Dick Lit 101: Men Who Write Bestselling Literary Fiction and Why We Hate Them
by Ella Boureau
Is success a problem? What about when white men succeed at the expense of women in a white male dominated field? A number of women writers have publicized their anger at the prized reception that Jeffrey Eugenides’ Marriage Plot has received in print. However, the title of an interview the author gave with Salon.com, “I don’t know Why Jodi Picoult is Belly-aching”, makes it clear that Eugenides believes the evidence stacking against him amounts to nothing more than entitled griping. Well, allow me to add another gripe to the growing list on the thorny matter of white male success in literary fiction in general, and with The Marriage Plot in particular. What makes the wily sexism around The Marriage Plot so difficult to pinpoint is that it is happening on all levels, and all of these levels involve a process of erasure. While some have used this book to call out sexism in the publishing industry, or to say that The Marriage Plot’s heroine is not believable as a human being, none have linked these criticisms together. I believe the supremacy ideology going on, both in the novel and the way the novel has been received, is linked to the erasure of radical feminist texts from public discourse. Jeffrey Eugenides wrote a book that is part post-modern deconstruction and part Victorian romance. The body of feminist work that exists in this crosshair has been enormously influential, but in the Marriage Plot (a term coined by feminist scholars), there is only a strained silence. Why does Eugenides feel he does not have to seriously engage feminist thought while taking on a subject that is so deep in feminist territory? It’s like running for mayor of a town and mounting a campaign where you don’t have to know who your constituents are, what they believe, or convince them to vote for you. What’s disturbing in this case, of course, is that Eugenides does win his campaign. He rips off and distorts original material so that it fits within a deeply cynical framework and is rewarded for being “exciting” and “new”. I’m arguing that the author’s glaring omission of feminist critical analysis in his novel is inextricably linked to radical feminist texts being considered so marginal that they don’t explicitly make it into the very novels upon which they have had so much influence. I also want to look at how this process of idea-laundering contributes to nostalgia-based marketing and the dumbing down of American literary culture. You know, just a couple of small bones to pick.
So,how relevant is feminist criticism to Eugenides’ novel, really? Let’s begin with a quick plot summary. The place is Eugenides’ alma mater, Brown University (incidentally, home of the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center, established in 1974). The decade is the 1980s. The three main characters in the novel are Leonard, a brilliant but mentally ill budding scientist; Mitchell, a brilliant but shy budding theologian; and Madeleine, the woman in love with Leonard, and vindictively toying with Mitchell’s affections. Oh yeah, and she’s kind of a Victorian scholar. Or something. Madeleine marries Leonard, who, through his haze of mental illness, realizes that her love and loyalty to him are ruining her life and so he “sets her free”. Then she dates Mitchell, who miraculously has the same epiphany. This is a love triangle Wuthering Heights style. The contemporary twist is supposed to be that, since this is the ’80s, men are sensitive and PC now and that means Madeleine’s lovers are more than happy to free her from the feminine bonds of marital love, saving her from the classic Victorian tragedy of an unhappy marriage, illness or death. This gross misrepresentation of second wave feminism’s effect on the stories we tell about marriage, love and self-transformation through the pursuit of knowledge is just begging for a break down.
The psychology of the demure and confused Madeleine Hanna is archetypal, and can be easily placed in a context of feminist analysis. Elaine Showalter’s 1974 classic A Literature of Our Own anatomizes an arc of women’s literature into three categories, the most relevant to this essay being “The Feminine Phase”, in which she theorizes that the female writers of the Victorian period present the dilemma that emerges when women of marriageable age vascillate between obedience and resistance as they try to fit themselves into the roles laid out for them. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic describes the “duplicitous voice” common to Victorian heroines, again identifying the impossible need to both conform to and subvert what is expected of them, and how this imposed doublethink can push a woman to actual insanity. The deconstructions of Gubar, Gilbert and Showalter are relevant to Eugenides’ heroine. They were the first to accurately pinpoint the kind of inner turmoil that Madeleine supposedly feels as she vascillates between her two men, hot and cold. However, in The Marriage Plot, we never get to really examine this female ambivalence, the feminine phase, the duplicitous voice, that Madeleine shares with the heroines who came before her and which Showalter, Gubar and Gilbert have diagnosed like a syndrome. It is apparent that, though Eugenides is aware this sort of woman exists both in life and in fiction, he doesn’t really care to do more than trivially skate over what a woman like her would struggle with, and the character of Madeleine remains thin as the paper she is written on.
While the above texts are important to note, Eugenides lifts his ideas from nowhere more directly than New York Radical Feminist veteran Vivian Gornick’s 1997 book of essays The End of the Novel of Love. Her thorough and biting analysis chews through the kind of sentimentalism that The Marriage Plot clings so dearly to, yet weirdly tries to think its way out of and half-heartedly denounces. It becomes apparent in Gornick’s conclusion of her title essay that Eugenides’ entire idea for his 400 page behemoth had already been succinctly analyzed fifteen years prior in the space of twelve pages:
Put romantic love at the center of a novel today and who could be persuaded that in its pursuit the characters are going to get to something large? That love is going to throw them up against themselves in such a way that we will all learn something important about how we got to be as we are, or how the time in which we live got to be as it is. No one, it seems to me. Today, I think, love as a metaphor is an act of nostalgia, not of discovery.
This statement echoes with tinny distortion throughout The Marriage Plot, especially in this, what Eugenides considers to be the novel’s most crucial sentence: “Madeleine’s love troubles had begun when the French theory she was reading deconstructed the very notion of love.” What actual questions Madeleine has about love are apparently irrelevant because there is nary a hint of intellectual wrestling in her character. This is what happens when you take a bold, whip-smart and original thinker such as Gornick, and funnel her through the multi-leveled steps of erasure. You get work that is derivative. Dull, insulting and insidious in its willful ignorance, it gets everything ass-backwards.
I’m aware that the kind of writing Eugenides and Gornick do is different. Literary theory is not fiction. It was not I, but Eugenides, who yoked these different forms together so haphazardly, when he decided to write a meta-novel, a self described “lament to marriage.” The writing, because it has no solid foundational understanding of what it’s talking about, has no spark and feels markedly inorganic, forced. This is what leads to awkwardly self-referential passages like the novel’s final paragraph:
‘From the books you read for your thesis, and for your article… was there any novel where the heroine gets married to the wrong guy and then realizes it, and then her other suitor shows up, some guy who’s always been in love with her, and then they get together, but finally the second suitor realizes that the last thing the woman needs is to get married again, that she’s got more important things to do with her life? And so finally the guy doesn’t propose at all, even though he still loves her? Is there any book that ends like that?’
‘No’ Madeleine said. ‘I don’t think there’s one like that.’
‘But don’t you think that would be good? As an ending?’… and Madeleine kept squinting until finally, smiling gratefully, she answered,
Though technically the ending is supposed to mark some kind of sea change of where relations between men and women have been and where they’re going, I feel as though I’m chewing on a stale bagel as I read. This is the magical revelation? What all those hours of page-turning amount to? All the hype for this Pulitzer Prize winning, Times Square billboard modeling, New York Times best-selling, Salinger-like voice of a generation and it turns out he’s trying to sell me some sort of trickle-down, 40 years too late, mansplained, mealy-mouthed lip service on the importance of de-sexualized female emancipation? And I’m to shudder and swoon at the contemporary tragedy of it all? Well, shit Jeffrey. What a waste of time.
Here again, Gornick’s analysis in her essay “Tender-hearted Men” is useful, as it exposes, dissects and classifies Eugenides’ peculiar inability to divorce himself from nostalgia as nothing more than a tired brand of male middle-brow writing, a kind of writing I’m calling Dick Lit:
At the heart of their work lies a keen regret that things are no longer as they once were between men and women, a regret so intense that it amounts to longing… But from where I stand, the hard reality is this: that question about why things are not as they once were has got to be asked honestly, not rhetorically, [otherwise] the work is sentimental.
How is it that though Eugenides has written a book that would be impossible to conceive of without feminist thought, he does nothing but deny and belittle it? Part of the problem can be teased out in a seemingly throw-away comment Eugenides made in the Salon interview: “People asked me, ‘Did you have to do research for the books that the [characters in the Marriage Plot are] reading?’ And I didn’t, because… the ones that are still bright are the ones that I used. I had to look back at them sometimes, but I knew the ones I wanted.” Here, I understand something I hadn’t before about why the Marriage Plot pissed me off. Eugenides’ writing blunders into “controversial” territories so wantonly and irresponsibly because he has not performed the basic writing practice of gaining enough background information to create a feeling of verisimilitude in his characters’ lives, both interior and exterior. He writes with the attitude of a cherry-picking dilettante as he references texts he vaguely remembers from his college days and decides that they must be the biggest influences in the way we now think about marriage and love.
This problem of authorial oversight becomes more sinister when we consider that The Marriage Plot has sold over 3 million copies and is one of Macmillan’s ‘Topsellers’. There’s also a film adaptation in the works, so it’s not over people, get ready for The Marriage Plot in every multi-plex in America! Technically, this would make Eugenides’ work “commercial”. However, The Marriage Plot was also successful in its bid to be taken seriously by the critics because it has all the trappings of intellectualism, though without any of the insight. Like The End of the Novel of Love, Eugenides’ novel was a National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist, and was named best book of 2011 according to Publisher’s Weekly, New York Times Book Review, NPR, Salon, and The New Republic, among others. Mostly glowing book reviews and interviews appeared in these same publications. Just last week, an interviewer from the New York Times Sunday Book Review asked Eugenides: “What is the best marriage plot novel ever?” Now, the fact that Sammy Superlatives from the New York Times asks the question this way and not “What is your favorite marriage plot novel?” or “What Victorian novel had the biggest influence on The Marriage Plot?” is significant. It helps establish Eugenides as an authority on a subject that he readily admits to not having researched and further cements his place as Big Man on Campus. If that weren’t enough, this philistine-in-intellectual’s-clothing has also been asked to write the introduction to an Edith Wharton anthology to be published by Penguin Classics. Why was Eugenides asked to write this introduction rather than Gornick?
I find this to be a huge problem. It’s a problem when authors of Dick Lit are granted access to the most powerful intellectual media in the country and are not held accountable for the narratives that they misappropriate. Is this Eugenides’ fault? No. It is a larger systemic issue that he benefits from directly. However, Eugenides can and should be pressured publicly to answer why, when he thinks himself so high-minded in terms of literature and ideas, he can be so irresponsible when it comes to researching a field that gave birth to the very topic upon which his entire novel is predicated. It begs the question: What was he doing those 9 years it took him to write this? The Marriage Plot, which has done well enough to bridge intellectual institutions and mainstream culture, can also be used to point out how we, the public, get stuck having surface debates about the themes the Marriage Plot raises. We get stuck in amateurism because he has framed the way these young undergraduates are blown open to ideas about love, marriage, and how life imitates art, amateurishly.
It could be argued that amateur or not, The Marriage Plot at least gets us talking about these issues, which can only open the door to more exciting and complex public debate on the subject, but The Marriage Plot provides no points of entry for someone unfamiliar with the more sophisticated works to think critically. The texts that get referenced are scattered and provide no feeling of location or sustained engagement. They are gestural. This gestural referencing creates a gap where there wasn’t one before. Where women once battled so hard to have their names inscribed in ink, there is now a white space. Has there been any mention of The End of the Novel of Love in reviews or interviews? Any kind of allusion to, let alone in-depth discussion of, American post-modern writers whose work grapples deeply with these very themes, such as Jean Rhys, Angela Carter, Rebecca Solnit, or Victoria Patterson? No, The Marriage Plot presents itself as unconnected to any contemporary literary tradition. How could it not, when it is so unaware of the traditions it sits on? The book begins and ends with itself and this, combined with its mega-hit status, actively reduces the visibility of the work that made The Marriage Plot possible.
Finally, why does calling out this amateurism matter? Well, I care about the various false feminist narratives that abound in the mainstream because it is these very fallacies that prevented me from engaging with feminism in the first place. The real-world damaging effects of erasure on the human imagination have made their imprint in me. If it hadn’t been for the exceptional Ann Snitow, a professor I had at The New School who schooled me gently but persistently that we actually have to look at and understand this body of literature if we want to grasp how we got where we are today, I wouldn’t have touched feminism with a ten foot pole and my thin ideas would never have begun to prism. I can recognize the mindset of The Marriage Plot as narrow, sexist bullshit posing as erudite universalism because its narrowness is the same narrowness that I corseted myself with in order not to appear suspect or lopsided, but instead rational, all-knowing and above partiality. My own thinking and the logic of The Marriage Plot are borne of the same perversity. I know its contours intimately, and exactly how far one can push the bounds of the imagination within it. The danger of erasing radical texts, of distorting their ideas beyond recognition so that the people who need them most won’t go near them, is, I believe, one of the most pernicious forces in our culture today. Eugenides’ Marriage Plot is a frozen country where I once lived and suspect many of us still live: where we respond to the hyper-self-aware voice because it seems devoid of human fallibility; where we consume a dispassionate rhetoric of freedom that cannot thaw our bodies. In this country, we have no language and are rendered incapable of answering to our own names.