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.
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.