot – a sentiment most of us would endorse wholeheartedly. She then applauds young, ambitious women writers and invites us to look at “The Tiger’s Wife” as a shining example. (Cliff Notes crib: The Tiger’s Wife by 24-year-old Yugoslavian writer Tea Obreht is a folk-taley quest novel that the New York Observer described as bearing an unfortunate whiff of Yore.)
Then – as though afflicted by a sudden bout of literary Tourettes Syndrome – Egan makes the following astounding statement: “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?”
This is one of those squabbles that needs a lot of context filled in before you can hope to understand it. The Harvard student was one Kaavya Viswanathan, a young Indian-American woman, who wrote a book called “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life”. The book was energetically climbing the bestseller charts when it was found to contain substantial passages that had clearly been plagiarised from Young Adult author Megan McCafferty, and veteran leaders of the chick-lit genre, Sophie Kinsella and Meg Cabot. Viswanathan claimed repeatedly to have “unconsciously internalised” the relevant passages, and blamed her “photographic memory” for the similarities. Within a very short space of time, all copies of the book were withdrawn and destroyed by the publisher and Viswanathan’s contract for a second novel summarily cancelled. You can read all about the scandal here.
The really interesting part of Jennifer Egan’s denunciation of Viswanathan is that she does not condemn her for plagiarism, but merely for choosing poor role models: “she had plagiarized very derivative, banal stuff. This is your big first move? These are your models?”
So just to be absolutely clear here, Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Egan takes time out of her Wall Street Journal victory lap to call three of her most distinguished, best-selling female colleagues derivative and banal. Classy, Jennifer. Very classy.
And speaking of distinguished colleagues, another writer whose work was clearly shown to have been plagiarised by Viswanathan was Salman Rushdie. I wonder if Egan intended to include him in the “derivative and banal” camp? I suspect not, although if he had been a fellow woman writer he might not have got off so lightly.
One can’t help wondering what was going through Egan’s head at this point. It would be possible to dismiss her statement as a throwaway, meaningless remark if she hadn’t contributed a chapter of “A Visit from the Goon-Squad” to that notorious collection of short stories “This is Not Chick-Lit”, edited by Elizabeth Merrick. Merrick is most notable for her response to criticism of her choice of title with those tired anti-feminist words, “meow” and “the claws came out”. Because as we all know, male writers have debates, while female writers have cat-fights. Le yawn.
In short, as Jennifer Weiner says in her Twitter feed, Egan is clearly not a fan of the pink book cover. But still, what would provoke someone to employ a forum that should be all about her to trample on the reputations of her fellow women writers? Is it part of what Debby Edelstein calls PhD syndrome – Pull Her Down syndrome? This is a learned behaviour on the part of certain women to be unable to resist any opportunity to pull other women down. Is Egan, in short, guilty of a girl-on-girl crime?
Or is it the age-old jealousy of the literary fiction writer for the phenomenal sales of the commercial fiction writer? If so, it has backfired in a big way as many online commenters have vowed to boycott her books till the end of time. In South Africa, if you strike a woman you strike a rock, but in America if you strike Meg Cabot, you apparently piss off several million potential book buyers.
Perhaps Jennifer Egan simply has a sincere, principled objection to women’s commercial fiction – she thinks it’s absolute tripe and she’s not afraid to say so. I’m pretty sure this is not the case because Megan McCafferty – the writer most extensively plagiarised by Viswanathan, and therefore the one most targeted by Egan’s remarks – recently tweeted that she has received an apology. Unless you are particularly spineless, you don’t apologise for standing up for your principled beliefs. You apologise for something you sincerely regret and perceive in retrospect to have been wrong.
And if you are even halfway honourable, you make that apology public. I very much hope that, in due course, Egan will do so.