Greta Gerwig’s Little Women: In praise of genre fiction

Warning:  Spoilers for the film.

Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women speaks from the exact moment that some of us are in, American female-identified writers 150 years after Louisa May Alcott struck it rich with this book. With a deliberate hand, Gerwig amplifies or inserts elements she considers important, and outright changes what does not serve her vision.

To understand this version, it works best to know that, like Jo March, Louisa May Alcott wrote pseudonymous thrillers to support her parents and sisters.  These lurid “sensation stories” are well-crafted, fun, and readable, even today.  They were basically genre fiction, unrepentantly trashy, and would have been considered low-status for that reason, even if written by a man.  As a woman writer, Alcott kept them her secret in a way that feels a bit similar to contemporary fandom writers putting their expertly written dark or kinky fic on Archive of Our Own, heavily tagged and protected by a pseudonym from judgmental employers or family.

Unlike fanfic, though, Alcott’s stories were written for money.  Her Transcendentalist father, Bronson Alcott, was worse than useless at providing for his wife and daughters.  The stories were an outlet for Alcott’s preferred style of writing, adventurous rather than moralizing.  Possibly, the need to compensate for her father’s failures helped to overcome whatever qualms Alcott may have felt about writing unladylike pulp that would certainly not have appealed to family friends such as Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne.

In the book Little Women, Jo’s friend Professor Bhaer disapproves of her stories, she stops writing them, and she feels more wholesome after, grateful for his moral guidance.  In this film, Jo also stops writing, but she rejects Bhaer’s disapproval — an original change by Gerwig.  The film shows that Jo had made the stories “spicier” at the urging of her publisher, who maintained that “spice” would sell:  she was writing to market.  At the end of the film, when Jo brings her manuscript of Little Women to the same publisher, he tells her that the heroine must marry because romance sells, and “the right ending is the one that sells.”  But he’s reluctant to publish her story for young readers in the first place; he wants more sensation stories, believing that’s what sells.

The joke ends up being on him:  Little Women becomes, of course, a titanic bestseller.

Famously, Alcott didn’t enjoy writing Little Women or other stories for girls and resented being pushed into writing sequels by a clamoring public.  She didn’t mask this sentiment, either; at the end of her sequel Jo’s Boys, she demolished the fourth wall with an earthquake in which she declared that the ground opened up and swallowed all the characters.  Then, with a resigned tone, she amended that ending to tell the reader that every character knew perfect happiness for the rest of their lives.  That was the ending that would sell.  The whole purpose was to sell.

Greta Gerwig’s film is arguing that for Louisa May Alcott, who didn’t want to marry off Jo or write books for girls at all, Little Women was exactly the kind of mercenary, morally suspect commercial fiction that Professor Bhaer judged Jo March for writing.

This is not to put down Alcott’s classic, which conveys simple truths with undeniably good writing.  This is to elevate sensational commercial and genre fiction to the same level as Little Women.  And, even more delightfully, to grant to the genre of YA, young adult fiction, the same respect in the publishing world as thrillers written for men.  After all, it sells.

I didn’t like, at first, that Gerwig’s Professor Bhaer is youngish and good-looking instead of older, clumsy, and rumpled, as he is in the book.  But when I understood where the movie was going with this character, I appreciated the change:  he looks the part of the romantic interest to everyone but Jo, who is confused when everyone expects her to be swooning for him.  Then, as writer Jo compromises with her publisher and agrees to write a romantic ending for her heroine, the film dramatizes her proposed edit with an imagined, sped-up lovers’ scene between Jo and Professor Bhaer that hits all the romantic tropes — and here, again, the movie does something I didn’t expect.  It refuses to mock this contrived ending.  The swelling romantic music never tips over into irony.  The movie lets you enjoy the romance.  If you wanted this ending for Jo, the movie will not shame you.

Gerwig’s Laurie breaks with tradition in a different way:  at last, a film Laurie as real as the book original.  Mercurial, beautiful and odd-looking at once, charming to balance his irresponsible streak.  In perhaps the most of-the-moment decision of all, this film simultaneously introduces no hint that Jo might be a lesbian and leaves the path completely clear for viewers inclined to take that direction.  She wants to marry Meg, but that’s not new; that’s canon.  When she rejects her adored Laurie as a lover, she cries out that she can’t make herself feel that way and she doesn’t know why.  In the ensuing beat of silence, I could imagine the succinct judgments of countless queer people I know:  “Gay.”  If this resonates with you, check out Malinda Lo’s take on gay Jo.

In this and many other ways, Gerwig’s film reminds us:  Little Women is fiction.  It was fiction based on what the author thought would sell at the time.  If we want to, we can change it; Alcott would, if she were alive, so she could sell us the story again.  The right ending is the one that sells.  So if your Amy was in love with Laurie from the beginning, let it be so.  If your Marmee can tell Papa she is angry with him to his face, well, it’s back in style for women to acknowledge anger aloud.  If love-starved Laurie entering the March home looks like Harry Potter’s first trip to the Burrow, go ahead and write that crossover.

Jo March got the idea to write sensation stories after seeing some by a “Mrs. S.L.A.N.G. Northbury.”  What a fantastic name for a muse and foremother.  If you, too, are someone who writes both YA and scandalous stories published under pseudonyms, give a cheer for Northbury, Jo March, and Louisa May Alcott, and may your writing sell as well as theirs.