In the July 3, 2000 edition of the New Yorker—the debut fiction issue, which always marks a week of rabid teardowns in the likes of Brooklyn, Iowa City, and the Mission District of San Francisco—there was a photo of a young woman sitting on the steps of a brownstone. She was sexy and ethereal, with bone-china skin. Less pretty than interesting-looking (always preferable for an author), she faced the camera with a stare that fell somewhere between Fuck you and Come up and see me sometime.
Naturally, I despised her instantly. But then I read her story, which was terrifying, erotic, and not quite like anything I’d read before. It was called “The Male Gaze,” about a young girl navigating sex and love in New York, and it both burrowed into my psyche and scared the crap out of me.
I myself was twenty-seven and on my way to moving alone to that great city. Surely it won’t be that bad, I remember thinking. Well, it was, and worse. And as the episodes of loneliness went on through the years, I would revisit that story, always thankful that someone was writing something about single young women other than Carrie Bradshaw–esque sex-capades, much as I enjoyed those hopeful, entirely fictional accounts of what the city could be for a girl.
The author’s name was Lucinda Rosenfeld. Since that story, she has published four books, all about women: a book of stories entitled, What She Saw… (from which “The Male Gaze” is excerpted) and three novels: Why She Left, I’m So Happy For You, and The Pretty One. I have read them all with growing puzzlement. What throws me off is not Rosenfeld’s writing, which, though growing slightly in generosity, remains wonderfully bitter, witty, and dark. My rising discomfort lies in the waning interest in her work, both by reviewers and even the people who design her covers and place her badass I-will-cut-you novels in the cute, girly sections of the bookstores.
Before I go on, let me tell you that this piece of writing is the first column of a series called “Missed.” The title gives me a wide berth, but mainly the topics will be writers, artists, musicians, movies—anything, really—that I feel are unduly missed by smart people who would be interested.
See, often I find myself sitting at my desk alone out here in the middle of fucking nowhere with no noise but the hippie neighbors’ wind chimes and my Internet connection. (The author, a novelist and creative-writing lecturer at San Francisco State, lives in Bolinas, California, with her family, a large dog, and a procrastination problem.) I read and watch and listen, with the sad conclusion that often we miss beautiful things we should pay attention to, and other times, due to what I can only conclude are social media pile-ons, we misinterpret others. I see conversations about books, articles, and movies that begin with perfectly good intentions, only to be batted back and forth online by bored cynics until the seed from which they came is all but destroyed. Hell, we are missing things all over the place, and, as a writer, it pisses me off.
So here it is, an effort to ease my insomnia. An entirely subjective whisper against the droning roar.
So back to Lucinda Rosenfeld.* I hesitate to bring this up, because what if she reads this and feels badly? But The Pretty One received a review this summer in the New York Times that was so insulting I had to take the newspaper directly to the outside recycling bin for fear of contaminating my own writerly house with bad juju. “The women she writes about have a snide streak that Rosenfeld’s own sardonic tone amplifies” (i.e., the writer is bitchy). “…Strings of questions are meant to suggest the texture of thought, and yet the window into the women’s heads reveals a monotonous landscape” (i.e., bitchy women are boring). “But it’s bad form to criticize a work for failing at something it’s not trying for, and The Pretty One is meant to be funny, not deep.” (No translation needed. Just, ouch.)
One could only think, Jesus, what did this reviewer have against this woman? Did Lucinda Rosenfeld steal a boyfriend back in the nineties? (Entirely possible, given that New Yorker photo.) Yet the venom also abounds in her Amazon and Goodreads reviews—dark, cruel places where I could only momentarily hover. So this curious animosity towards Rosenfeld comes from somewhere else, and, as a fellow authoress, I feel the need to pick it apart a bit.
Here is why I loved The Pretty One, and her others: Lucinda Rosenfeld’s characters are mean. In the opening scene, the title character, frustrated by her three-year-old daughter’s stay-awake antics, shoves her child violently back onto the bed. It’s not nice. Actually, it’s a little shocking. But how many bored, frustrated mothers have been tempted to do just that? Or try the character’s lack of remorse for, years ago, having ruined a man’s life: “Statutory rape laws aside, the blow job she’d given her thirty-eight year old English teacher…had been strictly voluntary. What’s more, she enjoyed it—if not the actual deed, then the sensation of limitless power it conferred.” The lack of female as victim here is, frankly, thrilling. And then there is one of my favorite parts of I’m So Happy For You, when the main character hears of her best friend’s engagement: “Wendy…couldn’t help but wish that the transformation in Daphne’s personal life had taken longer or been more emotionally wrenching. No one deserved to be happy that fast.” Having survived the summer of 2007, a morbid lonely parade of four lavish “bestie” weddings, I could only think: Yes, yes, yes.
These are the sorts of books you wince while reading, and maybe even put down for a moment, then pick up again, needing more of the black stuff. You don’t read a Lucinda Rosenfeld book with tea; you pour yourself a scotch and retreat to a dark room while your kids scream for you outside the door.
It’s a brave thing, to write mean. We all want to be Grace Paley characters, but we aren’t always, and what writers like Lucinda Rosenfeld are ballsy enough to say is the first step toward recovery is admitting it. And she needs balls, too. Because frankly, from where I’m sitting on my faraway, windswept perch, this author’s getting unfairly knocked around a lot.
Here’s the scariest part: It used to be okay to be mean. Take a look at Anne Beattie’s phenomenal Love Always without being stung by the acid coming off the page. Read a little Dorothy Parker and challenge yourself to try and find a warm passage about female friendship. And how about Jane Austen? “I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal,” she once wrote to her sister Cassandra. True, she held it back in the novels a bit, but there are plenty of slicing passages in, say, Mansfield Park.
All right. Lest I start a rabid Austen fan tidal wave, Rosenfeld is no Jane. The books I’m talking about are short, sharp, and not quite balanced. Yet today, as opposed to in Austenland, it seems to be forbidden to be mean as a woman in print. Or, God forbid, online! (See, for instance, the comments in response to Elisa Albert’s fascinating missive in Salon about how she finds female friendship next to impossible.) Why the change? Is it the expectation built by this brave new online world to be accessible? There seems to be a pleasantness expected of a woman writer today; a quirky likability factor (see Lena Dunham, Miranda July) that an author like Rosenfeld gives up when penning a book like I’m So Happy For You.
It needs to be said that Rosenfeld’s characters are never stupid-mean. Certainly we don’t need any more of that in the world. These girls are smart. And they’re also not crazy-mean. For example, Gillian Flynn’s women tap into the id, but that’s okay, right? Because they’re killers. But Rosenfeld’s girls are just plain negative. They don’t see the bright side even though they sort of have everything. They are not hungry or abused. Yet they are trapped by their own expectations, formed, perhaps, by what their mothers and sisters told them life would be like. And so they suffer, with bitter wit. They are Anne Sextons in need of a drink; Jean Rhyses waiting alone in cheap hotel rooms paid for by an unworthy men. Things did not turn out okay for Holly Golightly in the book version, remember? And it was great. Life is okay for Rosenfeld’s girls, and yet they destroy themselves. It’s unseemly, and delicious.
One last observation about the Lucinda Rosenfeld problem: Publishers don’t seem to know what to do with contemporary Parkers and Golightlys anymore. The Pretty One is graced with the classic “Hey! This book is a girl’s vacation read!” cover—the backs of three women’s heads as they sit together on a sofa. I like that one of them is holding a pair of scissors—that’s sort of right. Except the scissors should, perhaps, be covered with fresh blood. The books look pretty, and a pretty book promises a pretty read. Yet Rosenfeld’s books are anything but, which is the most wonderful thing about them. The girls of Amazon are right—you will not like the women in her books. You will close the novel and think, Thank God, thank God. I’m fucked up, but not that bad.
This is not an accident, friends. A writer who is able to do such a thing is not herself mean, but instead, a master manipulator. In other words, she’s very, very good at sculpting her fiction. You will not feel good after reading The Pretty One, but you will feel like a worthy human being. I’d wager, given the talent at hand, this is, by all means, on purpose.
[*] I do not know Lucinda Rosenfeld, but in the interest of full disclosure, she did once give me a blurb. Yet it was only because we had the same editor at the time, and she turned it in two months late, and also, it was sort of just lukewarm. So while I was seriously thankful, as asking for blurbs is the same as licking a plugged in, rusty light bulb socket, this article is in no means a favor. Though if I ever did meet her, I’d definitely buy her a drink.