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Unpublished Letter to the New York Times by Kate Zambreno

When reading Michiko Kakutani’s review of Jenny Offill’s novel, Department of Speculation (1/29/2014), I was disappointed to find the amount of speculation Kakutani engaged in on behalf of the female narrator (and, seemingly by extension, the author) that reads as mired in a stagnant, boring gender bias in contemporary publishing.

Kakutani compares Offill’s new work to three great American novels of fragmentation published in the 1970s—Renata Adler’s Speedboat, Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, and Joan Didion’s Play it as it Lays—although Kakutani strangely doesn’t situate Didion’s gorgeous work of Hollywood disintegration with Hardwick and Adler, instead framing the second half of Offill’s novel (with its switch to the third-person narrator) as taking a better, wittier turn from Didion buzzkill territory into something more like Nora Ephron’s Heartburn.

With all deference to the witty oeuvre of Nora Ephron, a.) Didion’s work is actually wickedly funny, but in a chilly, nihilist vein and b.) remind me, why do works of literature written by women writers have to always be funny and upbeat? Do their heroines have to be likable and entertaining as well? Kakutani similarly takes issue with Offill’s first-person philosophical narrator being too “negative” in the novel’s first half, with its meditations on the struggles of everyday existence, calling her a “Debbie Downer.” Let me quote this in full: 

“At the beginning of this carefully carpentered novel, such pronouncements can make the narrator (i.e., the wife) seem like a cartoon of a high-strung, intellectually pretentious, narcissistic woman — at least this is how her self-presentation comes off. Her constant quoting of writers and thinkers like Simone Weil, Hesiod, Keats, Stefan Zweig and Wittgenstein feels like the hectic name-dropping tweets of an eager-to-impress literary student, and her proclivity for dwelling on the negative can’t help but summon memories of Debbie Downer on ‘Saturday Night Live.’”

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