|(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?
Nick Hornby (I wouldn’t have thought of him, but Teresa was right to include him.)
Claire Messud (She tries to write literary fiction, but I think she fails.)
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 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?