Put on your big girl pants.

Shortly after winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Jennifer Egan made some disparaging remarks about other authors’ writing being banal:

Anyone can say anything, that’s easy. My focus is less on the need for women to trumpet their own achievements than to shoot high and achieve a lot. What I want to see is young, ambitious writers. And there are tons of them. Look at “The Tiger’s Wife.” There was that scandal with the Harvard student who was found to have plagiarized. But she had plagiarized very derivative, banal stuff. This is your big first move? These are your models?

I read several book bloggers’ responses to this comment and couldn’t decide whether I should weigh in on the comment or let it lie. Well, Egan has now apologized, and I just had to say something about this. I had decided not to do this because I wanted to say it nicely, but I’m just going to be blunt. No offense is meant to bloggers who voiced their displeasure with Egan’s comments.

Edited to quote Egan’s apology directly (from the link above):

“I have nothing to defend in what I said,” she said. “I really wish I hadn’t said that, and was incredibly and immediately sorry that anyone was hurt by it. I don’t blame anyone for being mad about it.” Though she does believe there’s an interesting conversation to be had about genre and gender and literary culture, she doesn’t see her comments in that interview as any kind of effective contribution to that discussion. “I’m all for criticizing; I’m not saying that no one should ever criticize anyone else,” she continued. “But if you’re going to criticize, you should do it intentionally and thoughtfully and carefully and know whom you’re criticizing and for what. And I didn’t meet any of those criteria.”

Authors do not always like each other’s work and are sometimes vocal about it (see Mark Twain, Stephen King, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway to name a few). So what? I don’t like Nicholas Sparks or James Patterson, and I am quite vocal here and on Twitter about that. No one has demanded my apology. I’m beginning to think that Egan is the victim of a double standard here. She is a woman criticizing women authors rather than one of the men listed above.

See, the thing about free speech is that it sometimes hurts people’s feelings. Those people need to buck up and put on their big girl (or boy) pants and get over it. I’m sorry, but not everything public figures say has to be nice. If you would rather not read or buy any of Egan’s work from now on, that’s fine. That is how the free market works.

Egan is a brilliant writer. A Visit from the Goon Squad is now one of my favorite books of all time. She thinks some YA authors write work that is banal. That is her opinion, and no one should expect her to apologize for it. I don’t want to live in a world where no one criticizes anything for fear of retribution.

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13 thoughts on “Put on your big girl pants.

  1. What Jennifer Egan ACTUALLY said when she apologized is crucial here: “If you’re going to criticize, you should do it intentionally and thoughtfully and carefully and know whom you’re criticizing and for what. And I didn’t meet any of those criteria.” She’s not apologizing for criticizing books she’s read, but for speaking recklessly about books she hasn’t read. BIG difference.

    • Thanks for the comment. I agree. Her apology was very well said. I actually meant to quote it and forgot. I’ll edit it in a second. She just shouldn’t have felt the need to make it. My anger is more with the mentality that, as a woman, she should be nicer to other women. I’m responding to that sentiment more than her apology. I really hoped she wouldn’t say anything at all.

      Her criticism was much less pointed than some that Stephen King has given recently, and the overreaction to it and feeling that she “should” apologize for voicing her opinion was troubling to me.

  2. Interestingly, I didn’t view her comments and apology as a women-bashing-women issue — maybe because I’m a guy.

    I think this is another sad case of people in the limelight (politicians, celebrities, writers) having their words poured over and parsed and certain people getting “offended”. I fear that Egan (or her agent) decided that they had to stem any negative publicity with an apology. Part of me wishes she’d said, “yeah, that stuff is crap.”

    What’s wrong with a strong opinion? I’ve seen enough critics bash “Goon Squad” for not being “serious” enough for the Pulitzer. (I loved it.) Should Egan demand an apology? King and Gaiman have bashed the supernatural-teen-romance genre for eviscerating traditionally scary and turning them into teen-soaps with special effects. Should they apologize? And if I was a supernatural-teen-romance writer, why should I care? I’d likely be crying all the way to the bank.

    • Yeah, I figured someone didn’t like that comment being out there without an apology. You are so right about the teen-supernatural-romance thing. Why be offended when you could be sleeping on a gold-plated bed with all your royalties? 🙂

  3. My problem with it is more that it seemed that she was upset not because of plagiarism but that the author in question ripped off “second-rate” work. She’s absolutely allowed to dislike other authors, but here’s the difference. I feel like when you and I talk about authors we don’t like, it’s not the same thing. To be comparable, it’d be like us slamming other bloggers. And it’s not like it’s never done (of course there are blogs I don’t like; I don’t like every single author in the world and I don’t like every single person in the world) but it’s rude. You know?

    I will also admit that I didn’t care when Stephen King slammed Stephenie Meyer because I love Stephen King and I don’t like Stephenie Meyer. My double standard is more that it’s okay when an author I like does it and it’s not okay when the target is an author I like. 😉 (I will be in trouble if someone I like slams someone else I like!) And also I feel like Stephen King does a lot to help other authors (when he had his column in Entertainment Weekly, he always talked about books he liked) and I’m not sure if Jennifer Egan does. (Although when you’re Stephen King, you have a much larger pulpit.)

    But it’s not so much that I think women should be pretty and polite and never express anything controversial, it’s that we always seem to tear each other down, and I wish we’d stop that. I’m glad she apologized (and she apparently apologized personally to Megan McCafferty, which I’m really happy for).

    • I didn’t get the feeling from the original comment that she didn’t think plagiarism is a problem. What she said certainly wasn’t nice, but I guess I don’t care if she says mean things as long as I like her writing style. I might not like her if she said something like all babies should be impaled on sticks or something like that, but an opinion about another author doesn’t bother me at all. Hemingway and Fitzgerald hated each other’s books, but I love them both. I also don’t think she’s tearing other women down because she used an example of another woman’s work that she admired. Not all women are good writers so why shouldn’t she say what she thinks about the ones she doesn’t like? If women want to be treated equally in the literary world, they have to be ready to take the criticism that comes with it. I don’t see Cormac McCarthy taking up for Nicholas Sparks because he’s a man.

      Also, no one complained when Jonathan Franzen was held up as a scapegoat for the white male dominance of the literary press. Plenty of women were going after him like he was the reason for the problems just because his work got more attention than women’s work was getting. No one asked them to apologize for singling out one man to pick on.

    • Oh, and I meant to say thank you for commenting! 🙂 I like hearing your opinion since I know you really like the author she criticized. I haven’t read anything by her yet.

      • Oh, any time. 😉 I think you’d like Megan McCafferty. I think she’s wonderful. 🙂

        I don’t think we should all hold hands and sing, but I just didn’t think it was necessary. Although part of it may be that if I ever win any major award, all interviews after are going to be talking about how awesome I am, not how much everyone else sucks. 😉

  4. A lot of YA is banal, though so is a lot of other genres. I see where she is coming from and I like that her apology was basically, “Sorry, I wasn’t specific enough when I criticized you before. Will do better next time.”

    • Yeah, I think every genre has it’s share of banality (and I certainly enjoy some of it). I agreed with her point that you can’t expect the people writing that stuff to win awards. Their reward is deposited in the bank.

  5. She was right though – a lot of it is banal and boring and tired and repetitive and very unoriginal. Writers need to hear what not only what what other writers think but what readers think too! Banality will be the death of the novel!

    • Definitely. Especially when you think of people who basically write outlines and have less successful authors write for them, like James Patterson and his ilk. He puts out 6 books a year full of crap and people lap it up like it’s amazing.

  6. Hello–I am in full agreement with you. Jennifer Egan, I feel, said nothing for which she needs to apologize. But it was pegged as “girl on girl crime” and it became a gender issue, rather than an issue of taste (and literary vs. commercial, which is a whole nother ball o’ wax.)

    I wrote Ms. Egan and had the pleasure of hearing back from her. She is a gracious, thoughtful and classy person, unlike the other authors who are having a hissy fit.

    If you’re interested, my take on what’s happened is on my blog. I’m glad someone else (you) sees this for what it is: mean girls picking on someone of whom they are simply jealous.

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