Critical Mass

What Would Philip Roth Do?


What would Philip Roth do?

This question, Ann Patchett said this week, is the running joke between her and her agent, as the writer sorts through the fluff of requests she receives now that she’s a sought-after celebrity author. Roth, it was implied, is too big and fine to suffer fools or silly solicitations gladly. So he offers a measuring stick for Patchett, whose fame has leaped precipitously since the release of her prize-winning novel Bel Canto in 2001.

Yet, oddly enough, Patchett didn’t catch the irony of this observation as she shared the stage with fellow writer Elizabeth Gilbert at the Portland (OR) Arts & Lectures series. Here were she and Gilbert, two women writers I have long admired, chatting in front of hundreds of people like two girls at a slumber party. Longtime correspondents by mail, they owned up to their real reason for coming to Portland, which was so the two of them could spend time together. They went to yoga! They had lunch! They shopped! After offering this glimpse of their day, Britney and JLo—I mean, Ann and Liz—proceeded to talk about their lives with the once-over-lightly gloss that affected parts of Gilbert’s phenomenal bestseller Eat, Pray, Love. Their verbal badminton was big on self-deprecation, but that hardly obscured the smugness in the air.

What would Philip Roth do, indeed. For women writers who think they still aren’t taken as seriously as the men in their field, here was Exhibit A for why that might occur: a coupla chicks sitting around talking while an audience pays $26.50 a seat to hear them indulge in a bout of self- and mutual admiration. For all the chat-festiness of Oprah, it’s hard to envision the TV super-goddess engaging her old bud Toni Morrison like this. Morrison would flick off such public familiarity as easily as she would a bad sentence.

Maybe the Gilbert-Patchett patter was especially galling because the status of women writers has been in my mind lately. I had breakfast in New York last month with one of my favorite novelists, Jayne Anne Phillips, then met in February with a promising new writer, Lauren Groff. Phillips lamented that, between raising two sons and running the writing program at Rutgers, each of her five novels has been spaced wide—too wide to suit the avaricious machinery of publishing. As for Groff, her husband and new baby Beckett were in tow when she hit Portland as part of a West Coast promotional tour for her new short story collection Delicate Edible Birds.

“Two books and a baby in one year!” she said. “I’m tired.”

When I noted that Groff’s first novel, The Monsters of Templeton, was a finalist for the Orange Prize for New Writers, she pointed out that the Orange Prize is specifically for women, and that sent us off on a riff about the gender gap in literature. Typically, she observed with a certain poetic license, awards go to fiction that is written from the point of view of a man, concerns war, and has very short sentences—Hemingwayesque, as it were. In Groff’s view, this means women will automatically get the short stick in terms of their literary stature. Stature is a hard thing to measure, of course. But consider John Updike and the prominence of his obituary in print and on television when he died. Clearly, Updike was a big gun of the written word to anyone who was halfway paying attention. Would any woman wordsmith (Morrison? Didion?) merit equal media firepower?

This seems a given: The bass voice still has more resonance than the soprano, metaphorically speaking. It’s our conditioning, stupid, to borrow a phrase—which doesn’t mean this shouldn’t change, only that it is ridiculous not to acknowledge our own internally wired biases even while trying to overcome them. But there are other reasons, too, and Groff’s mention of subject matter may have something to do with it: Fiction that deals with the big topics of the day, not the domestic sphere, is more readily imbued with the gravitas of great literature—pace War and Peace, not to mention Don DeLillo. Sometimes the formula works, just not always.

Another factor working against women writers is the distractions. If you don’t believe the surveys, trust your lying eyes: Women still handle the bulk of the job of raising children, not to mention caring for spouses, parents, and friends. They do more housework. The mundane (in other words, all the daily stuff that makes the world go ‘round) is their metier, which is probably why they write about it so well—and fail to produce not only the kind of writing but also the volume that might transform them from wordsmith into literary lion. (Notice the male form.)

Joyce Carol Oates is, was, and shall always be the notable exception to this rule, but that’s the point—what a marvel she is, and how her example supports another critical leg of the stool, the dignity that props up a writer’s (or anyone’s) stature. I’m reminded of Oates’s appearance more than a decade ago at Portland Arts & Lectures. Like the professor she is (in the time she creates from thin air, apparently), Oates gave a prepared talk on the state of contemporary writing. Unlike Patchett and Gilbert, who sat with feet tucked underneath them in two oversized upholstered chairs, she stood at a lectern. In short, she exuded competence and demanded respect. She served herself and the cause of literature.