Book Review (with preface): The Position by Meg Wolitzer


(This is not the edition I have.
I just liked it better)

 Preface on Labeling Fiction
I would love to come up with a short phrase that would adequately describe this kind of novel. Categorization is not always helpful when describing fiction. It can unfairly pigeon-hole a book or an author’s entire body of work. Or it can knock a book off of someones TBR because it falls into a category that a potential read thinks she doesn’t enjoy. Still, despite the pitfalls I want to find a phrase or label that would sum up this genre.

In the past I have referred to it as “smart chick-lit” but I never felt comfortable with that. Chick-lit limits the scope of Wolitzer’s novels and audience too much. Not wanting to get into WW III over my oversimplification, but I think true chick-lit is strictly of the boy meets girl, complications ensue, variety of novel. And none of the three Wolitzer novels I have thus far read fall into that category. I know there have been conversations out in the blogosphere about gender and fiction recently. Teresa at Shelf Love explored it well, but wasn’t necessarily interested in slapping a title on this kind of fiction.

Maybe it would be helpful if I described what I think this category of book is all about. Usually written by a woman but not always. Focus tends to be about relationships. And it is definitely commercial rather than literary fiction. Teresa teases that out in her post: commercial fiction, no matter how well written deals with issues at the surface and doesn’t make the reader look too deep to find meaning. It always uses a light touch, and I think, more often than not, uses humor or at least makes you chuckle once or twice.

So: relationship-oriented, commercial fiction, often with a splash of humor that may or may not be written by a woman. Oh, and they are usually a easy to read. Hmm. That doesn’t really get me closer to my pithy descriptive phrase does it?

Let me try another tack. Which authors do I think fall into this, as yet, un-describable category?

Mary Gordon
Nick Hornby (I wouldn’t have thought of him, but Teresa was right to include him.)
Wally Lamb
Elinor Lipman
Armistad Maupin
Claire Messud (She tries to write literary fiction, but I think she fails.)
Marge Piercy
Joanna Trollope
Meg Wolitzer

No doubt, even among the authors I have read, there are many others than I list here. And there are some who sit on the line that could be included depending on how much you squinted.

Still no closer to having a label for this kind of fiction. Maybe I should talk about The Position.

The Review
The spoiler-free way to sum up this plot. In 1975, Roz and Paul Mellow write a sex manual the becomes a wild success making them celebrities and sexual gurus. The book is full of illustrations of the husband and wife in various sexual positions including the one they invent: “Electric Forgiveness”. What makes all this more interesting and complicated than it sounds is that the suburban couple have four children ranging in age from about 6 to 15 at the time the book is published. And they find the book. And it changes them.

The action doesn’t stay in the 1970s for long. It flashes forward to present day (roughly 2003) quite quickly. Not surprisingly, almost 30 years later, the kids and the parents have issues. To say the least. After the initial chapter, Wolitzer tells the tales of what has become of each of the six Mellows, allowing plenty of space for each character to reveal him- or herself. She includes plenty of humor and drama and characters who are, for the most part, entirely believable. Wolitzer is not as successful in intertwining into all this the post-9/11, traumatic midpoint of George W. Bush’s disastrous foreign policy. One can easily overlook these bits that feel tacked on. But I am less forgiving of the fact that a gay Republican character, even when having a crisis of faith about the direction of the party, doesn’t even mention the incredibly divisive and hate-filled, anti-gay Republican agenda which was at its most venomous leading up to the 2004 elections.

Quibbles aside, The Position, as with all fiction in this category, was an easy and enjoyable read, and really helped my page count during the 24-hour readathon this weekend. If you haven’t tried Wolitzer yet, I like her novel The Wife the best.

Which authors do you think fall into this category? And what should we call it?

8 thoughts on “Book Review (with preface): The Position by Meg Wolitzer

  1. Mystica October 11, 2010 / 9:34 pm

    I'll just go with you on this one – no answers! but either you like it or you dont and I think I will like it as an easy read. I enjoy Joanna Trollope very much, I also liked Erica James and I dont know whether Maeve Binchey is also in this category or not.


  2. novelinsights October 12, 2010 / 8:24 am

    Agree with you. A fun and easy read which I picked up because I thought it would be amusing but it didn't exactly rock my world.


  3. music-books-steve October 12, 2010 / 10:50 pm

    I rarely read anything that would fall into this category, but I'd like to recommend two very frothy and very funny gay-themed novels from the late 90s, Mark O'Donnell's Let Nothing You Dismay and Getting Over Homer.


  4. Thomas at My Porch October 13, 2010 / 10:01 am

    Mystica: Maeve Binchy might fit into this category.

    Polly: Agreed.

    Steve: I don't think I have read either of those. I thought Peter Lefcourt might fit into this category as well. I think I noticed that you read The Dreyfus Affair.


  5. mattviews October 13, 2010 / 6:43 pm

    I cannot get into Claire Messud. She's trying too hard that sometimes I ask myself what she is trying to say. I saw your comment on Steph's blog that you're glad she paid just $1 for her book.

    I do resonate your list because I normally won't dig these authors because what they write seem to appeal too general, too popular, too “easy” of a reading crowd. Whatever this sub-genre may be, I won't consider it literature.


  6. music-books-steve October 13, 2010 / 9:54 pm

    I didn't think of Lefcourt, but yes, he would be in the group. I agree with your inclusion of Maupin, and would add Joe Keenan, and perhaps Ethan Mordden (in his I've a Feeling We're Not in Kansas Anymore guise) among gay authors in this group.


  7. Willa October 15, 2010 / 8:45 am

    Haven't read anything by this author – maybe this is a good place to start :-) Great blog.


  8. Ti October 15, 2010 / 10:21 am

    When I read books like this I often think “smart” or “savvy” so I don't think you are too far off in calling it “smart chick-lit.”

    For me, the difference isn't so much plot as it is the depth of the main character. If there is depth to the characters then I tend to not lump it into the chick-lit category so much.

    Maybe Soft Lit… sort of like Soft Porn. LOL.


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