‘A Dead End for Mentorship: A Review of Meg Wolitzer’s “The Female Persuasion”’, by Becca Schuh

Penguin Random House

In the spring of 2016, I stood on a stage next to a piano in the dark back room of a bar in Manhattan. My voice was nearly gone, raspy and hoarse from one of the yearly winter plagues. I read about the college in California where I picked oranges and drank with my professors, about women I admired and wanted to love. Afterwards, sitting at a table with my friends and a hot toddy, an ethereal woman with severe dark hair parted down the middle came up behind me. “I loved your reading,” she said. I knew her writing, I could barely breathe I was so flattered. She asked if I’d be interested in taking one of her classes that summer. Of course I said yes.

This woman went on to become my mentor, and my friend. It was clear early on in the class that we had a similar aesthetic and a similar working process. We did a one-on-one manuscript consultation after the culmination of the class, and she invited me to readings. She introduced me to other young writers who quickly became my good friends. We sent Instagram messages about gel manicures, we gossiped about which books are Actually Bad. A year and a half after that first meeting in the dark back room of the bar, I went to Italy for a workshop she was teaching with an indie publisher.

This is all to say, I know intimately the magic and intoxication of meeting a woman you admire and, against your self-doubt, being taken under her wing. I know it is possible, and I know it is not an exaggeration to say that it is fundamentally life altering.

This is where we meet Greer, the protagonist of Meg Wolitzer’s most recent novel, The Female Persuasion. After seeing a spellbinding speech by Faith Frank, a Gloria Steinem-esque second wave feminist, Greer catches Faith in the bathroom and engages in a conversation about a notorious fraternity rapist. Faith gives Greer her business card, and Greer leaves the conversation awestruck. She doesn’t yet know what form her acquaintance with this woman will take, but she knows that the moment is the beginning of something, a future. It feels like destiny. Feels like? Insofar as destiny exists, this moment is destiny. If you’re lucky, you do meet people who set your life on a course you’ve only dreamed of.

Greer doesn’t speak to Faith again until after she graduates. She keeps the business card, and while floundering in the familiar aimlessness of post-graduation, sends Faith an email. Initially, Faith invites Greer to interview for a job at her old school feminist magazine, Bloomer, but on the day of her interview the staff receives the news that the magazine is shutting down. Ever persistent, Greer follows up with Faith anyway, and is offered a job at her new foundation, Loci, something of a feminist speaker’s bureau that claims it will eventually fund on-the-ground mentorship initiatives in developing countries.

In the midst of a discordant symphony of subplots involving tangential characters (a panic-attack inducing tragic accident, a decades old affair with a charismatic businessman, a stint with a Teach for America-esque program), Greer and Faith’s relationship, the supposed central force of the novel, emerges. If you can call it a relationship. The bond the two women share is the test tube baby of the corporate capitalism in which every arena of the novel operates.

This relationship is delivered in a somehow simultaneously stale and mawkish prose (Greer describing herself: "she still looked appealing in a very specific way, small and compact and determined, like a flying squirrel."). And the skeleton of the plot is as obvious as reading a blueprint for a poorly constructed building. Oh, the anti-abortion senator happened to be Faith Frank’s college roommate? As anyone who has read a commercial novel in the past twenty years could predict, of course she was.

Wolitzer is not blind to the fact that Faith Frank is a corporate stooge, tasked with blasting feminist propaganda with no basis in actual organizing or advocacy. Even before Greer begins working with Faith at Loci, she says: “The truth was that [Faith] wasn’t a rare or particularly original thinker.” She reports to the reader that more progressive feminist websites turn their sardonic lens on Faith: “The author of The Female Persuasion [also the title of Faith’s magnum opus] tries to persuade us that being in bed with ShraderCapital is perfectly fine. Corporate feminism much, Faith Frank?”

There is little evidence that Greer becomes any greater than a millimeter more progressive or actionable than Faith herself. Though the book doesn’t explicitly state the politics of the characters, it’s not hard to glean: they are the neoliberal kin who believe that everything would probably be okay today if only Hillary had campaigned in Wisconsin. Their white feminism is evidenced by their approach to ascension: Greer speaks on the phone to her college best friend, Zee, about the first summit of the speaker’s bureau: “The meaning and uses of power.”

Though Zee is arguably supposed to function as the progressive foil to Faith, she falls short of actually conceiving of a power that exists outside of a patriarchal structure: “To live in a world of female power – mutual power – felt like a desirable dream to Zee. Having power meant that the world was like a pasture with the gate left open, and that there was nothing stopping you, and you could run and run.” Instead of imagining (or, for that matter, researching) a different type of world, one in which we strive for communalism instead of influence, Zee fantasizes about a power conceived by men, which is a power rooted in exploitation and subjugation.

There is evidence that Wolitzer understands the problems with the corporate feminism that she portrays:

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.

The question is, if she knows, why does she not offer an alternative? Why does she spend four hundred pages writing a four act play version of Lean In without spending even one chapter excavating the fact that there are, indeed, alternatives to the damaging and tiresome system that she portrays? Why does she set up Greer to be nothing but a supine heir to the second wave feminism that Faith espouses?

The novel never dares to imagine what might exist beyond the corporate, capitalist version of mentorship that it portrays. The strangest thing about this omission is that Wolitzer would not have to imagine or create the paradigms for a new kind of mentorship, one that is lateral rather than hierarchical. Those models already exist, and have for many years: among other options, in the form of the Italian concept of affidamentos and the practices of radical pedagogy in institutional education.

Eileen Myles, a contemporary of Wolitzer’s, defines affidamentos in this way:

There is a word in Italian, affidamento, which describes a relationship of trust between two women, in which the younger asks the elder to help her obtain something she desires. Women I know are turning around to see if that woman is here. The woman turning, that’s the revolution. The room is gigantic, the woman is here.

Taken literally from Italian, affidamento simply means entrustment, but the Italian feminist movements of the late 80's and early 90's turned it into a concept pivotal in their destabilization of traditional patriarchal society. “Affidamento focuses mainly upon the presence of another woman who functions as a referential point to the other, and whose role is to provide the required authority to visibly legitimize her desire at the time she attempts to culturally transmit it,” writes Noelia Diaz-Vicedo, and Myles is careful to denote that in her iteration of the concept, the relationship can and should take on a horizontal transmission of knowledge and access, a back and forth, rather than a traditional vertical one.

As I’m sure I’ve made clear, I’m no fan of the characiturish descriptions of emotion in The Female Persuasion or the parodic nature of the plot. What I struggle with even more however is what a missed opportunity it is. I’m lucky – I’ve had access to both the theory behind a new kind of relationship, and lived those relationships in practice. Most women across the country don’t have that. They might be able to go to the bookstore or library and read The Female Persuasion though, and find – what? No models of what they might hope for in a mentor or creative lifestyle, but simply a portrait of a past that deserves to be laid to rest. They can already read Lean In. Why do we need a fictionalized version?

It further baffles me that Wolitzer chose to take this route as it’s well documented that she herself has experienced more lateral forms of mentorship. She, among many other creative women of her generation, was a mentee and friend of Nora Ephron. In an article for The Cut, Catie L’Heureux wrote:

At Wolitzer’s book party last fall, dozens of women gathered in a Manhattan wine cellar to listen to her talk about her own mentor, Nora Ephron. In a conversation with New York’s Rebecca Traister, she remembered becoming one of Ephron’s many protegées in the 1980s, after Ephron made her novel This Is My Life into a feature film. The two were friends for 24 years, during which time Wolitzer watched Ephron mentor many women, including Traister and Lena Dunham, by calling up young writers to tell them she liked their work and offering to read more of their writing.

I don’t know if Ephron identified with the term affidamentos, but all the literature surrounding her relationships with other women suggests that her approach was at least related to the concept.

I’ve always had sympathy for writers whose books were finished before November 2016 but not set for publication until months later. The final chapter of The Female Persuasion was clearly tacked on to the book as an addendum after the election. This is an observation before it is a criticism: the election of Donald Trump put the political, social, and economic situation in the United States into a terrifying perspective. It’s never explicitly stated that the final chapter revolves around the aftermath the 2016 presidential election, but an explicit statement would have been better than the heavy handed allusions Wolitzer unspools, including referring to the unnamed event as “the big terribleness”.

This sloppily constructed chapter solidifies a suspicion: The Female Persuasion was written for the alternate universe where Hillary Clinton won the election, a universe where capitalism and neoliberal patriarchy would still flourish under a veneer of white feminist progress.

As the novel’s focus on the Loci foundation comes to an end, Faith says: “I know the things people say about our foundation. That our tickets cost too much, and that we mostly get wealthy white people to come hear our lectures. ‘Rich white ladies,’ they say, which is insulting. You know we’re always trying to bring in more diverse audiences and bring down costs. But I’ve had to adjust my expectations about what we do, and I’ve also had to perform the song and dance that they’ve been demanding upstairs.”

The book knows the flaws of the system it exposes, but in the final chapter we see no evidence that Greer herself is on a different path: she is poised to become exactly the same type of Rich White Lady as Faith Frank. Greer goes on speaking tours, has her own meaningless foundation, owns an apartment in gentrified Brooklyn, carts around a baby in a fancy stroller. She probably wears lululemon leggings and does promotional visits to The Wing.

Did Greer consider a more radical path but ultimately succumb to the comforts offered by her privilege, race, and education? Is she a cautionary tale? If this was Wolitzer’s intention, here too she falls short: there’s no way to make us sympathize with Greer’s pseudo progressive liberal facade if we’re never shown the ‘perils’ of an alternative.

The glimpses we get of Greer’s feminism are barely distinguishable from those of the generation above her. What is the point of noticing the flaws of your system if you aren’t going to break it from the inside? Why bother to learn the blueprint of the boiler room if you aren’t going to blow it up? In this way, Greer is a more poisonous actor than Faith: she knows the insidious, damaging flaws of the system, yet her actions all but ensure its survival.

Becca Schuh is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her criticism and interviews have been published in Bookforum, Electric Literature, Mask Magazine, and elsewhere. She is working on novel contrasting the social dynamics of alternative college students and journalists in New York. Becca is the Editorial Director of the Triangle House Review.