Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a Meg Wolitzer fan (see here and here). During the past year or so I’ve been working my way through her earlier books, and I just finished Surrender, Dorothy, which was a quick and fun and thought-provoking read, maybe not quite as polished as some of her more recent books but who cares about that, really.
Coming to the last page of this short book, it struck me that Wolitzer is a lot like George V. Higgins, a long-time favorite of mine (see here, here, and here). They each have a strong style, also each of them writes about an insular group of people, but they’re interested in how these people link up to the rest of the world. I guess that describes a lot of novels; still, I see a similarity here. The specifics of their styles are different, though: Wolitzer tells us her characters’ thoughts, while Higgins mostly portrays his characters though dialogue and some action.
One thing that Wolitzer and Higgins have in common is that they take sides. Not against each other—they write in different genres and don’t seem to be talking to each other, as it were (I googled *”George V Higgins” “Meg Wolitzer”* and all I could find was this column from political columnist George Will, which mentions these two authors briefly, but not with any connection to each other)—but, rather, they take sides in their own fiction. With both Wolitzer and Higgins, you get a sense that the author likes some of the characters and dislikes others. Some authors are more Olympian; others have a rigorous single-viewpoint narrative; but Wolitzer and Higgins are a bit less disciplined, or so it seems to me, in that they jump between perspectives but with a kind of implicit narrator who is taking sides in the action. I don’t mind this—I actually find it kind of charming, that the author cares enough about his or her characters in this way.
Both authors also have a good skill of managing expectations. Much of storytelling involves expectations and surprise: building suspense, defusing non-suspense, and so on. Recall that saying that the best music is both expected and surprising in every measure. So, if you’re writing a novel and you introduce a character who seems like a bad person, you have to be aware that your reader is trying to figure it out: is this truly a bad person who just reveals badness right away, is this a good person who is misunderstood, will there be character development, etc. Some of this can be managed using multiple perspectives. Anyway, I think that both Wolitzer and Higgins are good at this, in different ways.
Writing this post, I also thought of another similarity between the two authors, which is that I don’t think either is particularly good at physical descriptions of people. Surrender, Dorothy had one vivid description of a fat man (“squat and friendly and seemed to be waiting for his first heart attack to happen”) and his thin wife (“built like a praying mantis and draped in jewels”), but that’s as much of a caricature as a physical description. The main characters in Surrender, Dorothy, as in other Wolitzer books, are often described as pretty or plain or attractive or unattractive or handsome, but not much more than that. The description is vivid and it does the job of distinguishing the people; it’s just not usually visually specific. For example, one character is described as having “a long, studious face . . . He had been an awkward adolescent . . . ears were perpetually red-hot, like someone who seems to have just come back from the barbership, and he was a jiggler; a crossed leg often went flapping like a wing . . .” A minor character is described as “a pudding-faced woman . . . who had a head of hair that looked as though she cut it herself while blindfolded.” So it’s not like Wolitzer can’t do vivid descriptions; it’s just that she only does it once in awhile, and, when she does it, it’s usually more conceptual than straight physical description. The result is that I can’t quite visualize what her characters look like, and this can be a problem because sometimes the plot is driven by characters being attractive or appealing, or unattractive or unappealing. I say this not to complain about Wolitzer—I’m a big fan of her books and I look forward to reading more of them—it’s just interesting after reading a book to think about its style.
P.S. This is completely unrelated, but since this post is off-topic anyway, here’s something funny I came across from 2012: Rick Santorum quotes as New Yorker cartoons. Yeah, I know, shooting fish in a barrel. But, what can I say, they’re funny. I guess this dates me as someone who’s so old that he’s heard of santorum.