Sullivan’s Travels: Novelist Courtney Has Come a Long Way, Baby

Literati packed into Gail Collins’s shabby-chic Morningside Heights apartment on the evening on Wednesday, June 17 to celebrate the launch of J. Courtney Sullivan’s debut novel, Commencement, set largely at the author’s alma mater, Smith College. Ms. Sullivan, who previously penned Dating Up: Dump the Schlump and Find A Quality Man, was the center of attention, teetering around in silver stilettos and a tight blue bosom-revealing dress.  “This is the kind of thing I used to dream about in geometry class, which is probably why I got a D,” Ms. Sullivan gushed during the remarks by her boss, Times columnist Bob Herbert, and Ms. Collins.  Both of her hosts poked fun at Ms. Sullivan for making the jump to the Times editorial board directly from Allure, but praised her prolific contributions to a mélange of publications. “I don’t think she’s ever written for Institutional Investor actually, but I’ve never written for Men’s Vogue!” exclaimed Ms. Collins.

Commencement follows four women in a world which, according to Ms. Sullivan, finds feminist ideals “quaint and silly.” The book has been pegged as an harbinger of a new wave (yes, another) of feminism. However, the social dynamic of the party adopted a “separate, but equal” mantra, as the few male guests huddled together by the bar. 

Times columnist Nicholas Kristof praised the novel, but admitted to being “shocked by the debauchery” of same-sex institutions depicted in Commencement.  Did Eugene Sullivan, the author’s father, have any reservations about sending his firstborn to a women’s college where transgender debates rage and girls are called SLUGS (Smith Lesbians Until Graduation)?  Quite the opposite, claimed Mr. Sullivan, who has sported a “Smith Dad hat” for the past 10 years; he felt his daughter was “empowered” at the college.

The Transom asked Ms. Sullivan about her thoughts on the militant feminism sometimes associated with women’s institutions. “I was once on a rooftop bar drinking margaritas, and I ended up reading aloud to the man beside me from Andrea Dworkin,” said the doe-eyed brunette with a laugh, “so I’m probably not the person to ask.”

However, her bosses at The Times claimed to have looked to the author for feminist inspiration over the past few years.  Said Ms. Collins, author of the upcoming When Everything Changed, a book about the last 50 years of feminism in America:  “I’ve gotten so extremely old, by the time I was doing the book, I always had this trouble when I got to the 2000s.  I had no idea what the hell I was writing about … and Courtney really was the one who took me through it all.”  Mr. Herbert agreed about his assistant’s authority on the subject:  “She would actually raise my consciousness to just how much sexism permeated ordinary, everyday society, and she encouraged me to pay closer attention even than I was paying to women’s issues.”  Success at The Times aside, Mr. Herbert was quick to note that “the novel is her novel, and she’s a great writer, and I think that it’s wonderful for her to have this fantastic success.”  Ms. Sullivan, giggling and quaffing white wine with old Smith friends, seemed as if she hadn’t had this much fun since her halcyon days in Northampton.

Sullivan’s Travels: Novelist Courtney Has Come a Long Way, Baby