Meg Wolitzer’s new novel, The Female Persuasion, seems uncannily timely, a prescient marriage of subject and moment that addresses a great question of the day: how feminism passes down, or not, from one generation to the next.
But Wolitzer, who is 58, wanted less to write some sort of State of Feminism novel than to explore ideas that have been marinating in her head for a long time.
“People say, write what you know, but it’s really, write about what obsesses you,” she said. “Write about what you’re thinking about all the time.”
It was a blustery March day and the Upper West Side streets were teeming and heaving in that way peculiar to New York City. But Wolitzer’s apartment, on West End Avenue, was a bookshelf-centric oasis of serenity. A late-middle-aged Havanese dog named Jet sniffed around, then repaired to his position on the bed in the master bedroom. Wolitzer’s husband, the science writer Richard Panek, wandered companionably in and out of the kitchen.
The things Wolitzer thinks about have grown larger over time, it seems, though her books remain driven by multilayered plots and the intricacies of people’s lives. She writes about mothers and children and work (The 10-Year Nap); about women, men, dissatisfaction and desire (The Uncoupling); about what happens when close friends’ lives converge, and diverge, over time (The Interestings). And at a time when our attention is so easily splintered, she writes big, substantial, old-fashioned books that allow her characters room to breathe, change and grow into adulthood and beyond.
“It’s like that commercial, ‘We will serve no wine before its time.’ I don’t want to rush out a book,” she explained.
The Female Persuasion, Wolitzer’s 12th adult novel (she’s also written books for young people) opens when Greer Kadetsky, a college freshman, has a life-changing encounter with Faith Frank, a renowned feminist in her 60s. Faith serves, for most of the story at least, as Greer’s mentor and champion, the sort of person who “sees something in you and makes your life turn in a different way,” Wolitzer said.
Wolitzer herself grew up in the aggressively suburban town of Syosset, Long Island; her mall was the Walt Whitman Mall. (“I don’t want to get too parenthetical, but is there a greater oxymoron?” she said. “Maybe the Edna St Vincent Millay Water Park?”)
Still, her own life has been full of mentors and supporters — inspirational teachers, other writers, older women like Nora Ephron, whose directing debut was an adaptation of Wolitzer’s novel This Is Your Life (which became This Is My Life, for movie purposes).
There is also her mother, writer Hilma Wolitzer, who was that rare creature in the 1970s: a mother who worked. Wolitzer remembers the day some boys at school bought one of Hilma’s novels and taunted her by reading aloud its racy bits.
Although in retrospect, there are worse scenarios.
“I want to live in a world where the mean boys at school go out and buy a literary novel, read it and point out a sex scene,” she said.
As for her mother, she continued: “She was seen as a housewife who became a novelist, as if it was this shocking thing. She wrote often about what was then called ‘the domestic sphere,’ as if what takes place between parents and children is less important than what happens in a boardroom.”
In 2012, Wolitzer wrote The Second Shelf, a provocative essay for the Times Book Review about how women’s fiction is often taken less seriously than men’s.
This is how the essay started: “If The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides, had been written by a woman yet still had the same title and wedding ring on its cover, would it have received a great deal of serious literary attention? Or would this novel (which I loved) have been relegated to ‘Women’s Fiction,’ that close-quartered lower shelf where books emphasising relationships and the interior lives of women are often relegated?”
Wolitzer could plausibly have applied her thesis to The Interestings. The book received lavish praise and was considered a breakthrough in terms of her popularity and reputation as a serious writer. But it’s hard not to think that if it had been written by, say, Eugenides or Jonathan Franzen — any man of a certain kind, in fact — it would have been treated in the same vein as Franzen’s The Corrections or Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, as a kind of meta-commentary about the way we (at least some of us) live now in America.
Given that, was Wolitzer worried about her new title, The Female Persuasion?
“I did it deliberately,” she said. “Though I hope this is a book for everybody.” Maybe, she joked, she should have called it “The Everybody Persuasion.”
Wolitzer started very young. She sold her first story, about a child who enters a box-top cereal contest that requires her to eat a great deal of cereal, to a children’s magazine when she was 11; won a slew of writing competitions; got the same internship at Mademoiselle magazine that Sylvia Plath wrote about in The Bell Jar, and sold her first book while a student, at Brown. (She transferred from Smith after her sophomore year.)
Now she has reached the age when you can vividly remember your youth while also realising you are no longer precocious. But the years are weighing lightly on her. “You don’t want to look at your life like biography: ‘How many novels did she write; in her West Side years she became more ambitious’,” she said. “But when I was young, I had the desire to do a lot, and now I have a desire to do a lot because I’m 58. Work is the anti-death. It’s hard for me to feel bad when I’m writing well.”
Wolitzer is on the writing faculty at Stony Brook Southampton, and occasionally sings with Suzzy Roche, from the folk trio the Roches. But what she really likes to do is to write. She has to work hard not to be distracted by the noise swirling outside in the air, she said.
“Everybody talks about that thing, what’s it called, Freedom?” she said, referring to the app that shuts off access to the internet for a set amount of time. “The danger is that you try to work on a paragraph that you care about, and you take a break and you find yourself in some political hellscape, or you’re looking at a list of the Top 10 colleges. Why? I don’t even have a kid in college now.” (She has two boys in their 20s.)
Wolitzer began The Female Persuasion three years ago. It was a slower time, before #MeToo and the exhilarating, bewildering avalanche of developments in the feminist movement.
“It’s a moment where everything’s just being shaken up, realigning and changing really fast, like in a snow globe,” she said. “There’s such heat around everything, and it’s really hard, at least for me personally, to work in that kind of state.”
She continued: “But as a novelist, I feel lucky that I can traffic in nuance. I’m more interested in looking at how things change over time, at how people try and sometimes fail to make meaning out of their lives.”
Do not rush her. “In this moment of the hot take, I’m the master of the warm take,” she said.
–New York Times News Service