By Ray Sawhill
Bookstores had never before been home to anything like Terry McMillan’s tour to promote her 1992 novel, “Waiting to Exhale.” Her appearances attracted mobs of ardent female fans. And when she performed passages from her book, the stores turned into call-and-response arenas, with women standing up to testify to their feelings and shout out their likes and dislikes. This was one writer who had hit a nerve. (Inexplicably, the listless 1995 movie adaptation stirred audiences up as effectively as the book had.) A soap opera about four black women in Phoenix — their jobs, their hair, their two-timing no-good men, etc. — the book is one of those innumerable women’s novels in which friends, through all their ups and down, check in with each other periodically, and together and alone watch life’s cycles wheel by. In white hands these days, this is almost always a spent form. With her bawdy humor and unashamed pride in achievement, and with her relish for fleshly and material pleasures, McMillan brought it rousingly back to life. There aren’t many middlebrow page-turners that offer anything like her frankness and sass.
Her success helped trigger off a still-running controversy about whether or not black women writers beat up on black men. (They often do, and sometimes do so entertainingly). It also alerted the publishing industry to the existence of a large group of underserved readers hungry for fiction in which they could see their own lives. The industry responded promptly, and, since then, works from what might be called the “You go, girl!” school of fiction (Bebe Moore Campbell, J. California Cooper) have become a staple in bookstores and on bestseller lists.
McMillan’s first two novels — “Mama” and “Disappearing Acts” — are also lively airplane reads. (Avoid her most recent effort, the dizzy “How Stella Got Her Groove Back,” unless your appetite for breathlessly narcissistic gab is really epic). If you’re in the market for something similarly female and full-bodied, why not try the marvelous Lee Smith, who writes lyrically about white mountain folk, or that sturdy entertainer Susan Isaacs, who writes humorous mysteries about Long Island Jews?
- Buy a copy of “Waiting to Exhale.”
- Terry McMillan’s website.
- Terry talks about getting over her “down-low” ex-husband.
©1999 Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Salon.com Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literature.