Marriage Plots

I've never read anything by Jeffrey Eugenides. He might be an excellent writer. He must be talented, because he's won, among other things, the Pulitzer for fiction. But since he released a best-selling novel called The Marriage Plot, he has (rightly, I think) been at the center of a lot of debate about the different ways that male and female authors are treated. In short, the pretty indisputable fact that if a woman released a novel called The Marriage Plot, it would be marketed, sold and dismissed as "chick lit" or romance, while the same novel by a man is lauded as literary greatness.

This isn't meant to be a criticism of Eugenides. It's the literary establishment as a whole that's the problem, not his book in particular. It just makes an excellent and obvious example. However, since Eugenides is at the center of all this debate, he would be well advised to watch what he says, and think carefully about the way he responds to this issue in interviews.

But he isn't. A few months ago, he gave an interview completely dismissing the existence of sexism in literary reviews and in the literary establishment in general.

And he's done it again. In a recent interview with the New York Times, Eugenides was asked what he considered to be the best marriage plot novel ever. His answer? Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. His argument, in essence, is that "traditional" marriage plot novels, like those written by Austen, are too light and comedic. In other words, they aren't serious or complex enough. I'd argue that anyone who came away from reading Austen's work thinking that it's shallow didn't read it properly (but I am a bit of an Austen fangirl), but people are entitled to differences of opinion. However, if you are currently famous for bringing the marriage plot into the modern era, not as fluffy chick lit or a Jane Austen retelling but as something with literary merit, then it would be best not to dismiss the writers who created the genre's classics (the vast majority of whom are women) and instead pick out a male writer as a superior, darker, more complex example.

Henry James is a good writer, and The Portrait of a Lady is a classic novel. But I think it's telling that Eugenides chose this as his "more complex, anti-marriage plot" novel, completely moving over female authors who created similar, even more critically lauded works, such as George Eliot (others may argue, but I think many elements of Middlemarch also fit the anti-marriage plot model). Even when dealing with classic literature, people -- from high school students through to the academic elite -- have a tendency to put the works of female authors into another category, as feminine classics. Somehow more superficial and silly and inferior to the musing of men, whether they tell the stories of other white men or, on rare occasions, have a female protagonist instead.

Considering that Eugenides has had recent success by co-opting a plot structure and an idea traditionally associated with these oft-dismissed female authors, I think a little more respect for them and their work is in order.