The phrase “dick for a day” used to be bandied about quite a bit by me and many other women I knew, mostly fellow writers, back in the 1980s, when we were young and ambitious but unsuccessful, our tone somewhere between wistful yearning and pugnacious wrath: “If I had a dick for a day, I’d show them” – “them” being overrated male writers, ex-lovers who’d treated us badly, and, frankly, men in general. They had all the luck. We were stuck being women.
I grew up in an all-female family – two sisters and a mostly single mother – and we often bonded, in part, by disparaging men and feeling superior to them. My charismatic, handsome, intelligent, crazy father, a Marxist lawyer, disappeared from our lives (led off by the cops in hand-cuffs for beating my mother; I was the one who called them) when my little sisters and I were young, three years after my mother had divorced him. After that, my mother struggled to raise us without child support or help, during a time when she was working toward a doctorate in psychology from Arizona State University.
As my family saw them, men were untrustworthy, weak, and selfish. Our mother taught us to get along without them, to get along without much of anything, and to live well and have fun anyway.
But even after he was gone, I still loved my father. I looked Norwegian, like him, with a long face, strong jaw, thin mouth, and flashing eyes. And, like him, I was verbal, easygoing, and low-key on the surface, and, deep down, proud, socially paranoid, full of self-loathing, and prone to rage at injustice. Until I was nine, I was my father’s “son,” the one he could talk to. And after he left, I still felt like the boy – the ambitious, hotheaded one. I never liked dolls or played house. I read and wrote, climbed trees, collected rocks, rode my bike, and befriended boys, platonically. Although part of me yearned for a husband, a house,
and kids, most of my brain was single-mindedly determined to do whatever it took to be a successful published novelist, and that part of me felt male.
In spite of my family’s attitude toward men, I loved, admired, and identified with them. I envied them, too – their power and autonomy, their freedom to be selfish, to walk away, to start over, to get angry, to speak frankly without appearing to give a damn what anyone thinks. Men were assholes, women were victims; men were active, women passive. Given the choice, I would have preferred to be an active asshole. Instead, I kept writing.
After a lot of floundering around, post-MFA, with bad relationships and worse jobs, I published my first novel, In the Drink, when I was 36. Its first-person narrator was a woman, but I was writing in a consciously male genre I privately called Loser Lit. I wanted my female narrator, Claudia Steiner, to join the ranks of Lucky Jim, Gulley Jimson, and Peter Jernigan. Claudia is a hard-drinking ghostwriter who’s in love with her seemingly unattainable male best friend, in debt, hapless, and bleakly, comically gritty. As I wrote the book, I was sure I was breaking new literary ground. Reviewers (all of them female) felt otherwise: When it came out, In the Drink was lumped with two other recently published, superficially similar books by women; ours were collectively hailed as the first wave of “chick lit” in America. This didn’t feel like a compliment to any of us. Naively, having expected everyone to somehow magically get what I was up to (“It’s the female Lucky Jim! Hooray!”), I was insulted and flummoxed.