Why I Forgive Jane the Virgin for Making a Writer Its Main Character

I’m happy to say that I’ve been publishing a lot of essays in various publications over the past couple of months! Readers might enjoy these:

“Suicide Contagion and the Risks of Literature,” which considers whether creative writers, like journalists, should refrain from using certain phrases when talking about suicide, was published in The Coil:

On a lighter note, “9 Fashionable Books That Make Clothes a Main Character,” a list that looks at how sartorial style functions in narratives like The Tale of Genji, The Neapolitan Novels, and The Collected Schizophrenias, ran in Electric Literature:

And if you want to find dark humor in psychotherapy, “Case Study of a Psychiatrist in the Freudian Style,” published by The Satirist, might make you feel better as it satirizes the Freudian case study and the power dynamics of prescription drug therapy:

And now for May’s essay . . .

I usually avoid movies and TV shows that feature a writer as the main character. There are exceptions. I love Wonder Boys and would argue that Michael Douglas gives his best performance in it. But most of the time, I find depictions of authors on screen boring and problematic. The main issue is that it’s hard to make the act of writing visually interesting. I spend at least twenty hours a week typing on my Dell XPS: Believe me, it’s not cinematic.

But in the CW’s Jane the Virgin, which is currently airing its final season after one of the best cliffhanger endings of all time at the close of Season Four, it works. Gina Rodriguez plays the irrepressible, eponymous character, who, after an accidental insemination and dozens of other telenovela-style twists and turns, has achieved her dream of publishing a book. The truth is, even if I couldn’t stand her protagonist, I’d still be a fan of the show, as there are other pleasures to keep me hooked. Since the pilot episode, I’ve had a crush on the gorgeous, talented Yael Grobglas, who plays lovable manipulator Petra as a screwball comedy heroine. So many of the other characters, like Jane’s compulsively self-promoting father and her devoutly religious but vulnerable grandmother, are complex and a joy to watch. And having spent my middle- and high-school years amidst the salmon-pink splendors of South Florida architecture, the Marbella—the posh, cupcake-colored Miami Beach hotel where much of the action is set—couldn’t help but make me smile with nostalgia.

But the fact is, the directors and writers, who include Rodriguez herself, have managed to make her identity and work as an author captivating. Part of this is due to how they dramatize her writing sessions. Emily Nussbaum has praised Jane for its “optical density,” and this density is key to its success in making literary labor visually appealing. The series is what would happen if Peter Greenaway decided to reset The Pillow Book in a supportive, extended Latinx family rather than within a transgressive Japanese-lit fantasy. Like the latter film, Jane the Virgin experiments with superimposing text over image in inventive ways and celebrates carnal pleasures. (But unlike the latter film, no one in Jane gets flayed after death—although corpses do occasionally get disturbed. The plot’s complicated.) What characters text and type is often layered on the screen; so are hashtags, intertitles, and the Spanish subtitles used for certain characters.

Another innovation that makes Jane’s vocation as a writer resonate thematically is the use of a narrator throughout the series. Theories concerning his identity abound—could it be Jane’s previously-thought-to-be-dead husband, Michael? But it’s a safe bet that whoever the narrator is, what he is presenting in each episode is an excerpt of Jane’s future book. Making the protagonist an author in a show that rests on metafictional conventions gives the whole narrative a tight, satisfying structure.

Above all, though, I enjoy Jane’s author character because the show’s writers permit her to fail and keep going. When Jane publishes her first novel, a historical romance inspired by the men in her life, it goes nowhere. I can relate, as can many authors who’ve published a first novel. The hard truth is that unless you are extremely lucky in your topic and timing, happen to be as insanely gifted as Zadie Smith, or have had an affair with Philip Roth, the sales of your first novel are probably going to disappoint. It’s hard for most writers to find an audience quickly. I imagine that anyone who’s tried to find a footing in a competitive field can’t help but empathize when Jane’s publisher drops her because she now has the “stench of failure” on her after one lackluster outing.

What follows is a moving scene with her current partner, Rafael. He has been, since the very first episode, the biggest supporter of her writing career—one of the reasons I like him, although, truth be told, I’m Team Michael; to me, Jane and Rafael are more engaging as characters when they’re with other people. But here he’s great, telling her to put aside the self-pity and write another book: “Yes, it’ll be hard, but it’s always been hard.” The showrunners could have cast Jane as a best-selling, award-winning author from the get-go. By having her move through setbacks and rewrites instead, they present a realistic, inspiring take on what it’s like to navigate both the creative and the business side of the literary word. (Realistic for the most part, that is—I had no idea Miami had so many book publishers.) They also demonstrate how essential it is for women to be encouraged by their partners.

There are still some rough patches. I’ve never heard any author in real life use the term “writer’s block,” but it seems like it becomes a plot point in every film or TV series with an author character, and Jane the Virgin offers no exception. Jane’s obsession with one bad review took up space in not one but two episodes, which struck me as over-the-top in a time when even Uber drivers are used to getting poor feedback. Once in a while, the brainstorming scenes, in which Jane sometimes cosplays as other characters to work out scenes, get a little tedious.

But then, so does writing. Maybe that’s part of the point.

Copyright © Cynthia Gralla, 2019