Sarah Whitney on Jodi Picoult

whitneyIn the new UIP release Splattered Ink, Sarah Whitney explores postfeminist gothic, that blockbuster-laden, Oprah-sanctified genre literary that jars readers, rejects happy endings (and beginnings), and finds powerful new ways to talk about violence against women. The genre in particular challenges postfeminist assumptions of women’s equality and empowerment.

Whitney’s analysis includes a in-depth look at bestselling novelist Jodi Picoult. Let these brief excerpts whet your appetite for a fascinating literary foray into one of the most beloved and high-profile genres in contemporary lit.

1. Picoult’s interest in creating indeterminate stories poses a conundrum for readers. Her desire for readers to carefully consider all sides and come to their own particular solutions to moral dilemmas is well-intentioned and inclusive. By writing open-ended narratives, she promotes ongoing conversation with her readers through various media platforms, including her author website and Twitter. On the other hand, it recalls choice feminism, which, as Michaele Ferguson argues, “evinces a fear of politics” and simply “aims to avoid having to make judgments, to avoid taking controversial stands that might offend and exclude, and to de-radicalize feminist claims.”

2. Jodi Picoult’s world, like those of the other authors working in postfeminist gothic, is one where we are born into risk and pain. Christopher Wilson writes that in contemporary America, it is “always necessary that the pain of the crime victim be opened up, so that it may be appropriated into an ever-vigilant, populist, and sleepless state.” Like a literary version of the iconic “security mom,” Picoult keeps readers awake at night through her repeated narratives of violated children. She has told Ginia Bellafante that her fascination with this narrative is an attempt to ward off maternal harm. “There is a part of me that believes that if I think about these issues, if I put myself through the emotional wringer, I somehow develop an immunity for my own family. . . . I realize that this kind of thinking is completely ridiculous,” she admits.

3. In the opening of Perfect Match, Nina Frost forces Tylenol down her mildly sick son’s throat as she hurries to her job. “You’ll just hope that your own son has the good sense to get sick when you’re not scheduled in court. . . . How can everyone else’s kid be a priority over your own?” her husband lectures accusingly. This scene of domestic strife in which Nina ignores her son’s strange silence and his bed-wetting, abruptly dumping him at day care, signals a now-familiar theme of the incompetent working mother. Because Nina does not properly attend to the tenets of postfeminist new momism, she exposes her child to abuse. Nathaniel is molested by a priest who, by virtue of his moral authority, is easily able to compel Nathaniel’s silence. But it was Nina, we learn, who pushed the unwilling child into the priests’ clutches for a special story hour.

4. Jodi Picoult’s novels fetishize balance in two distinct ways. Picoult locates value in the concept of balance, and expresses it through her multiple perspectives and resistance to truth claims. In an interview with Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, she states that if “you can make them [readers] understand why someone with a differing opinion has that opinion and at least come to respect that opinion, I think you make the world a better place. I think I’m still teaching. It’s just a really big classroom.” The challenge for readers . . . is to judge among these differing opinions and to struggle against simple relativism, particularly within Picoult’s stories of gendered violence. In addition, within her narratives, Picoult also invokes the concept of “balance” in a more traditional postfeminist way, finding meaning and progress in the restoration of domestic equilibrium for career-oriented mothers.