Two years ago I was at a party in the literary enclave of Oxford, Miss. A somewhat renowned magazine writer was there—you've probably seen his award-winning celebrity profiles on the cover of a certain men's magazine over the years. As one of the guests of honor, he had given a brief talk about his work to a group of Ole Miss students; in his speech he mentioned that Daniel Defoe was the first English novelist.
Later in the evening, as I was chatting with him, I said, "You know, Defoe wasn't the first novelist. Not by long a shot."
"What do you mean? Who else was there?" the journalist replied.
"Well, there was Aphra Behn, for one—and she was writing in the 1680s, well before Defoe," I said. "She's often considered the first English novelist, although scholars have made the case for some other writers. And Eliza Haywood—she was a contemporary of Defoe. They actually co-wrote a few works together, and she outsold him during the 18th century, I think."
"Really? What type of stuff did she write?" the journalist asked.
"Well, they were kind of like romance novels," I said.
"Oh, so Defoe was the first good novelist in English. That's the same thing," he replied, leaving me standing with my mouth agape as he walked off to get another glass of bourbon.
Before I go any further, here's what you need to know about the history of the novel in English:
Once upon a time, women wrote novels. Men mostly did not. Men, being possessed of a more highly evolved intelligence, looked down their patrician noses at fiction. Poetry—now that was a manly pursuit. Or writing plays—that was cool, too.
But over the course of the 18th century, first one man and then another began writing fiction. By the end of the century they were generally regarded as masters of the form. The ladies might still be writing many of the best-selling books, but their works were considered nonsense and frippery.
Soon, some female writers started to put down other female writers in the hopes of being taken more seriously. Then they just started writing under male pseudonyms. Then came the 20th century and feminism and everyone became enlightened and women were able to write about what they wanted without fear of judgment.
Except that last part never happened.
Here we are, in 2011, 300 years after the novel emerged as a real, actual thing in the English language, and the romance is as derided as it was then. Just as that magazine writer dismissed the entire oeuvre of all the writers before Defoe without so much as having read a word by any of them, so too are today's authors of women's fiction written off by the literary establishment as "chick lit" writers. Last year, authors Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult raised this issue on Twitter with the hashtag #franzenfreude, after questioning whether Jonathan Franzen would have gotten as much attention for his book Freedom were he not a man.
Commenting on The New York Times' reviewing policies, Weiner told the Huffington Post: "Chick lit gets ignored, unless it gores one of the paper's sacred cows (note to self: don't mess with Anna Wintour!). Romance gets ignored completely.... How can anyone claim the paper plays fair when genre fiction that men read gets reviewed but genre fiction that women read doesn't exist on the paper's review pages? It would be as if the paper's film critics only reviewed tiny independent fare and refused to see so much as a single frame of a romantic comedy, or if the music critics listened to Grizzly Bear and refused to acknowledge the existence of Katy Perry or Lady Gaga."
The dust-up was reported everywhere—Slate, The Washington Post, NPR, Gawker—but a year later, nothing has changed.
This summer Weiner was on both the paperback and hardcover New York Times best-seller lists at the same time, with her new book Then Came You (Atria) and last summer's Fly Away Home, a feat she has accomplished repeatedly since her first book, Good in Bed, came out in the summer of 2001. But despite her success and her Ivy League credentials, Weiner still isn't taken seriously as a writer. Then Came You was mentioned in the Times' parenting blog and in a Thursday Styles story, but not in the Sunday Book Review.
It's true that Weiner's prose is sometimes less than sparkling, especially when she too deeply delves into the seemingly required chick-lit details of label after label. If she's already told us that India Bishop wears Manolos and Louboutins and gets her hair done at Fekkai, do we need to know she has Frette sheets too? And all on the same page?
Bishop is one of the main characters in Then Came You, a trophy wife who decides to hire a surrogate and use an egg donor, setting off a complicated and slightly absurd plot thematically centered around the definition of what it means to be mother. (Short answer: There is no one answer.)
But the plot, like the fashion, isn't the point of Weiner's novels. You read her books for the characters. There is no better chronicler of the contemporary American Everywoman than Weiner. Then Came You is not a moralistic or ethical examination of surrogacy but a character study: here's why someone might choose to be an egg donor; here's how someone might react when the surrogacy doesn't go exactly as planned. Weiner's characters are identifiable and sympathetic. They don't all have glamorous jobs or wear glamorous clothes or end up with their Prince Charming.
It's true that Franzen's Freedom, and The Corrections before it, are sweeping looks at contemporary American culture. It's also true of Weiner's novels. Her sentences may not scream "Look at me! I'm literary fiction!" but her works have more emotional heft.
Then Came You isn't Weiner's most resonant work, but following Fly Away Home, which, like CBS' The Good Wife, tells the story of a politician's wife finding herself after details of an affair emerge in the national press, it signals her move outside the traditional framework of the domestic novel.
It might behoove certain men to pay more attention to Weiner—or maybe just her 2007 novel Certain Girls.