Joyce Hinnefeld


Thursday, September 16, 2010

His Is Longer Than Mine

Lots of fuss about Jonathan Franzen and his new novel lately--all the fawning attention in the mainstream press, questions about why the latest “Great American Novel” is never by a woman, etc. And of course as soon as those kinds of questions started being raised, the backlash kicked in--asking, in essence, why women can’t just get over it already. (To Franzen’s credit, he’s apparently agreed that these questions need to be asked.)

I thought Meghan O’Rourke’s recent piece at was really reasonable and calm in its exploration of unconscious sexism. Surely nothing to object to there, I thought. And then I read some of the Comments (something I know I really shouldn’t do.)

So maybe it really is time we stopped tagging people as “women writers” or “ethnic writers” or “multicultural writers” or what have you, and just started calling people “writers.” But have the issues and struggles that led to the culture wars, and the necessity of labels and categories like those, really gone away? African-American writers, particularly African-American women writers, felt some understandable frustration when they saw the effusive public embrace of white (woman) writer Katherine Stockett’s novel The Help, about African-American domestic workers in the 1960’s American South, recently (see Bernice McFadden’s Washington Post piece about this). They’ve been writing books about characters like these for a while now. But somehow Steven Spielberg never came knocking.

I’ve had worries of my own about publishing a novel about, among other things, the lives of African-American characters in Kentucky in the first half of the twentieth century. But that’s a topic for another day. For now, could I just vent a bit about some things that keep nagging at me, about being a woman writer?

Years ago, a friend of mine, a female writer who shall remain unnamed, asked a now very well-known male writer--who shall also remain unnamed (though you might want to try to guess)--for a recommendation letter. She’d met him at a writers’ colony, and she was applying for something else—I think maybe a teaching job. She saw his letter eventually, and discovered that while he’d spoken fondly of her and her work, he’d also said that he saw her as someone who would eventually produce more, and more significant, work—once the demands of being a wife and mother weren’t taking up so much of her time.

Is it me, or is there a kind of macho athleticism at work when male writers publish 500-page tomes (ones that might have been edited to, say, 350 or 400 pages and perhaps been better for it)? A kind of flexing of the muscles? A kind of declaration that there’s time for work of this length and complexity in this writer’s life, because, well, this—the work—is what always comes first?

By the way, I make an exception here for David Mitchell’s 500-plus pages in Cloud Atlas. I savored every one of those 500-plus pages, and I felt each one needed to be there for the playful, postmodern, acrobatic—but also deeply serious and deeply humane—stories he tells in that novel to succeed as potently as they do. Obviously I'm not trying to make grand claims here, about all long novels, or all male novelists, or even all men. (Yes, Jim: I know you cooked dinner three nights ago, and I remain grateful.)

And while I’m venting: Am I right in suspecting that male novelists don’t get asked “How much of this really happened to you?” nearly as frequently as female novelists do? It’s always one of the first questions I get, at readings or when I talk with book groups who’ve read my book In Hovering Flight. That’s okay; I don’t mind this question actually—but I just can’t picture male writers being asked the same thing right off the bat. (I spoke with writer Ginger Strand about this recently, and I was pleased to learn about a piece she published a few years ago in Poets and Writers, about this very thing.)

Maybe I can’t picture the question being posed because I can't picture too many male novelists talking with book groups? Which of course are mostly made up of women. And which were largely responsible for the success of Katherine Stocket’s The Help . . . . And now I’m making myself dizzy, and also bringing myself around to all these questions about commercial success and domestic novels about families vs. novels that attend to the wider world, and so on, and the many particulars of all the Franzen mania lately. Which I was hoping to avoid here. Because, frankly, I don’t have time to think all of this through right now . . . .

Better just to say I’m a writer maybe. A busy one, with a young child, a husband, a teaching job. My books aren’t real long. Hardly any of it really happened to me. But almost all of it has roots in my personal emotional history. I’d love to go into more detail, but I’ve got about 50 more things to do before I go pick my daughter up at school in an hour.

And of course this blog post is already way too long.

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