The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Are women writers pushing men out of their chairs at the high-toned navel-gazing table?

Placeholder while article actions load

Author Lauren Sandler posted in Salon on Tuesday that, to her surprise, her new book  on the virtues of being and having an only child, “One and Only,” is generating more intense controversy than a previous book that she, a Northerastern liberal, wrote some years ago about Evangelical Christians.

The book — which has been talked about everywhere, from the Today Show to the opinion blogs– got an exponential buzz-blast of high-profile-babe controversy when in an excerpt, she focused on women writers who had one child Susan Sontag, Mary McCarthy, Joan Didion, Alice Walker — and from the list you can see it was a hornet’s nest of idiosyncratic mothering, at the least.

You go, girl!, I’m feeling — and I’m not being sarcastic — as she rides the buzz to the bank and, likely, a New York Times or Washington Post style section piece, having minted the newest fem-kerfuffle: Is her book slamming accomplished women who dare to overbreed?

(That’s what an incensed Jane Smiley –“She should have called me! I thought the article was BS-y” — and a disapproving Ayelet Waldman –” I’ll never stop being confused by the “The-Way-I-Parent-Is-Better-Than-The-Way-You-Parent” memoir. So defensive and ultimately narcissistic” — said on Facebook.)

Or is it a noble and long overdue strike against the retro assumption that having an only child is weird and selfish? (Or is it, cleverly even if unintentionally, both?)

Sandler’s book, and essays about her book, and excerpts of her book and posts about her book seem to me the latest examples of a new phenomenon: Women writers, thinkers and pundits metaphorically pushing men out of their chairs at what might be called the high-toned navel-gazing table.

Back when I, as an insecure mini-skirted Berkeley graduate, first moved to New York, the only writers whose lives and opinions about their lives counted were men.

Fawned-over literary dandies like Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, Bruce Jay Friedman, George Plimpton and Frederick Exley and all those Clay Felker-y culture changers who were madly in love with Gloria Steinem gathered at the Upper East Side restaurant Elaine’s (or so I heard) and colorfully argued and then went home and typed jousting exegeses on life, love, liquor and idea battle royales for Esquire, Playboy and the Paris Review.

When Robert Benton and David Newman (the Esquire buddies who gave us the movie “Bonnie and Clyde”) wrote about “The New Sentimentality” a few years earlier, essaying the sensibility that was a kind of prescient precursor to the 60s, it was — “man to man,” as they put it — all from an XY chromosome point of view.

So storied and entrenched was the sheer assumption that pen-wielding men were the proper conversation holders and the proper conversation subjects that, as late as 1979 (with feminism a full 10 years old), Jay McInerney wrote a whole article on that very “Elaine’s boys’ club” phenomenon.

Perhaps it’s gender-solipsistic of me, but I can’t think of one recent piece of lifestyle-opinion journalism about life among the media class that has been about how men live and love. Maybe it’s that most men still don’t (yet) have to “balance” and “juggle” and do all those circus-named things women with careers have been doing for four decades.

But maybe it’s also more subtle and interesting. Women in what used to be called (and we’ll hold onto the label for now, for lack of a better one) the chattering classes are getting secure enough to be contentious with one another and are getting hubristic enough to think our arguments with one another are compelling to other people.

Just before the present only-child fem-kerfuffle, we had the one about Deborah Copaken Kogan and her claims, in a quickly-went-viral essay in The Nation, at having been “slut-shamed” by book reviewers because she wrote about sleeping with men while being a war correspondent. Were women writers slut-shamed by book reviewers, male and female? Were book reviews sexist? This passionate argument went on in some digital quarters for weeks.

Just before that was of course Sheryl Sandberg and “Lean In.” Was her book and her crusade a super-rich, super-powerful woman’s vanity project, or an exhortation and program that could really help and inspire others? Bricks and bats were digitally tossed, with some very high-octane-resume ladies weighing in.

And just before that, a gonzo war of words and minds had erupted over Elizabeth Wurtzel’s wildly viral grenade-lob of a New York magazine piece, “Elizabeth Wurtzel Confronts Her One-Night Stand of a Life .”  In it, she touted the fact that she’d chosen a risky, forever-bohemian (well, label-dropping bohemian) single woman writer’s life, while so many of her peers had gone all safely, dully married and domestic, an argument that Katie Roiphe — one of the most famous lit-lady lifestyle- opinion provocateurs — not only seconded but possibly inspired with her frequent books and essays.

The legendary Elaine’s is two years gone now and is still being lamented and, of course, its unique and salty owner Elaine Kaufman died three-and-a-half years ago. Sad as such sweet partings are, good riddance to the cultural New York where the only females who could get into a life-and-art-and-work conversation were the giggling, leggy Megan Drapers sitting at the bar there, being granted mascot and arm-candy status after the grand, male, drunken work of pontificating was over for the night. Now women writers have taken over that table — and a nice, clean, smoke-free, shot-glass shorn, non-caloric virtual one it is. Hooray for us for commandeering it!

But getting a table to yourself in the center of the room can be dangerous to humility and perspective. It invites the risk of a certain kind of smugness, a preoccupation with White People’s Problems, the misperception that lifestyle-choice arguing is maybe more important than it is.

To paraphrase Freud, sometimes having an only child is really having an only child. With all that’s going on in the world — notwithstanding a brava! to lit-women who hear the zeitgeist whistle of a good, looming Mac-fight and respond with wit and substance — it’s good to remember that.