On the one hand, I thought Ron Charles’s Washington Post video review of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom was laugh-out-loud hilarious. I also thought he nailed what was both great and lacking in the novel, and I think those things without having read the novel itself. That’s how much I’ve learned about this book prior to its publication. I’m glad I don’t need to read it, because I haven’t even received my copy, and I’m already tired of thinking about it.
On the other hand, I’m enough of a cantankerous, survivalist type to worry a little bit about book reviews now needing to come in punchy video format in order to get anyone’s attention. Surely people who read books ought to be willing to take the time to read reviews, no? Now, if you will excuse me, I need to chase some kids off my lawn.
Have you been following the literary dust up as chick lit authors Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult complain about the literary coronation of Jonathan Franzen? Me either. Okay, I have a little. I’ve looked at the headlines. And today I read Jason Pinter’s interview with the two complaining ladies.
It all began when Weiner and Picoult complained that when a white male like Franzen writers about relationships and feelings “it’s literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it’s romance, or a beach book – in short, it’s something unworthy of a serious critic’s attention.”
Is it true? I don’t think so. It seems to me a new Zadie Smith novel is always treated as a literary event, and I remember a few years ago the literary salivating that went on over Clair Messud’s Emperor’s Children. More recently, there was no shortage of press and praise for Jennifer Egan’s wonderful new book. On the other hand, who could forget Scribner’s largely unsuccessful attempt to to convert Stephen King from a horror writer to a literary one? When the Times reviews a Stephen King novel, the reviewer will concede that he is an important and influential writer, but never that he is a literary writer.
A friend of mine recently called something as convoluted as the cover of Hairway to Steven. He was wrong, but I thought it was a great metaphor.
The issue here is not one of gender, but of how books are presented to the marketplace. Picout and Weiner are genre writers, and genre writing is not taken as seriously as literary fiction. That’s simply a fact. Picoult admits as much when she says, “the New York Times reviews overall tend to overlook popular fiction, whether you’re a man, woman, white, black, purple or pink. I think there are a lot of readers who would like to see reviews that belong in the range of commercial fiction rather than making the blanket assumption that all commercial fiction is unworthy.” In other words, her complaint is that popular fiction doesn’t receive critical attention the way, say, popular films do (though if the Times is going to treat popular fiction the same way it treats popular film, who needs that kind of attention?). Exhibit A is the fact that the Times gave the new Franzen book a daily review and a Sunday book section review in the same week. Two reviews in one week for one book! Of course, the daily reviews and the Sunday book section are not under the same editor, and this double reviewing happens all the time for over-hyped books, and few books are as hyped as Franzen’s. It is always annoying for everyone when a book gets this kind of treatment, but that is how the business works.
I also honestly don’t think that most genre writers would want to open themselves up to the scrutiny of a real critical review. While some genre writers are also great writers, most are not. On the other hand, the same is true of literary writers, a large percentage of which aren’t any good either. It is also true that there are plenty of extremely well reviewed novels out there that I personally thought sucked, and that leads to the other, more complicated, issue of taste. A review is nothing more than one reader providing an opinion for another, and if the two readers don’t have overlapping tastes, then nothing much has been accomplished.
But if these writers agree that genre fiction across the board doesn’t get the same attention as genre fiction, where does the charge of sexism come in? Doing a certain amount of back peddling, Weiner notes that she would like her books to be taken as seriously “as a Jonathan Tropper or a Nick Hornby,” but those writers get attention in large part precisely because they are men writing about relationships in a way that’s unusul. Weiner and Picoult agree that women writer about relationships much more frequently, so there’s nothing unusual or remarkable about the very nature of their work.
So, in the end, the whole complaint breaks down to a whole lot of nothing. The ism at work here is not sexism, but capitalism. For a variety of reasons, Franzen has been able to market himself as an important literary writer who is reinventing and revitalizing fiction. Picoult and Weiner and marketed themselves, and very successfully, as popular writers with a mass appeal. Genre writers may complain about the limitations of the genre label, but the truth is that these categories are useful for readers and for sales. Book consumers want to know what kind of book they are going to read, and publishers are only too happy to categorize in order to let them know. Just as Franzen is marketed as an important literary figure, so too are Weiner and Picoult marketed as writers you (ladies) will love. So the very commercial success that appears to bar Picoult and Weiner from the big L literary tent provides them with the media platform from which to complain about it.
For no good reason that I can think of, I’ve created a Twitter account. Maybe this will inspire me to waste time I don’t have posting tidbits of information that you don’t need. Why now follow along? The account name is David_Liss. Should I have proceeded that with an @ symbol? Maybe. I don’t really know.
Speaking of things you don’t need, here’s a fabulous video by Yeasayer. I listened to the album a few times when it first came out, and it didn’t do much for me, but the power of the visual is strong, and now I like it. I’ve often thought of getting an alien blob creature of my own. They are very affectionate, but I hear they are prone to health problems.
I now have in hand the contracts optioning A Conspiracy of Paper to Scott Free, Tony and Ridley Scott’s Production Company, on behalf of Warner Brothers. So this seems as good a time as any to address the many emails I get regarding another possible Weaver novel.
As I’ve posted here several times, my next novel, The Darkening Green, will be out in about a year’s time, and it is set in 19th century Nottingham and London. It is obviously not a Benjamin Weaver novel. At this moment, I have no plans to write another Weaver novel. On the other hand, I also have no plans not to.
After I finished Conspiracy, which was my first book, both my editor and agent urged me to write a sequel immediately. I understood, however, that if I were to do so, I would risk locking myself into a fairly narrow and specific career, something I didn’t want to do. Instead, I wrote The Coffee Trader, a novel that shared certain characteristics with my first book, but was different enough that I hoped it would establish a pattern of variation that would open the door to many new possibilities. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t My publisher and the major bookstore chains were not convinced The Coffee Trader was as commercial as my first book, and their reactions were lukewarm – less promotion, poorer in-store displays, etc. Nevertheless it went on to sell as well as Conspiracy. On the other hand, The Ethical Assassin may now have its own little following, and it continues to sell in back catalog, but it did very badly when it first came out. You win some, you lose some.
The truth is, the second two Weaver novels have not sold as well as my stand-alone historical novels, and my publisher has actively dissuaded me from writing another sequel. I never wanted a career dominated by a series character, so for the moment my publisher’s preference and my own inclinations are in alignment, and it’s always convenient when that happens. If I wanted to write another Weaver novel, however, I would, and I would deal with the consequences. The fact is, I have so far been able to make my living writing what I want. I like my career. It’s fun. And as long as I can get away with this kind of freedom, I don’t see why I should write what I don’t want to write.
Nevertheless, I do take the requests I receive from my readers very seriously. It is extremely gratifying when readers say they want another Weaver novel, or a sequel to The Whiskey Rebels or another book along the lines of The Ethical Assassin. One of the downsides of having a varied career is that some readers are always going to be disappointed by the direction I take.
As far as film version of Conspiracy goes, I am guardedly optimistic that it will happen, but I’ve been down the Hollywood road often enough to know how easily a project like this can get derailed. If the movie does go into production, you can safely bet my publisher will ask me to drop whatever I’m doing and writer another Weaver novel. We’ll see what happens.