For a couple of days I've meditated on this blog post. I've carried it around with me. It is not entirely baked, this blog post, it is more than anything a swarm of intense feeling. On Wednesday when I began this blog post, I felt something akin to impotent anger, and I realized I couldn't think clearly, so instead I wrote around the subject, I wrote of sadness and alienation and rejection. For Wednesday was a day sacrificed to Ye Rejection Gods, as John calls them. It wasn't the specificity of the rejection, although in some ways it was an enormous rejection, because it would have offered perhaps the promise or potential of something like a career as a writer, I don't know what that means, something sustainable, in other ways I'm glad it didn't work out, because I believe it would have involved tremendous compromise.
When I was in London I met with a commissioning editor at Fourth Estate, publisher of Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides, Joan Didion, et. al, about their preliminary interest in publishing Green Girl in the UK. It was a brief meeting - I chatted about the book with the young female editor and then another young woman in charge of social marketing, I was gratified that they had read and appeared to liked the book, I liked them, they wanted to talk about what I am thinking of as a Girls zeitgeist - on Lena Dunham and Sheila Heti, on whether that media phenom would happen in the UK, and whether my book and I could be situated within that conversation (which made me feel - gross I guess. It made me feel gross that talking about a book I had written was a conversation about marketing, which is happening again with Heroines, which I'm letting it, which makes me feel even grosser). They asked about my background. They asked about my future projects. They asked me about the Jezebel recognition and the interview with Edith Z at The Hairpin and how that came about. They were very interested that a writer published on only small indies would manage to get some even small amount of mainstream attention. They were surprised I was 34. They commented on my youthful "striking" appearance.
All in all, it was a meeting that made me feel strangely hollow & nervous about my future integrity as a published writer (the idea that I would probably, willingly, sacrifice anything to be published by such a place, although maybe I wouldn't. Maybe ultimately I wouldn't). After the meeting I sent a specific detailed email to the editor about all the ways Green Girl could be marketed within the UK, I guess one last-ditch effort. I have that mind. For marketing/publicity. Probably because I have been on the other end, as book reviewer, as assignment editor. I hate sometimes that I do. I don't think a writer should be really involved with the business of books. But to have no agent - no pitbull publisher - no publicist - one has to put oneself out there, I guess.
Anyway. I received an email on Wednesday from the editor that they seriously considered and talked it over with the marketing team the possibility of publishing Green Girl, but ultimately decided that they didn't think they could make it work for the market because of the "likeability of Ruth." She then writes that she totally agrees that we need "complex, multilayered and unlikeable women in literature" in order to be "realistic" but that the character I had created would not sustain any but the most dedicated readers.
I cannot tell you how much this frustrated me. Like I let out the most guttural yelp when I read the email. I feel there's so much that I'm fighting against, in my criticism and in my writing. So much that we are all fighting against, in order not to always be reminded of our gendered status in the world, in order not to be considered and kept as second-class citizens. And this pronouncement of corporate literature I feel in terms of the different ways that women writers are read and marketed versus men, gets at all of the hierarchical bullshit. Not to mention how cowardly and cynical such a pronouncement is - that readers will not read anything that challenges a traditional narrative. I just do not feel this is true. And I just do not think the market should completely dictate what authors are given recognition and a chance to survive and thrive.
On one level, my frustration was the idea that Green Girl was a realistic novel, which it is not. I was trying to, as with my first novel, play with ideas of character, plot, etc. Ruth is not a traditional character, the work operates in terms of episodes not in terms of any specific scenes or plots rooted in the character. This is perhaps a conversation on the "experimental" or something else though. But does it connect to gender? I think it does. The idea that only women would want to read something I wrote, and that women readers seek *only* identification and recognition in the characters they read.
But mostly this idea of the likeability of the character is so so SO gendered to me I cannot still see straight and wonder if I should stop typing. For me, this completely extends to what still holds us back as girls & women, how we're still held back. If we still need to be liked, if our goal in life is still to be LIKED, which is to be - I don't know - approachable, polite, without any edges, pleasing, WE HAVE LOST THE GAME. Or perhaps the idea is to be more like the chicklit heroine - flawed of course but somehow a madcapness or mania despite the flaws, the pratfalls, the universal yearning. The notion of us as women ALLOWING ourselves to be edited. (And also how I let Green Girl be edited. I don't think that the novel is by any means a heartbreaking work of staggering genius, not EVEN CLOSE, but Helen McClory and Bookbat asked the other day why there aren't long manic ecstatic books by women to mirror Ulysses and Infinite Jest, and I can say, for my part, that Green Girl was originally 350 pages, and I was told, time and time again, that no one would publish a novel that long, with that subject matter. And so in order to be published I cut and cut. I cut and cut for one specific editor who then rejected it, by committee meeting. And then the book remained cut.) During so many things recently - buying the pink dress in NYC, wanting to look pretty for the photoshoot, signing my emails to potential reviewers with "xo", writing up that email about ways Green Girl could be marketed, I have been aware that if I was to exist within corporate literature my edges would need to be shaved off. AND I LIKE MY EDGES. Or: I am realizing I am already for publicity's sake shaving off my edges. But then of course there is the blog space here where I happily, and almost daily, self-immolate.
Lots of talk lately about the GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL that seems to be exclusively masculine. And how many of the characters in the GENIUS BOOKS are likable? Is Holden Caulfield likable? Is Meursault in The Stranger? Is Henry Miller? Is any character in any of these system novels particularly likable? Aren't they usually loathsome but human, etc., loathsome and neurotic and obsessed? In my memory, all the characters in Jonathan Franzen are total douchebags (I know, I know, I'm not supposed to use that, feminine imagery, whatever, but it is SO satisfying to say and think). How about female characters in the genius books? Was Madame Bovary likable? Was Anna Karenina? Is Daisy Buchanan likable? Is Daisy Miller? Is it the specific way in which supposed readers HATE unlikable female characters (who are too depressed, too crazy, too vain, too self-involved, too bored, too boring), that mirrors the specific way in which people HATE unlikable girls and women for the same qualities? We do not allow, really, the notion of the antiheroine, as penned by women, because we confuse the autobiographical, and we pass judgment on the female author for her terrible self-involved and indulgent life. We do not hate Scott Fitzgerald in "The Crack-Up" or Georges Bataille in Guilty for being drunken and totally wading in their own pathos, but Jean Rhys is too much of a victim.
A female author cannot write a female character who's perceived of as "unlikeable" because then readers will transfer this distaste onto the female author, and that cannot do, because above all, the female author needs to be consumed and marketed and LIKED.
In my blog posts, in my "rants", I too am unlikeable. Maybe that's why I hesitated writing this for too long. Must not burn bridges. Must still be good. Must still be polite. Mustn't speak out of turn. But for fuck's sake. I am not terribly likeable. I have my charms. But I will never be liked by the majority of people. THAT IS NOT WHY I AM A WRITER.
I'm getting too worked up about this.
For my own sassiness I told the editor that I couldn't get her a review copy of Heroines, but that I hoped she would buy it and read it, because it gets at so much of this conversation, because this is my attempt to enter THIS conversation, the one I want to be in, about how women are reviewed and how female characters are treated and how girls write.