Jennifer Egan, Why’d You Do That?

Book Cover I noticed yesterday that Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer, and I thought, “Oh, a female author won this year? That’s rather awesome. ”

Then came this link to despairing Egan fan Jamie Beckman’s dismay at a Wall Street Journal interview with Egan in which she says:

Over the past year, there’s been a debate about female and male writers and how they come off in the press. Franzen made clear that “Freedom” was going to be important, while others say that Allegra Goodman was too quiet about “The Cookbook Collector.” Do you think female writers have to start proclaiming, “OK, my book is going to be the book of the century”?
Anyone can say anything, that’s easy. My focus is less on the need for women to trumpet their own achievements than to shoot high and achieve a lot. 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?

I’m not saying you should say you’ve never done anything good, but I don’t go around saying I’ve written the book of the century. My advice for young female writers would be to shoot high and not cower.
(Emphasis mine)

To quote Beckman, When she says “the Harvard student,” she’s referring to Kaavya Viswanathan, a very young novelist whose first young-adult work of fiction, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, plagiarized veteran chick lit authors Sophie Kinsella, Meg Cabot, and Megan McCafferty. The book was pulled from the shelves by publisher Little Brown and Company, and Viswanathan’s contract for a second book was canceled. It was ugly.

But Egan’s disgust isn’t about the plagiarism — it’s that Viswanathan wanted to write chick lit. Judging by the quote, Egan thinks chick lit is “derivative,” “banal,” and not shooting “high.”

Cue an opportunity to yet again defend chick lit and YA literature, explain yet again that quality exists in every genre, including the ones for which Egan doesn’t seem to have much respect, and give examples of how the books dismissed by Egan as “banal” and “derivative” were written by the likes of Meg Cabot and Megan McCafferty, writers who, as Beckman pointed out so aptly, were pioneers of their genres.

 

We’ve done that here over and over – I do it regularly on behalf of romance in general. Hell, I even did it yesterday at the bank when the teller noted the “business name” on my account and asked what “Smart Bitches” do with “Trashy Books.” My answer: “We read them – can I recommend a book for you to read?” – because personalized recommendations for good books can almost always make a sizable dent in prejudice about the romance.

So yeah, Egan gave me a massive sad and a rampant desire to get her a ladder so she can get the hell over herself already (though with a Pulitzer backing up her dismissive comments, that might prove to be a challenge. Those things are heavy).

What’s most exhausting and frankly banal about Egan’s response is that the question itself was a good one: a woman’s statements about her own accomplishments can be a troublesome topic. Many people struggle with how to state their own achievements in social media alone. Hell, I have a hard time figuring out when and how to talk about how excited I am about the book I have coming out in October, and how proud I am of it. Yeah. I’m already wondering if I should edit that.

But therein lies a struggle for many women. There is absolutely nothing wrong with saying that you did something awesome – except Egan immediately frames any statement about accomplishment with an accompanying comparison to other writers who haven’t aimed as high and done as well in her opinion. Ambition is good, but be careful what kind of books you want to write with that ambition. It’s fine so long as you’re not plagiarizing books that aren’t banal tripe in the eyes of Egan. Egan elevates herself by denigrating someone else – in this case a whole host of other female writers of considerable accomplishment.

Also: plagiarism is an acceptable demonstration of ambition? REALLY? 

Egan said, “What I want to see is young, ambitious writers.”

Yeah? What I want to see is young, ambitious writers in any venue who can comment upon their own accomplishments without establishing a pecking order of status and quality. “I did something great” does not need to be followed by “and it’s better than hers.”

You don’t need “better than” to create your awesomesauce. What a waste and an insult to answer what was actually a very thought provoking question.

ETA: Seems this is not the first time Egan has taken a slap at what Viswanathan plagiarized. Susanna Kearsley, who can type very fast, it seems, was researching this topic and provided me with a transcript of this interview from NPR in 2006 in which Egan says the following:

Interviewer: Why do people have to be focused or herded into a genre? What do you think about that?

JE: I think there’s something to that, I mean one thing that I found really disturbing about this whole scandal involving plagiarism for the novel by the very young novelist, Kaavya Viswanathan, How Opal [Mehta] Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life. There was a lot of debate about whether she had really plagiarized, whether it was intentional or unintentional, but what I took away from that story more than anything was, here’s a really smart, 17-year old girl who wants to write a novel, and what does she do? She reads a lot of other novels that I think anyone would agree are pretty derivative, I mean the material that she was plagiarizing did not, there was not a lot of originality there to begin with. She recycles all of this either knowingly or unknowingly, and then with a book packager, packages this novel. And that’s not really my ideal of what a young, smart woman who wants to write a novel goes and does, and that that’s what writing a book meant to her, I find a little disappointing.

Here’s the link to the entire interview (Egan shows up at around 12:30): http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6160671

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Ranty McRant

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  1. 1
    SAM I Was, SAH I Am now.. says:

    “My focus is less on the need for women to trumpet their own achievements than to shoot high and achieve a lot.”

    I see absolutely nothing wrong with taken pride and being proud of accomplishments, regardless of what was accomplished. ( You should see me when I don’t burn the biscuits!)
    I feel that she is saying that while we should secretly hope for these things, we shouldn’t express them but rather, let others do it for us. As her wining the Pulitzer, she now has ‘conformation’ that she’s written a good book. I say screw that. Who wants to read a book that the author doesn’t think it will be book of the century? I sure don’t.
    I don’t even like to be around people who don’t show enjoyment out of their doings.

    I say shout it from the rooftops if you do something you think rocks. The world needs to hear more good in it day.

  2. 2
    Silver James says:

    What I want to see is young, ambitious writers.

    Oh? What about us old broads who are ambitious writers? We may be wrinkled and gray-haired, but we bring a wealth of knowledge, living, and experience to the words we chose to share.

    *shakes cane* Get offa my lawn, you whippersnappers!

    Okay. In all seriousness? The one thing I have discovered about the romance community is that so many are so supportive. NYT best-selling authors cheer on debut writers. And vice versa. There is a teasing and friendly atmosphere and a real sense of wanting to help. Every time a romance book does well, the whole community wins and that’s very much the vibe I get when I hang out with the amazing authors who write this

    …very derivative, banal stuff. This is your big first move? These are your models?

    Ms. Egan? YES! Those are my models and I admire them like damn and whoah. So there. *Pbthhhhh*

  3. 3
    Karenmc says:

    Ms. Egan’s comment reminds me of the recent BBC kerfuffle about their Night of Books. The perception is that the program was condescending to genre authors, so much so that eighty-five authors, mostly of crime and sci-fi presented a letter of protest to the General Director of the BBC.

    great55: I could come up with a list of fifty-five great genre authors in no time at all.

  4. 4

    The whole comment from Egan is troubling but it seriously bothers me that she appeared not to mind the act of plagiarism at all. Hmm. She just went on my do not buy list.

  5. 5
    Emily says:

    The question originally raised brings out the feminist in me. Men are not nearly so Modest. Men do not need to hide their accomplishments. It seems like a women thing. Women seem to have trouble talking about their achievements; particularly when they are huge. The bigger the achievement;
    the harder it is to talk about.
    I once saw a story on Havard Business School female students and graduates. These women had trouble telling people because it sounded intimidating. (Not to mention at least one told her dates; she was a stewardess!)
    Women can brag about small acheivements. For example:
    I bought a cute sheaf dress I can wear to job interviews and parties etc., and it was on clearance so I paid $20 bucks and I am so proud. Biggest accomplishment of my week.
    On the other had, Jennifer Egan complaining about genre is so not cool. Her books do not seem to be realistic. Why is one fantasy better than another?

  6. 6
    Ceilidh says:

    Ugh, I was so rooting for Egan to win, especially since I imagine it would have made Jonathan Franzen throw a hissy fit, but her genre snobbery and just snobbery in general bug me so much. Not every book aims to be a Pulitzer winner but that doesn’t make it somehow lesser. But at least she’s taught us all a valuable lesson – plagiarism is bad when you do it from something unworthy of Egan’s egotistical attention! To give Egan some credit, she did apologise to McCafferty for the comments so she nipped this one in the bud quickly. I’m still waiting on an apology from Martin Amis over his BS statements about children’s literature.

  7. 7
    Erin Satie says:

    You know, the thing that bums me out most here is…I read THE TIGER’S WIFE and it’s not that great.  How sad that she says, “Aim high!” and then names a book I’d slot at a fairly low altitude.

  8. 8
    Kate Hewitt says:

    That gives me a sad too. It was just so unnecessary in the context of the question and her answer. Why not be positive and encouraging of what women are accomplishing across the genres?

  9. 9
    Jody W. says:

    Accomplishments only count when the cool kids make them.

  10. 10
    Diva says:

    If the seemingly-uppity Ms. Egan were to someday say that *I* were as derivative and banal as a Cabot or a McCafferty, I would be kissing her right on the mouth for that flattery. Because those women are so talented and their characters so strong, vivid and relatable that what she intends as a belittling pejorative is, by far, a heady compliment in my eyes.

    Of course I’m insufficiently erudite to appreciate her rarefied qualities.

    I’ll take Cabot and McCafferty any day of the week and twice on Sundays please.

    I’m for celebrating all types of creative venture among women and honoring the skill and talent that generate so much quality work across the genres. Boo to snobbery!

  11. 11
    Lori says:

    Ugh, I was so rooting for Egan to win, especially since I imagine it would have made Jonathan Franzen throw a hissy fit, but her genre snobbery and just snobbery in general bug me so much.

    The thing is that Frazen is also a complete tool so if it’s between him and Egan I don’t think there’s really a rootable choice based on personality.

    Egan’s statements really are an unfortunate festival of fail though. It’s so rare for a female writer to be taken seriously this way that I just hate to see her blow her moment in the spotlight by belittling others and by acting as if plagiarism is fine as long as one steals from the good stuff. Egan has definitely earned the combo heavy sigh + eye roll on this one.

  12. 12

    I’m not sure Ms. Egan was making a blanket statement about chick lit—perhaps she was not a fan of those plagiarized. And I don’t know if she’s ‘trashing’ more than stating an opinion and/or making a point. What is the beauty of books/writing if not the discussion of them?

  13. 13
    KG says:

    This is sadness. Not even a week of her win, and this has turned into an ugly scene of tearing Ms. Egan down. Wow. Instead of celebrating a female Pulitzer Prize winner, we have to bring her down a notch because she dared express her opinion that certain books are banal and derivative to her? I happen to agree with that stance, and I know I’m far from being alone. She has an opinion, big deal.  Before I get the snobbery accusations, I just do not like the chick-lit genre. I devour romances and paranormal genre, but I tend to find chick-lit tiresome.

    I expected so much more from this blog.

  14. 14
    Kate Hewitt says:

    But she didn’t say they were banal and derivative to her. She said they were banal and derivative, period. And what I am disappointed in is the fact that in the middle of her own victory and celebration, she has to tear someone else down, even if it’s only by implication. Why do that? Why not be positive? I’m not saying she stinks, or her books stink, or anything like that. But what she said about other women writers? That stinks.

  15. 15

    @KG if it had merely been that she expressed her own personal dislike for that genre, I might have understood, but to imply those authors are good enough to serve as role models for up and coming writers and worse to imply that they aren’t even good enough to be plagiarized but the plagiarism might have been otherwise acceptable makes her seem small minded at best.

  16. 16
    KG says:

    She made the comment, so unless I’m mistaken, her opinion is hers alone. I won’t be so bold as to assume she’s egotistical enough to believe her word is the universal truth. When someone interviews you, it’s for your opinion. I find it ridiculous people are already focusing on her voicing an unpopular opinion rather than her merits in winning the award.

    Harsh world for woman writers. You make an opinion, and you get raked over coals for it. So solidarity only exists if you make positive opinions.

  17. 17
    KG says:

    @jocelynnesimone

    The fact is, she’s expressing her opinion. It’s like saying she can’t and shouldn’t say she thinks some authors are rank higher in her personal scale than others when there is a difference even as we readers discuss books within our circle. Yes, I see a difference between A.S. Byatt and for argument’s sake, Meg Cabot. And yes, I’d rather see more people emulating Sylvia Plath than Sophie Kinsella. Do not tell me there aren’t people tearing down books even within this site, within the genre. Not all authors are loved equally by everyone.

    She gave her opinion, maybe unpopular, but hers nonetheless.

  18. 18
    Emily says:

    Two things first:

    And yes, I’d rather see more people emulating Sylvia Plath than Sophie Kinsella.

    Sylvia Plath killed herself.  Thats a problem for me. I would rather people not follow in her footsteps.I understand when it comes to Sshopaholic.But I might rather be a romace writer than serious fiction. They seem to be happier.
    In general it still demeaning and plagarism is not ambitious.
    Still Egan says she was inspired by the Sopranos. I Love television, but does anyone else think its ironic (to say the least) to make quips about pedigree while basing a book off a tv show.
    Also how is Egan like Sylvia Plath. The Bell jar is a story about something close to life. Goon Squad is fantasy inspired by tv. I’ll say it again. What makes one fantasy (literature ) better than another (romance)?

  19. 19
    Liz says:

    The dissing of chick lit just seems like an unnecessary non-sequitur here.  Why did she go there? 

    The irony of this comment is that Kaavya Viswanathan was nothing if not ambitious.

  20. 20
    KG says:

    @Emily

    First off, by emulating, I obviously do not mean her life choices, but her writing style. Sylvia Plath is but one of the many well-known writers who committed suicide – Hemmingway comes to mind – but that is neither here nor there. The entire discussion was impersonal, it’s not a ‘diss’ on writers – the separation of work and the person. If there’s no delineation, this discussion becomes pointless and redundant.  Notice the insertion of authors was first mentioned by the blog and us, the readers? Where in the interview did Egan specifically mention authors?

    Secondly, to me, there’s a difference between literary works (hi brow) and popular fiction (low brow), but forgive me, I am not qualified or erudite enough to expound on the topic. I don’t recall much beyond Holoquist.

  21. 21
    Ron Hogan says:

    As somebody who was looking forward to reading A Visit from the Goon Squad, and is STILL looking forward to it because I think Jennifer Egan is a fantastic writer, I am disappointed that she denigrated the work of other writers whose books I have enjoyed, whose work I do not consider “derivative” or “banal.” It doesn’t cause me to appreciate Jennifer Egan’s fiction any less than I did before; it just makes me sad in the same way it’s sad when two friends both of whom you really like just don’t get along with each other.

    Look, obviously it’s naive to suggest that creative writing isn’t a competition, at least once we’re talking about the publication phase, but Sarah has it exactly right: It’s hard enough for (women) writers to be out and proud about their accomplishments without other writers jumping in to declare that what they’ve accomplished isn’t worth talking about.

  22. 22
    --E says:

    I think we should get Ms. Egan together in a room with Ms. Bellafonte, the TV reviewer at the NYTimes who recently managed to insult all female fans of the Epic Fantasy genre. Those two would probably have a grand time together.

  23. 23
    Emily says:

    It seems to me that it’s actually a bit condescending to Cabot, Kinsella et al to decree that their talent isn’t up to a bit of dismissive criticism.  Literary history is FULL of writers mis-judging each others’ talents.  Virginia Woolf thought James Joyce and Henry James were both rubbish, for example.  Nabokov dismissed Woolf’s work, and that of Katherine Mansfield.  (In both cases the critiques were MUCH more pointed and scathing than Egan’s.)  None of this means that Woolf, Mansfield, Joyce or James haven’t stood the test of time or are less beloved by readers. 

    I get that women are less reviewed, less read, less published—and that all of this requires combating in some way.  But if books are important to talk about, it’s equally important to give one’s honest opinion, and be okay with disagreement.  Egan apparently thinks the particular work plagiarized by Viswanathan is banal and derivative.  Isn’t that opinion her prerogative?  The idea that all women writers should remain positive about the work of all other female writers is disquieting to me (a woman), and contradicts my desire to take all writers, of any gender, equally seriously—including criticisms of banality where appropriate.

  24. 24
    Pam says:

    We did some user testing at Yahoo once with resumes for the tech field. We found that most of the women who sent in resumes were just as qualified or even MORE qualified than the men who sent in resumes and you just couldn’t tell because women have the tendency to downplay their achievements. Ever since that day I absolutely have not done that. My resume is online in all it’s glory and given the chance I will wax poetic about my awesomeness or the lack there of I know what I am good at and what I need to improve on. Not once has anyone looked at me funny or thought I was an opportunistic bitch. We need to learn to sing our praises,and women need to stop being so hard on other women.

  25. 25
    Julie Brannagh says:

    The greatest compliment I have had in my life as a writer (hell, my life, period,) was a contest judge that wrote in the comments, “Move over, Jennifer Weiner!” Any comparison to the work of an author whose books I have loved is beyond wonderful to me.

    It takes just as much blood, sweat, tears and craft to come up with a book shelved in the “romance” section of the bookstore as it did for those shelved in “literature”. Those who denigrate what any other author does because it’s not what they consider “art” suck, no matter how many awards they might get. It’s doubly bad when it’s a female discounting another female’s work, IMHO.

    Sarah, I am thrilled about your new book, and very much looking forward to reading it. Brag on. You should be!

  26. 26

    @KG one is always welcome to provide a personal opinion.  The thing about having the right to express an opinion, however, is that the right does not make one exempt from criticism. I am, after all, merely expressing my opinion.  Just as she may criticize Chick-lit for being banal in her esitimation, I may express my criticism in return. Her newly acquired award does not exempt her from scrutiny.

    I make it a practice not to buy novels from people who even tacitly support plagiarism. More, given her opinion, I have a strong feeling that I wouldn’t enjoy her world view in her novels.  There are so many good books in the world to buy and read that I need not give my money to someone who turns me off so thoroughly in an interview.

  27. 27
    Hell Cat says:

    KG, I respectfully disagree with this need to defend Egan at the cost of the other commenters on this blog. Once you become public (be in work, career, internet, whatever) you will face criticism for things said, especially cavalierly. This is why it’s very important in a highlighted time to be careful of words spoken. I’ve never heard of the author and now won’t ever attempt to read her books. And it’s not because she targeted “chick lit” or “romance.” It’s because she took down other authors at a time that she should have been celebrating her reward at a job well done. You can state a personal opinion without degrading someone’s else accomplishments. Just because it’s not in your range of wants doesn’t mean theirs is any less important.  That is why I will not buy her work, or read it. Then used a known plagiarist as another dig at something she doesn’t particularly like to nail another comment.

  28. 28
    eggs says:

    @KG:  The sad feeling has nothing at all to do with whether or not one appreciates the ‘chick lit’ authors she disparages.  I agree with her in that I, personally, find chick lit banal. 

    The sad feeling comes from the fact that the general perception in the (male centric) media is that women will never amount to anything because they’re a bunch of back-stabbing bitches who will take the first opportunity to shit on each other’s successes. 

    So what’s the first move of this year’s (rare) female Pulitzer Prize winner?  To back-stab other successful female authors and shit on their work.  Ms Egan gets to take home her token ‘one to shut up the women’ Pulitzer while at the same time reinforcing every sexist stereotype that misogynists wheel out when they justify why we can’t take women writers seriously.

    I’m genuinely happy for Ms Egan that she’s taking home the Pulitzer.  I’m genuinely sad for Ms Egan that she feels the price for a woman winning the Pulitzer is to belittle other female authors who write women-centric novels. 

    At the risk of sounding like a misogynist myself, why couldn’t she just win it like a man and say, “Thanks, I always knew I was awesome.”?

  29. 29
    Alia says:

    i’m just struck (over and over, with a heavy, blunt instrument) that the question that was posed to her was, “Do women need to be more up front about how awesome their work is?” and whatever her words, her actions said, “No. Crush the women around you, so that you stand out and above them. Then you don’t have to tout how awesome you are in an unfeminine way.”

    Grr.

  30. 30
    StarOpal says:

    There was that scandal with the Harvard student who was found to have plagiarized. But she had plagiarized very derivative, banal stuff.

    Also: plagiarism is an acceptable demonstration of ambition? REALLY?

    This. This right here. Forget the opinion vs. snobbery thing. Plagiarism IS NOT okay. Ever. WTF?

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