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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.

12 Responses to “”

  1. lucie cote-McShane says:

    Very well said David. 100% agree with you!

  2. It’s clear that Weiner is much more comfortable playing the gender card than Picoult — the latter seems to bend over backwards trying to avoid the sexism aspect of the issue. But I feel for both writers in any case in that all they really seem to be asking for is a critical response commensurate to their commercial success, which doesn’t strike me as all that unreasonable. A literary ghetto is a literary ghetto, no matter what you call it — chicklit, romance, sci-fi, mystery, etc. — and it has to hurt somebody selling tons of books to be confined to one the literati do not find worthy of mention, let alone serious critical evaluation.

    Personally, I would find too much solace in the advances and royalty statements of either author to care what honor is next bestowed upon Jonathan Franzen that I was not even considered for. But hey, that’s just me.

  3. mark haskell smith says:

    I’m glad Weiner and Picoult have stood up and pointed out the obvious. It made me realize that the NY Times’ book coverage is very similar to the NY Times’ sports coverage. It’s local. They cover the home team (as they should). I bet in Philadelphia, or wherever Jen Weiner’s from, every one of her novels gets reviewed and she gets featured in her local paper. Which is, of course, how it should be. I think the mistake the rest of us have been making all these years is confusing the NYTBR’s parochialism with some kind of national literary tastemaking.

  4. Danielle Parker says:

    It’s unfortunate this typecasting (literary vs. genre) happens, although as you point out, the main reason for its existence is marketing.

    Ok, I can live with that; what I don’t like to see as the secondary reason is snobbery. And some “greats” getting short shrift next to the “Emporor’s-new-clothes” over-hyped “lessers”.

    Take case in point: Margaret Atwood, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley. Supposedly they write “lliterary” fiction, and the snobs would gasp in horror if they were labelled “sci fi” writers.

    But all of the above wrote “science fiction” works. Vonnegut’s another example of the same. Atwood would no doubt squirm in her chair if anyone called her works “science fiction”. But based on content… some are. (Not the greatest of the genre, either).

    On the other hand, we have Gene Wolfe and J. G. Ballard, who rank right up with the best literary writers of the 20th century. (Read Gene Wolfe’s New Sun/Long Sun/Short Sun series, and J. G. Ballard’s “Crystal World” for examples). Wolfe, at least, gets categorized as a genre science fiction writer. He doesn’t sit in the exalted ranks of the above, although personally, I’d say there are “literary writers” mentioned in this discussion not good enough (comparatively) to rank at his footstool.

    So I suppose I can take pigeonholing authors in literary/popular cateogories as a marketing device, because there’s such much to read out there, readers are clutching at any thin thread which will help them sort out which to read/which to ignore. (And the marketing people want to make money or glory, of course). Sad but it’s going to happen.

    But I just hate to see the snobbery side of it. Which means that J. G. Ballard’s “Crystal World” should rank right up there with Joseph Conrad and Gene Wolfe ought to be required reading as one of our modern American masters at any university lit programme.

    And it won’t happen. And Franzen gets far more than his due. What can I say? Some people are snobs. I know people in my own family who praise what the pundits praise. Their opinions are formed entirely by external forces. Look what they’re missing… and sadly, those underrated “genre” authors are, of proper due.

    I checked out your site, Mr. Liss, since I just picked up your Benji Weaver series to try. Interesting discussions.

  5. David Liss says:

    Thanks, Danielle. A thoughtful and interesting post.

  6. Danielle Parker says:

    A timely news item today about the top earning authors in Forbes (with James Patterson topping the list. Gee, did they count his ghostwriter?).

    Not suprisingly, “genre” authors fill the list, and most (not all) noted here are not… good… writers. Not in the “literary” sense.

    I’m not suprised genre writers fill this list, nor at the lack of literary quality of some of them. What takes me aback is some of these high-earners are authors of such boring pablum. Boring sells? Reading’s largely personal taste, but still…

    Now, I personally think the highest and most noble goal of writing IS entertainment. Shakespeare’s works, Dickens’, Stevenson’s, Austen’s combined both literary quality and entertainment.

    Shakespeare would have put entertainment first. Entertainment as the noblest goal of a writer is what I think too many “literary” writers forget. If his works hadn’t passed the peanut gallery, he’d have been out of a job.

    We would suppose genre authors at least ought to remember the importance of entertainment, if nothing else. The fact that some of these high earners sell so many safe, boring, fits-into-the-fantasy-trophes works says something entirely different about the reading public and the marketing tactics of publishers.

    Maybe not something too nice. Remember how “brand names” made it easier and faster to shop in the grocery stores? We’re in the era of literary brand names. Safe and fast shopping. Drop a book in the cart, you know just what you’re getting.

    Didn’t mean to hang out on your blog, but this is an interesting topic, and the article in Forbes was too pertinent to miss.

  7. Danielle Parker says:

    In the interests of full disclosure I should add I’m a frustrated writer myself… who just can’t get Big Publisher to READ anything I send in. Even rejections would be a step forward.

    Well… I exaggerate somewhat. One Big rejected my work as “too experimental” for them. Of the other three Big I tried, two never replied (after a year and half wait), and the third wrote back and said “It’s passed first reading, now on to second”. THAT was over a year ago, too. I don’t expect to ever hear from them again, either. They don’t answer status queries.

    My first novel was published by a small Canadian press now swerving full-time into the small press financial mainstay, romance/erotica, which is not my thing, so I took it back from them. And though that work won the only contest I sent it in to (2009 EPPIE), I still can’t get any Big Publisher (or agent) to read even it, never mind my latest unpublished work.

    I try to comfort myself with the list of all the acclaimed authors of history who died unappreciated and broke (and most of them did).

    Publishers aren’t looking, in general, for new voices, just spending the whole pot on a few safe bets. A few big names, making lots of lolly. Perhaps marketing and bean counters make all the decisions now.

    Which is how the list of “high earners” in Forbes came into being.

  8. I like what you say here, David. I’ve posted something far less coherent on my page, though I cleverly ignore all issues of sexism: http://bit.ly/dyntax

  9. David Liss says:

    Hey, thanks for checking in, Matthew. I liked your post as well. And now back to the business of novel-writing, I suppose.

  10. Kristen A. says:

    This is probably a semantic issue, but what can I say, my major was in a language, and therefore I kind of love semantics:

    As a librarian, I would not consider Jodi Picoult a “chick lit” author. “Women’s fiction,” “women’s lives and relationships,” whatever you want to call fiction that a) is primarily aimed towards women and b) does not focus on a romantic relationship, or at least not primarily (those would be Romance), yes. But “Chick lit” is a subset of this genre, and it’s a specific light, humorous subset, most frequently written in the first person. When people come in looking for chick lit, I would not hand them one of Picoult’s books, and when people say they’ve read her entire backlist and want something similar, I would not check the chick lit recommendation lists. It’s like calling all of science fiction Space Opera.

  11. [...] about the gender issue–in addition to the Huffington Post articles, Tess Gerritsen, Laura Lippman, David Liss and Jennifer Vanderbes have interesting asides. Recall that what made Franzen such a known figure [...]

  12. Sarah Booth says:

    Perhaps this is ignorant of me, but I see the difference in ‘Chick lit’ and Literature being of content not sexism. This being that chick lit and other things of that ilk are primarily meant to entertain and perhaps empathize, and while literature may also do those things too, it begs the reader to also think about and ponder what it has to say and not to just close the book with a ‘that was fun!” moving on to the next thing on the night stand. Literature then is meant for more than mere entertainment. It is meant to make the reader think about what it poses and possibly challenge his point of view. I see chick lit and other easy genres as sometimes capable of touching upon something profound, but by no means asking the reader to ponder it after they’ve finished the book. It’s a bit akin to eating Chinese food; it’s easily digested and tasty, but you’re hungry again an hour later.
    This is just the impression I get of the difference between the two forms.

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