When Language Fails by Rebecca Howard

It happens once a week at choir practice on Wednesday evening.  Reading through a new piece of music will undoubtedly raise the question of whether or not to modify gendered language.  There’s only so much you can do with the words “king,” “father” and “lord” before you’ve made a piece of music entirely absent of lyricism.  Typically, the director will ask how strongly we feel about changing the language and a few eyes will dart to me, wondering what the most vocal resident feminist will suggest.  Typically, we keep traditional language, and that is okay for me and for most people.  Occasionally, though, I’m reminded of what a powerful tool language is in shaping our attitudes and beliefs.  These reminders reaffirm my belief that words do matter.  

Language often fails to accurately describe and classify, and this is particularly the case when it comes to how we talk about fiction. Remember last year when Jonathan Franzen was on the cover of Time, and his novel Freedom was being heralded as single handedly reviving the late great American novel? Remember also the flap made when Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult criticized the New York Times for an over representation of male authors in its book reviews?  Now, Meg Wolitzer is adding her voice to the mix, and she does so beautifully in an article published in the New York Times Book Review titled “The Second Shelf.”  Please read the article, and you will understand why I love the brilliant Meg Wolitzer as much as I do.

I would describe Wolitzer’s writing as literary fiction.  The problem is that those who classify books in order to market and sell them typically don’t.  So, when I look for similar authors for Meg Wolizter, I don’t discover Jonathan Franzen or Jeffrey Eugenides.  Instead, I find other female authors writing about women’s lives and relationships.  Now, I often read and enjoy these types of books, but I wouldn’t call them read-alikes for Wolizter.  It’s a failure of language to call The Wife or The Ten Year Nap women’s fiction. Personally, I’ve thought categorizing something as women’s fiction was a way of describing something that is more literary than “chick-lit.” It’s a category I’ve frequently used myself to help library patrons identify the types of books that they enjoy.  Wolitzer makes this distinction as well by stating that the novels she is referring to are not “a certain type of fast-reading novel, which sets it sights almost exclusively on women readers.”  Instead, she is referring to “literature that happens to be written by women.” 

She opens the article by describing an encounter at a dinner party when a male guest asks her what types of novels she writes.  She responds, “You know, contemporary, I guess . . . Sometimes they are about marriage.  Families. Sex. Desire.  Parents and Children.”  This guest promptly invites his wife over, because she “reads that kind of book.”  Funny, because that’s exactly how I would describe Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.  It’s about marriage, families, sex, desire, parents and children, but for some reason it’s acceptable reading for men and women, not just women.  The same holds true for Jeffrey Eudenides’ The Marriage Plot.  I’ve seen so many men walking around with a copy of this book lately.  I want to suggest Meg Wolitzer to them or Sue Miller, Anne Enright, Anita Brookner, Julia Glass, or any  number of exceptionally talented writers who happen to be women. 

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