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Original Essays

The Joy of the 1970s

by Meg Wolitzer
  1. The Position

    The Position

    Meg Wolitzer
    "Each book Meg Wolitzer writes is better than the last....The Position is the most moving, enthralling, shamelessly perceptive new novel I've read in years." Julia Glass, author of Three Junes

    "I love the premise, the characters, the story, the writing, the eye, the ear, you name it. If this book doesn't win prizes, I'll eat my galley." Elinor Lipman, author of The Pursuit of Alice Thrift

  2. The Wife
    $6.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

    The Wife

    Meg Wolitzer
    "[A]n eviscerating and acerbically funny novel....Wolitzer keeps us guessing right up until the gut-wrenching twist of a finale." Entertainment Weekly
  3. Surrender, Dorothy
    $3.50 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

    Surrender, Dorothy

    Meg Wolitzer
    "There is an appealing delicacy to [Wolitzer's] writing and a skillful exploitation of the almost invisible neuroses of the people who pass through her pages." The New York Times, Richard Bernstein
People often ask me if my work is autobiographical, and without pausing I always tell them no, it isn't. In the case of my new novel, The Position, that quickly uttered "no" is as true as ever. The novel concerns a set of parents named the Mellows who, in the 1970s, write a Joy of Sex-type of book featuring illustrations of themselves making love. My book deals with the fallout of that experience, and I track the lives of the four children of those parents over the next thirty years.

But if a novel isn't autobiographical, then where do its particulars come from? It's easy to say that something isn't from your own experience at all, no sir, but it's a lot more difficult to track and examine the subtleties of how, exactly, the thing came to be. Most writers would tell you that their ideas, while not necessarily autobiographical, do rise up out of some kind of stew of experience and intuition. Even in fiction, the theory of spontaneous generation doesn't have much credibility.

So I thought I would try to take apart the components of my novel, The Position, the way a child might take apart a telephone, looking at the tiny colored wires and wingnuts inside, in the hope of figuring out how the thing actually works.

The Big Idea
The one-line description of my novel, as I've given above, is something I was pleased with when I came up with it. I knew that people who are roughly my age tend to remember the 1970s with a sort of ironic nostalgia. It wasn't just that the clothes were comical or that the entire country was coming off the alternately righteous and semi-conscious stance of the 1960s. For us, the 1970s was the decade when we came of age, and I still think that for anyone, the period in which you come into your own will always remain in memory as the most vivid and powerful time of all. So I was starting out with an unconscious way to return to the experiences of my own adolescence, already beginning to smell the strawberry shampoo my friends and I used, and the pot in the air, and to visualize the ponchos we wore and the books we read and the boys we made out with. But these were just details: they were not enough to hang an entire novel on. A novel requires much more than that in order to have a reason to be.

My parents did not write a sex book, not even close. However, my mother was (and is) a novelist who included a very brief but candid sex scene in her first novel, Ending. Couple that with my memory of the hook-and-eye on my parents' bedroom door, a small piece of hardware that spoke loudly to me, reminding me that this room was more than just a place that my sister and I could enter and flop down on the bed whenever we wanted while my parents watched TV or read the paper. I never recall actually turning the knob of my parents' door and finding it locked, but the catalyst of the hook-and-eye probably set off a chain of thought that I'd forgotten about for a long time, until I began thinking of writing a new novel. And, of course, the experience of reading The Joy of Sex with my sister still resonates; I recall that the couple in the illustrations were far closer to my parents' age than my own. The man looked like a cross between Kris Kristofferson and Alan Bates, and the woman was pale and Audrey Hepburn-necked and wore go-go boots in at least one of the drawings. Who were those people? I probably wondered at the time. Did they have kids?

The Characters
I'm also frequently asked which of my characters is my favorite, for The Position has quite a large cast. This was the first time I'd written a book with chapters that are told from such a wide variety of perspectives. There are four grown children in the novel, two parents, and assorted lovers and spouses. But it's really the children who interested me the most. The oldest sibling, Holly, was for years one of those lost, druggy girls everyone has known at one time or another. Why did you make her this way? someone asked me at a reading recently, and my first response was that, in a sense, it was a question of mathematics. In any large family, it always strikes me that someone falls out, someone gets lost along the way, someone doesn't cling to the family sleigh as hard as all the others. Why this is so, I can't say, but I had the sense that if I were to make this book realistic, then one of the siblings would not subscribe to the myth of the family as devotedly as the others.

I remembered a girl I had known when I was growing up. She was beautiful and angry, with long hair and Earth Shoes and a fixation on dangerous boys. Once, during gym class, we were all out on the field behind our junior high school, and we were doing an archery unit. This girl put down her bow and arrow and began to walk in front of the targets. She was stoned and oblivious as arrows flew near her head and girls began to shout at her to move away. Although I didn't put that scene in my novel, I imagine that this is something Holly might have done. I can see her with a hail of arrows all around her, walking out of sight, at least for a period of time. I guess my sense is that ambivalence might be someone's primary response to their family, but even so, we are all drawn to the family in some deep and reflexive way.

Or maybe it's just me. Maybe I'm drawn to the family, or at least to writing about it. I think everything happens in the realm of the family; it's a perfect petri dish for looking at slights and disappointments and love and loss. My character Claudia, the younger daughter, is far less beautiful than her sister Holly, and she has always tried to be a dutiful daughter, which in a sense has kept her removed from experience. Though I am neither beautiful like Holly nor clumsy like Claudia, I definitely put a piece of my child-self into Claudia — the self that was timid and afraid of displeasing my parents or teachers. Claudia's trajectory takes her from being slightly removed from the world to really joining in, just the way growing up can force a timid child to wade into the action.

The oldest of the Mellow children is named Michael, and he is the conscience of the family, the worrier. I don't relate to him very much, though I feel sorry for him because he has trouble enjoying himself. I put him in a corporate environment because it was a way of highlighting his own loneliness. Lastly, the younger son, Dashiell, is a gay Republican, and while you might say this was a stretch for me to write, I found that he was my favorite character of all. I don't agree with Dashiell's politics, but I felt that his combination of sexuality and worldview reflect a deep conflict, and I see him as trying to resolve it endlessly, and I admire his tenacity.

Mary McCarthy once accused Salinger of loving his characters "more than God," and while I understand the complaint she leveled against him, I too felt a real love for all of the grown children in my novel, who were forced to confront sexuality in a way that wasn't of their own choosing, and whose lives have changed because of it.

I suppose it's fair to say that The Position didn't come out of any one experience, but was formed in different ways over time, a result of my occasional preoccupations with family, love, sex, forgiveness, guilt, loneliness, childhood, adolescence, death, and, of course, that strangely sweet and odd bracket of long-ago time called the 1970s. spacer

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