When I was 19 I met Gloria Steinem. At the time I was an intern at a segment on famous New Yorkers at New York One, the city’s 24-hour news station. Steinem was our guest that week. Throughout the interview I sat in awe, thinking, she’s the reason I have access to birth control. She’s right there! I shook her hand! Seven years later, when Steinem suggested that young women were supporting Bernie Sanders because they wanted boyfriends, my memory of her soured.
Meg Wolitzer, in The Female Persuasion, mentions Steinem briefly as someone far senior, in terms of fame and impact, to the book’s similarly famous radical feminist, the fictional Faith Frank: “But Faith, who had been described as ‘a couple of steps down from Gloria Steinem,’ remained important.” Wolitzer never makes it clear why, mostly because she uses platitudes to describe the central characters of her novel.
Frank visits Ryland College, the school attended by the protagonist Greer Kadetsky, where the two meet. On campus, Frank’s speech is described so banally that it almost reads like an insult: “What also mattered was that it was her speaking them, meaning them, conveying them with such feeling to everyone in the room.” Frank begins to mentor Greer, first in a short meeting after her speech, later as an employee.
Greer is yet another female protagonist in a long line of them in contemporary fiction for whom the reader develops very little sympathy, much less hope. She’s a bookish introvert disappointed with her stoner parents and their inattention to college financial aid forms. Her book smarts do not translate to any visible intelligence, and Wolitzer employs prosaic language to describe her: Greer’s “intense academic life up until now had been spent making full, reassuring use of binders and color-coded dividers and highlighter pens that lent her reading material the colors of two different kinds of lemonade.”
There’s a fair amount of sex in The Female Persuasion, none of which sounds like the sex people actually have, nor provides the characters anything but cursory insight into what should be an essential part of any conversation about liberation. Greer’s best friend from college, Zee, is an androgynous lesbian activist trying to rebel against her Scarsdale judge parents. When she asks Greer what she likes about sex with her longtime boyfriend Cory, this is what the reader gets: “How could you possibly explain to someone else why you liked what you liked? It was all so strange.” Wolitzer’s efforts to explain sexual desire boils down to “strange.”
A few days ago the writer Talia Lavin tweeted screenshots of male novelists’ descriptions of women. The rogues’ gallery included many prominent male writers in the 20th and 21st centuries: Jack Kerouac, Philip Roth, George R.R. Martin, John Updike, Jonathan Franzen, Andy Weir, and Paul Auster. In the vacuum of language that doesn’t reduce female personhood to tits and ass, Wolitzer has done little to improve the tenor of fiction’s treatment of female bodies. She describes Greer’s “tapering waist, and a vagina that menstruated in its secret, brilliant way each month.” For Faith Frank, born in 1943 and a proponent of counterculture once she leaves her childhood home, dismissing men who come on to her is devoid of insight—a surprising blank for a feminist. “Because how could men who behaved like this think that women would ever like them? How could men like this even hold their heads up? Yet they did.”
Greer begins working at Loci, a sort of women-centric TED Talks, formed by Frank with the help of a venture capital firm founded by a male billionaire. At disparate moments throughout the novel the narrative contains pieces of wisdom. Greer tells Frank that she became a devoted reader as a child because she wished to absorb everything but also to escape. When Greer’s boyfriend’s little brother dies in an accident, his tireless efforts to abandon his Ivy League credentials and take care of his mother are moving in a way the rest of the novel isn’t. Best friend Zee gives up being a paralegal, and moves to Chicago to work for a Teach For America-style organization as a history teacher. Her working and romantic relationship with Noelle, the school’s high school counselor, feels like it’s part of a well-written screenplay, in the best possible way.
But by focussing on various characters and their trajectories, no one achieves the sort of transcendence they might otherwise be worth. Greer is a glorified assistant, eventually writing speeches the reader never sees, for the women who attend the conferences. Frank is ultimately more beholden to Loci’s funding than anything else. Cory and Greer’s breakup—she wants him to return to work after grieving for his brother, but he refuses because his father, blaming his mother for their son’s death, has left the States—is dispatched in a few sentences. Frank’s famed 1970s debate with novelist Holt Rayburn is a weak stand-in for Germaine Greer’s legendary takedown of Norman Mailer in 1971.
There’s a strong undercurrent of “white lady feminism” in The Female Persuasion; it’s noted even by Frank, whose Loci summits and keynotes and conferences have become peppered with manicures, a psychic, and extravagant canapés: “But by now it was clear not only that Loci hadn’t kept up with all the galloping changes in feminism, but that the way it presented itself was also a reason for vilification. Loci was doing good business, and naturally people were writing things on Twitter like #whiteladyfeminism and #richladies, and the hashtag that for some reason irritated Faith most, #fingersandwichfeminism.” It doesn’t take a leap of imagination to conclude that the absence of trans advocacy in The Female Persuasion is intentional, because Germaine Greer is in fact a trans-exclusionary radical feminist, and there’s nothing in the book to suggest that trans women are included in the fight for equal rights.
Perhaps the dullest, and therefore most insulting, part of Cory and Greer’s narrative is how their scrambled 20s are described. Years later, Cory crashes at her Greenpoint studio. As Greer unfolds a sofa bed for him, Wolitzer writes, “They were doing what they could, crashing in other places, living extemporaneously. Soon enough, the pace would pick up, the solid matter of life would kick in, and people would say, wait, wait, I’m not ready for that, I’m still figuring it all out, I’m still goofing around.” It’s a bizarre observation: Cory has been living at home with his mother, and is in town for the night; Greer has lived in the same apartment since she moved to New York after college. No twentysomething regards forced vagabondism as “goofing around”: It’s a circumstance born of mountains of student debt, an anemic job market, rising inflation, stagnant wages, and the decimation of the social safety net. It isn’t fun. But Wolitzer paints with a broad brush that doesn’t capture any of the nuance in actual twentysomethings’ lives.
In the letter that accompanied the advance copy of this novel, publisher Riverhead Books’s editor-in-chief wrote, “If The Female Persuasion isn’t this era’s Great American Novel, then I don’t think there is one to be had.” The publisher is right. The search for this era’s Great American Novel continues.