Pulitzer Prize Sparks Bogus Literary Catfight

Jennifer Egan just won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad. She is a woman. In an interview, she said some things about other women. Which can only mean one thing: catfight!

Julie Steinberg of the Wall Street Journal interviewed Egan earlier this week, right after her win was announced. Egan said a lot of interesting things, and she also said this:

What I want to see is young, ambitious writers. And there are tons of them. Look at "The Tiger's Wife." There was that scandal with the Harvard student who was found to have plagiarized. But she had plagiarized very derivative, banal stuff. This is your big first move? These are your models?

For those of you who need a refresher, that Harvard student was Kaavya Viswanathan, who "borrowed language" books by young adult and chick lit authors Megan McCafferty, Meg Cabot, and Sophie Kinsella (and also Salman Rushdie!) for her much-vaunted debut novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life. So it does appear that Egan is calling the work of McCafferty, Cabot and Kinsella banal. Time to freak out! Blogger Fiona Snyckers mocks the old stereotype that "male writers have debates, while female writers have cat-fights." But then she asks,

[W]hat would provoke someone to employ a forum that should be all about her to trample on the reputations of her fellow women writers? Is it part of what Debby Edelstein calls PhD syndrome –- Pull Her Down syndrome? This is a learned behaviour on the part of certain women to be unable to resist any opportunity to pull other women down. Is Egan, in short, guilty of a girl-on-girl crime?

Of course, since Egan just name-checked Tea Obreht's The Tiger's Wife (which Snyckers somewhat snidely calls "a folk-taley quest novel that the New York Observer described as bearing an unfortunate whiff of Yore"), it's hard to make the argument that she's "unable to resist any opportunity to pull other women down." Isn't it possible that she just doesn't like certain books that much, and — oops — allowed herself to say so? We do tend to let male writers to have literary tastes without accusing them of "Pull Him Down syndrome." Then again, maybe she's just jealous:

Or is it the age-old jealousy of the literary fiction writer for the phenomenal sales of the commercial fiction writer? If so, it has backfired in a big way as many online commenters have vowed to boycott her books till the end of time.

It's a good thing these commenters are passing along the Egan boycott to their descendants, because there's definitely nothing more important they could be talking about. In all seriousness, I think it's a shame that publishers, marketers, and the press draw such a bright line between literary fiction and chick lit, and that commercial fiction by women is often taken less seriously than comparable commercial fiction by men. I think gender divisions — these books are "for women," these are "for men" — are a problem on both the commercial and the literary side (and the fact that there are two such sides is itself a problem). But none of this should stop an individual writer from having an opinion on which books are banal and which worth reading. It's time for us to quit freaking out and just let female writers have debates, the way male writers do.

Jennifer Egan On Winning The 2011 Pulitzer Prize For Fiction [WSJ Speakeasy Blog]
Click Here For Some Girl-On-Girl Action [Fiona Snyckers]