The Middlebrow

Terry McMillan

Waiting to excel.

Illustration by Charlie Powell.
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Terry McMillan is such a sly charmer that you wish there were a little more going on in her novels. Since Waiting to Exhale (1992), McMillan has styled herself as the pre-eminent social critic of the black middle class—the Tom Wolfe of buppiedom. Like Wolfe, she lets rip exuberant, near-Joycean sentences that run on and on and on and oh my God girl is that fine man looking at me yes he is well then I must sit down and just take a breath. Then, just as she has taken hold of your lapels with her fuchsia press-on nails, she makes like one of her fickle heroines and struts away. Rather than building to crescendos, her novels tend to wilt. Her withering put-downs—“If she closed her eyes, she’d have sworn he was white”—give way to the shopworn rituals of the romance novel: the matings, the breakups, the cathartic trips to Macy’s. An “African-American Judith Krantz,” as one critic dubbed her, McMillan really is a mournful hybrid: She has either the most novelistic talent of any chick-lit writer, or the most chick-lit talent of any literary novelist.

It’s too bad, because inside McMillan lurks a restless social conscience. For those who think of Waiting to Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1996) as cotton candy, it may come as a surprise to learn that one of McMillan’s early mentors was the radical black novelist Ishmael Reed. Like Reed, McMillan became ensconced in the ongoing battles over the shape and tenor of black literature—though she chose a far less engaged course than her mentor, one that would earn her, as one of her lightly fictionalized heroines humbly put it, a “shitload of money.”

In the late 1980s, McMillan fell in with the New Black Aesthetic, a movement codified by the novelist Trey Ellis. The New Black Aesthetic took issue with the prevailing direction of black art and with the perennial questions about to whom and how it should be pitched. On the one hand, it sneered at the separatist Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, championed by Amiri Baraka and the black nationalists, for whom art was a moral and political quandary—a fight for black “survival.” On the other, the New Black Aesthetic attacked the gentler but no less persistent didacticism of 1980s multiculturalism and identity politics. “New black artists [are no longer] shocked by racism as were those of the Harlem Renaissance,” Ellis wrote in a manifesto, “nor are we preoccupied with it as were those of the Black Arts Movement. For us, racism is a hard and little-changing constant that neither surprises nor enrages.”

The New Black Aesthetic proposed a kind of truce. In fiction, black novelists would no longer declare their separateness, nor would they take their cues from white aesthetics. Large advances from New York publishing houses (the kind Spike Lee was already dislodging from the Hollywood studios) would be applauded, not disparaged. McMillan, who wanted to write pop fiction without wandering into a morass of ethical quandaries, was an early adherent. “Although ‘protest literature’ had its rightful place in time, I knew our work had gone through a series of metamorphoses,” she wrote in a 1990 anthology. In a Washington Post interview, she was pithier: “[A]fter all, how many ways can you continue to say, ‘We are oppressed?’ “

A decade and a half later, McMillan stands as the New Black Aesthetic’s glittering success story. She proved a natural saleswoman. Even before she rose to prominence with Waiting to Exhale, she hustled bookstores and women’s groups for speaking appearances, creating a subterranean fan-base. Her followers materialized en masse for Waiting to Exhale; after the novel had spent a few weeks on the best-seller lists, Pocket Books bought the paperback rights for a staggering $2.6 million. McMillan suggested a way around the obsession with race consciousness—eschewing broad racial themes and questions of identity for character-driven comedy and betting the latter would actually sell. Her ideological landscape isn’t quite that simple, of course, but one of the joys of Waiting to Exhale is watching McMillan shoo her heroines out of the way of sticky civil rights issues of the day. They remain aware of the struggle, for sure, but they want none of the hassle. “We spent an hour talking about apartheid in general,” says one of Waiting to Exhale’s heroines, “and then lightened up the conversation and talked about how boring Denver was.”

McMillan is often credited with inventing a literature for an undernourished readership—middle-class black women, as personified by the love-starved divas of Waiting to Exhale. But focus on this achievement undersells McMillan’s contribution to black fiction: Her novels have touched nearly every social class from bottom to top. McMillan is foremost an autobiographer, and the caste she seems most interested in writing about is whichever one she happens to be occupying at the time. As she has built up wealth, so have her heroines. In her first novel, Mama(1987), published when McMillan was a typist at a law firm, she had her heroine cleaning houses; by her second novel, Disappearing Acts(1989), McMillan had become a hotter propertyand her characters enjoyed a small but noticeable bump in status.

As McMillan began commanding large advances, her heroines began to exult in the kind of luxuries to which the author herself has become accustomed. In a revelatory first chapter of How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Stella, a divorced securities analyst, reels off her bourgeois trappings. Pool. Latte machine. Summer home in Tahoe. Peruvian house-cleaner named Paco. As McMillan’s heroines grow richer, she has also become a more interesting writer. If reading a novel about the black middle class was something of a revelation in 1992, when McMillan wrote Waiting to Exhale, then you can imagine the reaction when McMillan wanders into the upper reaches of buppiedom—whereStella, in a rebuke to the struggling heroine of Mama, informs the reader, “I don’t do windows.”

McMillan has the soul of a great social novelist. And yet, after six novels, including her latest, The Interruption of Everything, she still hasn’t marshaled it into a fully formed narrative. McMillan shows little stomach for ambitious plotting. Where Tom Wolfe sprinkles his wit throughout knotty, neo-Dickensian novels, McMillan dispatches her heroines through the standard gantlet of chick lit. McMillan can often match Wolfe’s eye for detail—and for the throat-slitting put-down—but she has little of his ambition.

In a way, McMillan’s failings are symptomatic of the general decline of chick lit, which in the hands of Candace Bushnell and Melissa Bank began as high-end gun-slinging riddled with bleak insights but has lately devolved into something more like wan romantic comedy. In McMillan’s case, you can often trace this devolution over the course of a single novel. She’s liable to begin with a chapter’s worth of prickly monologue but within a few pages has abandoned that conceit for a series of hookups. McMillan has the additional problem of using her male characters as ready-made heavies. Her men (who are very often married and cheating on their wives) can be whisked offstage at convenient moments, leaving the women to gather together, cry, and lick their wounds. McMillan’s fictional world is the reductio ad absurdum of sisterhood—in which “sisters,” literal and figurative, may be wronged by their men but never, ever by one another.

Despite some rough reviews, The Interruption of Everything strikes me as something of an improvement. Marilyn Grimes, a 40ish mother of three, finds herself facing menopause, a faltering marriage, and, at the book’s outset, a surprise pregnancy. Thus, McMillan cannot import a series of no-good men; she must muscle through the obstacles: through Grimes’ birdbrained husband Leon, who has taken to dressing in leisure suits; through her dead-end job at an arts and crafts store; and through her blithering friends, who relish nothing so much as throwing psychoanalytic “pity parties” for themselves. (As she vents, Grimes actually lies on a sofa.) The Interruption of Everything may not be a great novel, but it’s a far more ambitious one than McMillan has written in years, and it seems like a lurch toward something important. Until then, McMillan remains a skilled dispenser of aperçus but little more—a novelist who is waiting to excel.