Monthly Archives: November 2013

Review: Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing

Several years ago I had the opportunity to interview one of the doyennes of the publishing world, an editor whose critical instincts and unerring taste have earned her a loyal stable of writers whose names regularly appear on all the right kinds of lists (Best of, Bestseller, Shortlists). When I asked her why she’d been so successful, she spent the better part of an hour explaining how she went about discovering authors, building relationships with them, and helping them to tease out and refine the stories they felt called to tell. What was the secret, I wanted to know, to keeping them happy? What you have to understand, she told me in her flutey, patrician voice, is that “writers are narcissists.” She said this without an ounce of malice, just simple, clear-eyed acceptance.

This editor has a gift for understanding just how to tweak the underlying machinery of a story to make it hum along at a powerful clip. She has single-handedly shepherded along more than one title that is now an established part of the cultural canon. But her most valuable talent, in her mind, may be her ability to manage outsized egos.

Of course, as a writer, I’d like to think that the editor had it wrong, but even years later I routinely find myself thinking about what she said. Her words flash through my head on those mornings that I find my mind wandering away from my writing desk, lost in pie-in-the-sky daydreams about seeing my name in the New Yorker’s Table of Contents. I think about them every time I accept another unpaid gig for the pure joy of knowing that someone, somewhere will read my words. And they reverberate once again each time I find myself cracking open the spine of a new book about writing. Because really, what other profession can you think of that is so rife with neurotic navel gazers that it has spawned its own sub-genre, a peculiar lovechild of how-to manual and self-help book?

Despite knowing this, I am usually among the first in line for these books.

To read the rest of my review, go to: The Brooklyn Rail.

The Way We Read Women

Diane Johnson—herself a novelist of enormous range, elegance, wit, and energy—observes that male readers at least “have not learned to make a connection between the images, metaphors, and situations employed by women (house, garden, madness), and universal experience, although women, trained from childhood to read books by people of both sexes, know the metaphorical significance of the battlefield, the sailing ship, the voyage, and so on.” Perhaps the problem is that women writers tell us things we don’t want to hear—especially not from women. Or is the difficulty, fundamentally, that all readers (male and female, for it must be pointed out that many editors, critics, and prize-committee members are women) approach works by men and women with different expectations? It’s not at all clear what it means to write “like a man” or “like a woman,” but perhaps it’s still taken for granted, often unconsciously and thus insidiously, that men write like men and women like women—or at least that they should. And perhaps it’s assumed that women writers will not write anything important—anything truly serious or necessary, revelatory or wise.

Of course, unlike small boys who don’t yet know better than to say that girls’ books are “sappy,” serious readers, male or female, would never admit to thinking that fiction by women is inferior. Male writers and critics have learned not to express every demented thought that crosses their minds, and besides, in most cases, they sincerely believe that they don’t esteem writing according to the writer’s gender. So one searches mostly in vain for current ruminations on the subject of “why women can’t write.”

Francine Prose wrote this for Harper’s in 1998. Here’s where we are in 2013: “Where Is The Great American Novel By a Woman?”