Literary Enemies: Meg Wolitzer and Junot Díaz
Disclaimer: I refuse to believe that Meg Wolitzer and Junot Díaz aren’t friends.
I’m going to try my best to keep this from getting all Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, and I promise I’m not going to make When Harry Met Sally references, but I do want to talk about gender. I want to talk about writing women.
I have often heard Junot Díaz called out for objectifying his female characters, and I want to start by saying I disagree. When I was sixteen and read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao for the first time, I found Oscar’s older sister Lola profoundly reassuring. Here was a girl my age, then a woman not much older, who found power where she could and used it, who saved herself from what she could, who turned herself into the book’s strongest character by sheer force of will but remained vulnerable enough to fall in love.
Yes, some of Lola’s power comes from her sexuality, even when she’s young. The same is true of her mother Belicia. I do not find this problematic. In fact, I find it the opposite. To me, it is just as bad for a male author to deprive his female characters of sexual agency as it is to reduce them to sex objects. Well, not just as bad. It’s two versions of the same crime, and it’s a crime Díaz never commits.
And yet I can see why a reader might question Díaz on gender. Yunior, his recurring protagonist (call him Díaz’s Frank Bascombe, his Nathan Zuckerman, his Rabbit Angstrom) is a serial cheater. In Oscar Wao, when he’s on-and-off dating Lola, he’s prone to locutions like, “Me, who was fucking with not one, not two, but three fine-ass bitches at the same time and that wasn’t even counting the side-sluts I scooped at the parties and the clubs.” When his girlfriend in the short story “Alma” reads his diary and calls him out for cheating, Yunior says, “Baby, this is part of my novel.” So what’s a girl to think?
I think that Junot Díaz writes, with exceptional empathy, the world in which we live. He writes a world in which women can do and get what they want, can outrun and outtalk and outthink the men around them, but in which men still want to believe they have control. Yunior scoops side-sluts, but Lola gets out of New Jersey. Yunior cheats, but Alma leaves him. Which is more comeuppance than Rabbit Angstrom ever gets for his wandering, for the record.
Meg Wolitzer writes the same world. Her details are different: Jewish-ish Manhattan, not Dominican Jersey. Her style is less in-your-face. Her protagonists are almost all women. And chances are, if you’re a woman in a Meg Wolitzer novel, you’re smart and you’re loving and you have to deal with some bullshit from men.
Junot Díaz makes that bullshit very explicit, in every sense of the word. It’s cheating and sexual violence. In Meg Wolitzer’s work it tends to be more insidious. It’s the kind of bullshit that grows over women’s lives like ivy. Liesl Schillinger wrote in her review of The Interestings that Wolitzer’s subject has always been “the practical, emotional and sexual fallout of women’s liberation,” with which I agree, but with the caveat that it’s an incomplete liberation. As in Junot Díaz’s work, you can tell when you read Meg Wolitzer that we aren’t there yet.
I’m not going to take you through Wolitzer’s entire body of work; I’m just going to recommend it all—blanket statement: she’s great—and then talk about my favorite, The Wife. There’s cheating in The Wife, lots of it, but it happens offstage. Part of the point of Yunior is that he cheats, helplessly. The point of Joe Castleman, the husband in The Wife, is that he has cheated the protagonist, Joan, of her career. I am going to ruin the plot of the novel now. Joe Castleman is a famous, respected, almost-Nobel-winning writer. Joan Castleman wrote his books.
When Joe and Joan meet, it’s the 1950s and she believes that no one will read her if she writes serious literature. Her husband wants to be a big-name writer, but has no talent; she has talent and a name she thinks no one will hear. She weighs her options and decides the best one is to become her husband’s ghostwriter, and by the turn of the millennium she’s furious. She wants to leave him. She coulda been a contender.
I have long described The Wife as the scariest book I’ve ever read, or my favorite horror movie, and it’s all the more frightening because I know that Wolitzer herself has experienced what Joan Castleman fears. In her 2012 essay “The Second Shelf: On the Rules of Literary Fiction for Men and Women,” Wolitzer writes, “When someone asks, ‘Would I have heard of you?’ many female novelists would be tempted to answer, ‘In a more just world.’”
In a more just world, Joan Castleman would have put her own name on her book jackets. In a more just world, Yunior might still be a cheater by nature, but he wouldn’t keep cheating for three books. He’d pick up, sooner or later, on what Alma and Lola have already figured out: women aren’t trophies. Women aren’t collectible. Alma’s value is not in her “ass that could drag the moon out of orbit.”
But in the meantime, Díaz’s body of work gives us a portrait of the fallout of women’s liberation, to borrow from Schillinger again, that is a necessary counterpart to Wolitzer’s portrait. In the review I’m quoting, Schillinger describes Wolitzer as a miniaturist, but in this case the reverse is true. Meg Wolitzer’s work, finely detailed though it is, provides a panorama of women stopped or stunted by male disrespect, or the fear of disrespect. Díaz takes a magnifying glass to that disrespect. A writing career in one novel, some side-sluts in another. It’s the same thing. See, I told you they weren’t really enemies.