Last November, I went to a swanky party to celebrate the release of advance copies of The Female Persuasion, Meg Wolitzer’s 11th novel. Bartenders created bespoke cocktails named after sections of the book; the evening’s highlight was a public conversation between Wolitzer and New York magazine’s Rebecca Traister. The mood was festive verging on jubilant. The Harvey Weinstein scandal had broken a few weeks earlier, and an anonymously sourced spreadsheet alleging misconduct by various men in media had already resulted in the resignation or firing of a handful of prominent figures. All anyone wanted to talk about was smashing the patriarchy—a conversation that flowed freely, owing to the circumstances, the cocktails, and the fact that nearly all the guests were women. In a room of 100 or so people, I counted only a handful of male faces.
This couldn’t have been lost on Wolitzer, who published an essay in The New York Times Book Review in 2012 lamenting that literary fiction by men tends to be received differently from literary fiction by women. When a well-regarded male novelist such as Jonathan Franzen or Jeffrey Eugenides publishes a new novel—even one preoccupied with relationships, like Freedom or The Marriage Plot—publishers and readers automatically take the book seriously, Wolitzer argued. It’s packaged respectfully, reviewed widely, and marketed to people of all genders.
But books by Franzen’s and Eugenides’s female colleagues tend to be relegated to what Wolitzer called the “lower shelf.” Their covers suggest domesticity, their spines are slimmer, and their contents are dismissed by some male readers as “one soft, undifferentiated mass that has little to do with them.” The distinction is significant in many ways, but particularly for sales: Both men and women read books by men, but books by women are far more likely to be read by women than by men. In the essay, Wolitzer recounted a bitterly amusing anecdote in which a man she met at a party, after hearing her describe her novels—“Sometimes they’re about marriage. Families. Sex. Desire. Parents and children”—suggested that she talk instead to his wife, who read “that kind of book.”
Though it wasn’t framed as such, Wolitzer’s essay could have been a referendum on her own career. For more than 30 years she’s been writing brilliant, incisive, often hilarious novels that focus largely, though not exclusively, on the inner lives of women. Her best-known book is probably The Interestings (2013), which follows a group of summer-camp friends into middle age. My two favorite works of hers are The Wife (2003), a portrayal of a uniquely stifling marriage that doubles as a send-up of the late-20th-century literary scene, and The Ten-Year Nap (2008), a psychologically complex examination of the gains and the sacrifices involved in caring for children. But regardless of the subject, her works have been treated more as messages in a bottle—passed from one woman to another with an insistent “You’ve got to read this”—than as major cultural occasions.
I wish I could argue that The Female Persuasion—a dynamic, sprawling novel that arrives trailing “serious event” clouds of glory, including a boldly lettered cover and the aforementioned splashy party—will be Wolitzer’s breakthrough, a novel devoured by men as well as women that will reveal to them important truths about female experience. But the nearly all-female attendance at the party gives me pause. The Female Persuasion is about graduating from college and finding one’s way in the world, about renegotiating youthful friendships and romantic relationships as an adult, about power and betrayal. It’s also about reckoning with the successes and failures of the women’s movement and learning how to be a feminist now, in the 21st century, when the old barriers to women’s success have been broken down but no one understands quite what has replaced them. To me, this challenge feels like one of the most urgent of our current moment, for both men and women. But if a novel falls in the forest and no men read it, does it make a sound?
We all know the guy. Maybe he’s the salesclerk who cornered us in a dressing room, demanding a look at our breasts. Maybe he’s the boss at our first or second job, commenting on our clothes or planting a kiss at happy hour. For Greer Kadetsky in The Female Persuasion, he’s a fraternity brother who gropes her, abruptly and violently, at a party in 2006. She’s a freshman whom fate has installed, to her disappointment, at Ryland, a lower-tier liberal-arts college. (She was supposed to go to Yale, but her parents screwed up her financial-aid forms.) Mousy and studious, she’s blindsided by her rage—not so much at her assailant as at the system, which gives him the proverbial slap on the wrist. She nurses her anger mostly in silence until Faith Frank, a feminist icon, shows up at Ryland to give a talk. Captivated by Faith’s signature tall suede boots and her commanding but kind manner, Greer squeaks out a question about misogyny so quietly that Faith can barely hear her. But afterward they encounter each other in the restroom, and Faith listens sympathetically and gives Greer her business card. For Greer it’s a talisman, “a reminder not to stay hot-faced and tiny-voiced.”
Faith—equal parts second-wave activist and fairy godmother—rose to prominence in the 1970s as one of the founders of Bloomer magazine, “the scrappier, less famous little sister to Ms.” (It’s named for Amelia Bloomer, the 19th-century women’s-rights advocate often erroneously credited with creating bloomers, groundbreaking apparel for women.) Upon graduation, Greer—whose name is surely an homage to Germaine Greer—arrives for an interview at Bloomer only to learn that the magazine is shutting down. It has been sidelined by edgy blogs such as Fem Fatale, which embraces “a radical critique of racism, sexism, capitalism, and homophobia” and whose editors lampoon Bloomer as “another pep talk to straight middle-class white women.” Soon Faith offers Greer a job at a new enterprise. With backing from an old friend, Emmett Shrader, a venture capitalist, Faith is starting a feminist foundation that will host conferences and fund ad hoc “special projects” to provide concrete help for women around the world. As Faith describes the foundation and specifics of the job, Greer wants to “crouch down on the floor like a weight lifter and raise the long white length of sofa into the air with Faith Frank still on it, just to show her that she could.” For the first time in her life, she feels empowered.
If all power corrupts, does female power corrupt femininely? In the 1980s, Faith’s best seller, also called The Female Persuasion, made a positive case for the differences between men and women, arguing that women should use their innate “gentleness” to transform American corporate culture. Feminism, as Faith still defines it, constitutes not just individualism and equal rights but also sisterhood:
Because as long as women are separate from one another, organized around competition … then it will be the rare woman who is not in the end narrowed and limited by our society’s idea of what a woman should be.
As Faith expertly bandages Greer’s thumb after she cuts herself slicing onions, Greer idealizes the coexistence of power and love: “When women got into positions of power, they calibrated and recalibrated tenderness and strength, modulating and correcting.” But only a few pages later, Greer, a vegetarian, succumbs to an unspoken pressure to eat the steak dinner Faith has cooked. Even the gentlest form of power, it turns out, contains an element of coercion.
Over the course of the book, both Faith and Greer commit acts of betrayal against women who are close to them that cast doubts on their feminist integrity and also raise a more abstract question: How much should one be willing to compromise in order to achieve political—or personal—goals? You don’t have to be a blogger at Fem Fatale to recognize the inevitable conflict between feminism and venture capitalism, which plays out in a surprising and devastating way. Faith believes in effecting change from within the system, but the novel implicitly asks whether that’s possible. In so doing, it may be more revolutionary than any of its crowd-pleasing characters.
If real progress has been made anywhere, Wolitzer suggests, it’s in the realm of the family, which feminism has always recognized as the headquarters of the patriarchy. Greer’s high-school boyfriend, Cory Pinto, once a “twin rocket ship” rising beside her, gets sidetracked when his family suffers a tragedy. Abandoning a promising career as a management consultant in Manila, he abruptly returns to their Massachusetts hometown and assumes the traditionally feminine role of caretaker. Does this make him a “big feminist,” as Greer’s mother later calls him? Playfully and subtly, The Female Persuasion returns again and again to the debate over whether men and women are essentially different. In a sly reversal of the usual tropes, Emmett Shrader, the novel’s other major male figure, is depicted primarily in terms of his relationship to Faith, for whom he has pined ever since they had a one-night stand early in her career. His physical attributes are front and center: dark hair, “citric scent,” the shiny loafers that he lines up neatly beside her rose-suede boots as they undress.
Wolitzer has always been expert at capturing an emotion in a single image, and in this book she luxuriates in her skill. The Female Persuasion is a little baggier than most of Wolitzer’s previous novels, but it is similarly studded with acerbic lines and astute observations. Greer, during that early encounter with Faith in the restroom, wonders what’s in her bag: “Thunderbolts? Gold leaf? Cinnamon? The tears of a thousand women, collected in a small blue bottle?” In Manila, Cory and his male roommates leave their mess for a maid rather than cleaning up after themselves, “in part because they were so busy, and in part because they could.” The women’s movement is summed up by the can of White Rain hair spray that Faith and her roommate once relied on to fix their hair into beehives, now discarded to hiss its contents into the garbage can. Some of the plotting feels a little too bald; like Chekhov’s gun, almost every moment in the early parts of the book reverberates later. But the psychology of Wolitzer’s characterizations is so deft, I found myself recalling episodes in Faith’s life as if they had happened to someone I know.
Looking back on her first few years with Faith, Greer says, “The people who change our lives … give us permission to be the person we secretly really long to be but maybe don’t feel we’re allowed to be.” This is as good a definition as any of what it means to become a fully realized adult, on a personal as well as professional or political level. Zee Eisenstat, Greer’s best friend from college, is denied that permission early on—her parents, on learning that she’s been sneaking out to gay bars, send her to a therapist, who views her homosexuality as a regrettable choice—and she only grows into her identity as a lesbian much later. Perhaps because of the betrayal of a friend that she’s tried to overlook, Greer continues to seek permission to speak up. She isn’t able to use what she later calls her “outside voice,” the voice she needs in order to effect change, until she addresses that inconvenient moment in her history.
Women’s difficulty in being heard has troubled Wolitzer at least since The Wife, in which Elaine Mozell, a novelist “of the female persuasion,” cautions Joan, a student and an aspiring writer, to watch out for the men who run the literary world. “Don’t think you can get their attention,” Elaine warns. There’s a conspiracy “to keep the women’s voices hushed and tiny and the men’s voices loud.” In the end, the question of who gets to speak comes down to who has power and what must be done to maintain it, which on the deepest level is what Wolitzer has always been writing about. “Power! Even the word is powerful,” Greer jokes to Zee, who responds, “It has the word pow in it. Like in a comic book.” But though the patriarchy may be ultimately at fault, neither Greer nor Faith can avoid her own agency.
The novel ends in the year 2019, with the current president still in the White House, generating wave upon wave of feminist rage. Men “always get to set the terms … they just come in and set them,” Greer complains. “They don’t ask, they just do it … I don’t want to keep repeating this forever. I don’t want to keep having to live in the buildings they make.” In an essay unveiling herself as the creator of the spreadsheet that rocked the media world last fall, Moira Donegan, a young writer who was fed up with the way women were treated in the workplace, echoed both Greer and Faith: “We’re being challenged to imagine how we would prefer things to be. This feat of imagination is about not a prescriptive dictation of acceptable sexual behaviors but the desire for a kinder, more respectful, and more equitable world.” In the past few months, women have begun to set the terms. If men won’t help us remake their buildings, we may just have to do it on our own.
This article appears in the May 2018 print edition with the headline “The Persuasive Female.”