Meg Wolitzer’s novel The Ten-Year Nap (Riverhead, 2008) begins with a throwdown sentence: “All around the country, the women were waking up.” She goes on to describe a remarkable assortment of alarms going off in suburban and urban bedrooms: “Voltage stuttered through the curls of wire, and if you put your ear to one of the complicated clocks in any of the bedrooms, you could hear the burble of industry deep inside its cavity. Something was quietly happening.”
A similar wake-up call sounded on March 30 as women in bathrobes and sleep tees opened the New York Times Book Review to read Wolitzer’s essay “The Second Shelf.” Pulling no punches, the bestselling author of The Uncoupling (2011), The Position (2005), and a half-dozen more deftly parses the distance between the bold-faced “event” novels of her male peers and “‘Women’s Fiction,’ that close-quartered lower shelf where books emphasizing relationships and the interior lives of women are often relegated.”
Citing VIDA statistics on gender inequality in reviews and the subliminal role of cover design in ensuring an all-female readership for many books, Wolitzer acknowledges such heartening exceptions as Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad and Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife. Still, she concludes, “The top tier of literary fiction—where the air is rich and the view is great and where a book enters the public imagination and the current conversation—tends to feel peculiarly, disproportionately male.”
The essay struck a nerve: 88 published female authors signed Meredith Maran’s letter of support in the next week’s Book Review, and the internet buzzed with “right on, sister” comments. Wolitzer was gratified by the reception, but sounds just a bit battle-weary. “It isn’t new news,” she says, citing a 1998 Harper’s essay by Francine Prose that sounded a similar call. “Most of my friends are writers, and there’s a feeling among the women—fabulous, wonderful writers with a wide variety of success in their careers—we’re aware of the disparities. I wanted it said in public. If not now, when? Which is kind of my feeling about most things now.” This is vintage Wolitzer—direct, down-to-earth, with a touch of rueful humor. She’s enjoying a cherry Coke at a Yorkville coffee shop with clanking flatware and piped-in Sinatra, near the apartment she shares with her husband, science writer Richard Panek, and their two sons. Her parents live in the neighborhood, as does her sister; tonight they’re all gathering for a family seder. Who’s doing the cooking?
Her mother is esteemed novelist Hilma Wolitzer (An Available Man, Hearts); her father is a psychologist, her sister an editor. Raised on Long Island’s North Shore, Meg Wolitzer has vivid memories of playing Scrabble with her mother, toting the sunscreen-stained maroon box to the beach and swimming pool. “We didn’t know lists of two-letter words and all that, but we were good for bad players,” she says.
Scrabble remains a family tradition: Wolitzer likes playing online, as described in another Times essay (“Words With Strangers”), and her younger son Charlie was a tournament player in middle school. Her latest book, The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman (Dutton Children’s Books, 2011), was inspired by accompanying him to the National Youth Scrabble Tournament. “It’s very different from chess tournaments or the National Spelling Bee, that very neurotic-parent world of kids’ competitions,” she says, noting the sense of fun and enjoyment among the contestants, a very diverse group that includes Christian evangelical homeschoolers, public and private school kids from all over the country.
With its Prussian-blue background, yellow Scrabble-tile letters, and cartoon illustration of an alligator chasing two boys and a front-running girl, Duncan Dorfman’s cover art avoids Second Shelf stereotyping. This is a rare thing in a genre ruled by glittery romance on one side of the aisle and exploding trucks on the other. The story is equally unisex, with a full cast of well-rounded male and female characters surrounding its quirky and likeable hero.
“As the mother of sons, it’s been good to think about books for boys. I grew up in a matriarchy; I didn’t know much about young boys. I wanted them to read the books I read and loved: Harriet the Spy, all these great girl books,” says Wolitzer. “I wanted to write a book that was coed, very inclusive, presexual; at that age when boys and girls can still be friends without it being weird.”
If Duncan Dorfman’s characters are presexual, The Uncoupling’s are suddenly and uncomfortably post-sexual. The novel unfolds in the New Jersey suburbs. As the new high school drama teacher rehearses a production of Lysistrata, Aristophanes’ comedy about women boycotting sex to protest a war, a chilly spell makes its way through the community, giving women of all ages—aging teachers, a polyamorous young guidance counselor, even teen girls in the throes of first love—an instantaneous disinterest in sex. Relationships flounder and longstanding marriages slump, offering potent insights into the fluctuations of intimacy, alongside hilarious social satire; anyone who’s ever attended a faculty potluck will wince in recognition at the hummus and screw-top wine.
“The Uncoupling was the first time I had the slightest hint of magic realism,” Wolitzer notes. She’s been writing and publishing fiction since she was in college—her debut novel, Sleepwalking (1982), was sold before she graduated from Brown—and waxes eloquent about the importance of fiction. “It’s a tribal thing. Books are a passport. They allow you to feel that you’re not alone in your culture. Think of how happy you feel when you see someone reading a book on the train, or when someone you’ve just met mentions an obscure book you love,” Wolitzer says. “When you read a novel you love, there’s a kind of intimacy. It’s like an enclosure. The rest of the world falls away. A novel is a solo trek, a by-hand experience. It allows you to steep in that world for a long time.”
Can fiction survive in an age of memoir and “reality” shows? Absolutely, says Wolitzer. She describes a scientist’s study of young children looking at microscope slides of amoebae. “They say, ‘That one’s the mommy;’ they’re making up stories. We crave narrative.” As technology keeps evolving, “We may crave and seek it in different places. People say hardcover fiction will become a niche market; e-books gratify on so many levels. But the delivery system is what they’re arguing about. I believe the content will out.”
In a recent blog post, she writes, “I don’t know what people’s relationship to reading will be in the future. I have no idea how brainy young people will fall in love. Perhaps it will only be about pheromones, buffness or banter, and never ever involve the sexual stimulants known as Cormac McCarthy or David Foster Wallace or Virginia Woolf.”
Passionate readers won’t have to wait long for the next Meg Wolitzer novel. Next month, she’ll turn in a manuscript called The Interestings. “I’m going into final lockdown mode,” she says. “Publishers really mean it when they give you a deadline.” The new novel is “about friendship, talent and envy. It takes place 35 years after the characters met at a performing arts camp.”
Wolitzer went to such a camp, the now-defunct Indian Hill, when she was fifteen. “It changed my life,” she asserts. The camp produced the requisite Broadway musicals, plus artier fare such as a stage adaptation of T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men. “I was a hollow man,” Wolitzer says, grinning. The experience inspired a scene in her 1988 novel, This Is Your Life, which was later adapted as a film by Nora Ephron. The Interestings digs deeper into the same fertile turf.
“I wondered what happens to early talent,” says Wolitzer, who still performs on occasion–she can be heard on NPR and YouTube singing deadpan literary duets with singer and Wayward Saints novelist Suzzy Roche. (“She’s the singer, I’m the schmo,” Wolitzer tells an appreciative audience before they launch into close-harmony texts by Colette and James Joyce.) She and Roche are teaching at Princeton next year, and plan to collaborate on a musical based on the premise of Wolitzer’s next YA novel. “It’s a dark YA girl book,” is all she’ll disclose. “I like to do as many kinds of writing as I can that interest me. I like to entertain myself.”
Is there anything she can’t imagine writing? “I don’t think I’d ever write a seafaring novel,” she says with impeccably dry comic timing. “That’s not going to happen.”
“I’m proud to be able to live and work as a writer. I think it’s a hard, hard thing to do. It requires constant reinvention. When I’m feeling especially overwhelmed, I remind myself that I chose this. Every writer I know who’s successful writes all the time. It’s what Malcolm Gladwell said about the ten thousand hours–if you do it enough, you start thinking about it in different ways, it has a depth about it. I appreciate the time I work. I’ve worked for a very long time. It’s imperative.”
Wolitzer takes a deep breath. “I write the book that I want to find on the shelf.” Booksellers and critics, please note: that’s the top shelf, not the second.
Meg Wolitzer will read with Kate Klimo and Sarah Darer Littman at Hudson Valley YA Society at Oblong Books & Music, Rhinebeck, May 9 at 7 p.m. Reservations required. (845) 876-0500.