America’s first lady of fiction, Curtis Sittenfeld, who dared to turn the lives of Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton into bestselling novels, has now taken on the biggest subject of them all in Help Yourself, her latest short story collection: racism.
“I’ve written about race in all my novels, but it’s the main focus here,” says Sittenfeld, talking on Zoom from her home in Minneapolis, her dark hair and glasses framing her face in stark contrast to the plain wall behind her. “I was motivated to write about it after seeing more and more videos of white women acting in racist ways going viral. It’s become so common it seems part of the texture of our current culture now, and I wanted to explore that.”
The protagonist of White Women LOL is, like Sittenfeld, a white, middle-class, middle-aged, Midwestern mother. At her friend’s birthday party in a restaurant, she challenges a group of black people whom she believes to be gate-crashers. Unknown to her, one of the group films the exchange and posts it on Facebook. It quickly goes viral. Friends distance themselves. The woman is suspended from her job, investigated for racial misconduct and eventually does some equivocal soul-searching.
Sittenfeld, with that incisive lightness of touch that has won her such a huge fan base on both sides of the Atlantic, writes in the character’s voice: “She knows the things white people aren’t supposed to say: Can I touch your hair? and I don’t see race or, even worse, I don’t care if a person is black or white or green or purple or polka-dotted. She would never say those things. She knows what a micro-aggression is. She knows what woke means. Even though she’s 41 and lives in the Midwest, she knows what it means!”
“The story feels very timely now,” Sittenfeld continues, and sensitive. “So I did something I haven’t done before: I hired several black women, known as diversity readers — it’s a common phenomenon in publishing — to read it and give me explicit editorial feedback. If you were a black woman and came across this story, what would be your unfiltered response? And I did incorporate their feedback.” White Women LOL was published on Oprah Winfrey’s online magazine, oprah.com, in December 2019, after the editors of two other magazines rejected it, fearing it would be too controversial. “No, I did not get any negative feedback,” she says. “However, the writer is accountable for her artistic choices and if you’re a white person incorporating the perspectives of characters of colour, the question is why, and I did have that conversation with myself. I think this story is likely to spur discussion among white women, who are my primary readers, since it examines white female culpability. There’s a tendency among white liberals, and I count myself as one, to not want to admit to any culpability, and to be able to find explanations as to why most other people are a certain way, but we’re not.” Before moving to Minneapolis in 2018, where her husband teaches the study of journalism at the University of Minnesota, Sittenfeld and her family lived in St Louis, Ohio where Michael Brown was shot by a white police officer in 2014, which lead to the rise of the BLM movement. But it took the death of George Floyd in May for there to be what she calls “a white awakening”. “I have mixed feelings about it. Why did so many white people not think that racism and police brutality was a problem before his death? On the other hand, it’s better late than never. White Americans are grappling with a lot of these issues, as am I. I’m far from flawless and I’m trying to educate myself. The most important thing we can do is listen and not weigh in. It’s an ongoing process, not a class to get through with a certificate at the end.” So she and her protagonist face the same dilemma, and neither seems to have the answer.
Having grown up in Cincinnati, Ohio — her mother was Catholic, her father was Jewish, “but I don’t regard myself as either” — Elizabeth Curtis Sittenfeld has been writing stories since the age of five, went to boarding school and did a Master of Fine Arts degree at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She’s written six novels, the most recent being Rodham, a previous short story collection, You Think It, I’ll Say It, and now this slim but powerful volume. If American Wife, based on former first lady Laura Bush, was a critical and commercial success, then Rodham has cemented Sittenfeld’s reputation as a leading political feather-ruffler and astute chronicler of modern American manners. Subtitled: What if Hillary hadn’t married Bill? Sittenfeld’s fictionalised version sees Hillary dump predatory sex addict Bill while they are still dating, pursue her own political career and eventually become President of the US. “I was asked several times, what gives you the right to write Rodham, and I thought, do you know how novels work?” Reviews were mostly positive and a TV series is on the way, scripted by Sarah Treem, who brought us The Affair.
Sittenfeld still carries a torch for Hillary. “All the research I did reinforced my positive view of her. She’s not perfect, but who is?” She has never met the Clintons, and assumes, modestly, that Hillary has not bothered to read Rodham. She hopes Joe Biden will win the next election — “Oh my God, I can’t believe you’re asking me that!” — and has no desire to write about Melania Trump. “I want to write from a place of curiosity and compassion and I don’t feel those for Melania. I don’t admire her or want to voluntarily spend my life imagining being married to the person she’s married to.”
On a recent panel I was asked to talk about 'any really bad date experiences' and 'what is feminist sex'.
Imagine having to dream up the kind of torrid sex scenes she wrote in Rodham, with Bill crooning over Hillary’s “great tits … little waist … nice soft bum ... and delicious honeypot”, but with the Donald instead, I joke. To which Sittenfeld responds with a strangled laugh. Nor does she aspire to write about Michelle Obama. “She’s fantastic and I adore her, but Becoming was so emotionally open that to try to write a novel would be redundant. A lot of Americans feel they already know her, whereas there was more of a discrepancy between the public perception of Hillary and Laura Bush, and who they really seem to be”.
Sittenfeld remains fascinated by our preoccupation not just with how female politicians look, dress and behave, but with women writers too. A man tells the female protagonist in Show Don’t Tell, a story about sexism in academia: “Don’t take this the wrong way, but there tends to be an inverse relationship between how hot a woman is and how good a writer. It’s because you need to be hungry to be a great writer, and beautiful women aren’t hungry”. True? “Yes, I do think beautiful women who are in the public eye or professionally successful are given extra attention because they’re beautiful, and are also taken less seriously.”
Does the Booker shortlist of four women and two men suggest the playing ground, at least for writers, may be levelling out now? “There are very acclaimed and beloved female novelists, but I do feel there is often a sort of default scepticism towards not the exceptional, but the average woman’s novel.” Where does that come from? “I think it’s probably coming from a patriarchal society.” Has Sittenfeld experienced sexism as a writer herself? She says she’s going to “pass on answering this”, but then she does.
“On a recent panel to publicise Rodham, I was asked to talk about ‘any really bad first date experiences’ and ‘what is feminist sex?’ Women are asked to peddle our personal experiences to sell our books and mocked for having done so. Or let’s say I have a book coming out and I’m invited by a magazine to write something about ‘here are the contents of my purse’. Am I lucky that I’ve been invited to promote my book and get media attention, or is that like a silly and sexist premise?” Aren’t the magazines most likely to ask those questions women’s magazines? “Sure,” she replies, laughing. “I don’t think that sexism exclusively belongs to men. Women can be, and are sexist. I think I sometimes am!” Such a character appears in Creative Differences, a story that lampoons the American “coastal elite” liberal classes.
Not that Sittenfeld feels she should complain about the coverage she gets. “It implies you don’t know how lucky you are to get it, and I do know I’m lucky.” She is, like her fiction, sharp yet understated, assured but self-questioning. “I feel I’m not very articulate at making sweeping generalisations or political arguments. The way that I grapple with current issues is through my characters and their behaviour,” and she does it beautifully.