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Wolitzer ’81 reflects on writing as craft, practice

Novelist Meg Wolitzer discusses influence of changing readership, feminism on her work

Meg Wolitzer ’81 discussed the evolution of her decades-long career as a novelist at an event hosted by the Providence Athenaeum that filled the olive-green pews of First Unitarian Church Friday, March 22. She noted the way that changes in the craft of writing, the art of reading and her own understanding of womanhood and feminism have affected her numerous works.

Wolitzer is the author of over a dozen novels including “Sleepwalking,” “The Interestings” and “The Wife,” which was recently adapted into an Academy Award-nominated film. Matt Burriesci, executive director of the Athenaeum,  challenged the many publications that have labeled various points in Wolitzer’s career as “her moment” or “breakthrough” in his introduction, instead suggesting that “she’s been having moments … for years. She’s a New York Times best seller, she’s walked the red carpet at the Academy Awards (and) she’s taught at the most prestigious writing program in the world,” he said.

In response, Wolitzer began her talk by joking that it was this moment — standing in front of the lively audience under the church’s domed ceiling — that truly marked her breakthrough. “This is it; I’m just feeling it,” she said, eliciting laughter from the audience.

After spending two years studying at Smith College, Wolitzer finished her undergraduate years at Brown, graduating in 1981. It was during her senior year at the University that she began writing her first novel “Sleepwalking,” which tells the tale of three female college students obsessed with the work and death of poets Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and fictional character Lucy Asher. The novel was published the year after Wolitzer graduated from Brown, when she was 23.

Thinking back on this time, Wolitzer mused on how the craft of writing has changed throughout her career. She recalled drafting her novel on a typewriter, when white-out was the alternative to a backspace key. “Everyone wrote a novel and sort of painted on it — it was like doing scrimshaw,” she said. “You get to be close to the craft of writing, doing something like that, which I’ve sort of lost to some degree today.” 

As technology has transformed the practices of both writing and reading with the invention of e-books and online news outlets, Wolitzer has also noticed a waning interest in fiction. “We live in a non-fiction world,” she said, explaining that “as the news has heated up,” people have tended to consume non-fiction writing.

“Do some of you remember when magazines and women’s magazines would publish incredible fiction? This was another world,” Wolitzer said. She cited the example of the first short story published by her mother, novelist Hilma Wolitzer, which was printed in a 1966 edition of The Saturday Evening Post, a biweekly magazine at the time. Wolitzer reflected on how the piece, titled “Today, a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket,” resonated with her mother’s frustrations with womanhood and domesticity in the 1960s. “I think my mother would have gone mad if she hadn’t really had this outlet of being a writer.”

Wolitzer reflected on how her mother’s late-developing career as a novelist fostered an environment that encouraged her passion for storytelling from a young age and enabled her own discovery of writing. “If I look at the themes that I’ve written about, I can trace it to when I was young and seeing my mother becoming who she became,” Wolitzer said.

Wolitzer read from “The Female Persuasion,” her latest novel released last April. Hitting the shelves shortly after the start of both the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, the novel follows college freshman Greer Kadetsky through the trauma of a sexual assault. Soon after, Greer meets a sixty-three-year-old feminist activist Faith Frank, who proceeds to redirect the future Greer had imagined for herself.

Burriesci noted in his introduction that many of the themes present in “The Female Persuasion,” and in Wolitzer’s earlier novels, are raised in an essay Wolitzer published in the New York Times in 2012. Titled “The Second Shelf,” the essay began by questioning if popular novels by men had been written by women, they would be relegated to the “close-quartered lower shelf” of “‘Women’s Fiction’” instead of heralded as literary feats.

Burriesci said that women are the “chief consumers of books in the United States.” Despite this, “the top tier of literary fiction — where the air is rich and the view is great and where a book enters the public imagination and the current conversation — tends to feel peculiarly, disproportionately male,” Wolitzer wrote in “The Second Shelf.” Before reading from “The Female Persuasion,” Wolitzer harked back to the divide, symbolized by this lower shelf, between what is considered women’s fiction and the rest of the literary tradition. She explained how she hopes to close this divide between genders — even with a book with “female” printed on its cover. “The notion for me is that books should draw everyone in, that they shouldn’t necessarily leave anyone out. I do write about women’s lives, but I don’t think that I’m writing women’s fiction, or that I’m writing for women,” Wolitzer said. She emphasized that she believes that all people are “hardwired for story.”

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