August 25th, 2010
Like I start off so many of my posts, I’m going to make a confession. I work for the Canadian publishing company that will release Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom next week. Even for those of you outside my industry, it’s impossible to miss the chatter flying around the interweb about the author and his new novel, the NY Times coverage (2 reviews, etc), Jodi Picoult, Jennifer Weiner, Laura Lippman, and the myriad other peeps tweeting about the dust-up. Essentially, and I’m not going to call it sour grapes, but Picoult tweeted last week that the Times lavishes critical praise on “white male literary darlings” and virtually ignores commercial fiction authors.
And while that might be true, that the newspaper doesn’t necessarily cover and/or review commercial fiction with the same, let’s say verve, that it would a novel by Franzen, in the end, why does she care so much? Is it as simple as a writer’s craving to be accepted by the denizens who look to the Times as the cultural beacon for the world? Is it sour grapes for not releasing a novel poised (and perhaps over-praised but still) to become a huge book in the collective literary consciousness?
I’ll make another confession. I’ve never read Picoult — her books don’t appeal to me. So I can’t really hold up her prose against Franzen’s. I have, however, read Freedom and it’s one hell of a novel. While it might not be deserving, say, of the cover of Time (which featured the author this month), it’s certainly one of the best books I’ve read this year and nowhere could I say this about it: “There’s a twist at the end and lots of saccharine, predictable moments in between.” (from The Globe and Mail‘s review of Picoult’s latest book).
Does Picoult really want the notoriously rough Michiko Kakutani reviewing her books? How come I can already read the review in my mind — “here’s a novel full of predictable plot points, terrible amounts of wrought emotions and suffering from the curse of the “book a year” crowd.” However, I know that’s not her point — that Picoult’s trying to bring to light the fact, one that Jennifer Weiner has been relaying for many, many years, that the Times doesn’t treat women’s fiction with the same “ohmigodthisissoawesome-ness” that they do a book by say, Franzen. That they don’t review, interview, lavish praise upon many commercial writers the same way they do the literary establishment. And that this deems much of commercial fiction as “unimportant” in terms of anything other than sales.
But someone needs to discuss culture (read: review) in a rational, intelligent and furious way. If not the NY Times then who? And regardless of whether or not Picoult wants to take issue with the WMFB (white males from Brooklyn) who seem to be driving the literary establishment in the US these days, it’s still unmistakable that their talent is certainly contributing to, if not defining, our current written culture in an undeniable way. But this kind of smells a little, “oh the popular kids really suck why can’t I be a popular kid” for my liking.
Maybe I’m reading too much into it — but, then again, I know how important the Times is to my industry. Entire meetings are given over to discussing the bestseller list; books used to be made on reviews; independents up their orders based on whether or not a title has good blurbs from them, and so on. Yet, none of that seems to have any affect upon the sales of either Jennifer Weiner or Jodi Picoult. They both write novels that sell like stink and that allow companies like mine to publish other books that won’t get reviewed but will probably end up on a list like this one. Many, many worthy writers don’t get reviewed in many, many papers. It’s practically impossible to get coverage in Canada for kids books; sure, everyone will report on a trend and offer up the odd “supplement” but regular, week by week coverage of middle grade fiction’s non-existent. Perhaps those authors should be complaining too. But if we’re about to keep complaining how about we discuss the death of papers, their lack of ability to monetize, shrinking book coverage in general, and the overall collapse of the publishing industry (yawn). There’s not enough room to discuss every book published in America and someone, somewhere has to make a decision about what’s WORTHY of being covered and what’s not. I’m okay with that. It’s not like there aren’t alternative places for people to read and review popular fiction, right? Hell, I’ve just spent the summer pretty much doing just that — reading and reviewing popular fiction. I, however, don’t have the clout of the Times, naturally, and does that upset me, not really.
So, call me a literary snob — put me in the camp that labels Jennifer Weiner’s novels chicklit, allow me to judge Freedom beside Fly Away Home, and there’s no contest. Yes, Weiner’s latest novel grabbed me emotionally and kept me on the edge of tears for most of the reading. Yes, it’s about women, relationships, and family. But so too is Freedom — half of the novel reads from the perspective of the female protagonist, Patty Berglund, a stay-at-home mum who struggles with her place in the world, tries to understand the feelings she has for her husband, his best friend (an enigmatic Jeff Tweedy-esque rock star) and severely parents her two children. But there’s a richness and a depth to Franzen that isn’t there in the other novel. There’s a scope of the human condition that doesn’t come from the cliched, “ripped from the headlines” plotline that starts off Weiner’s latest book. Yes, women’s fiction is undervalued, hell, I’d even say that Harlequin romances are undervalued — when I was writing back cover blurbs I read more than a dozen or so that were not just great reads but excellent ones (I read quite a few raspberries too) but I wouldn’t ever label them “literary” as I would the Franzen. I wouldn’t label Weiner literary either and that’s the number one reason why I wouldn’t expect to see it reviewed in the Times, Entertainment Weekly, sure — because that’s what commercial fiction does, it entertains. There’s no shame in it, and why not celebrate the differences instead of whining about the coverage, instead of flogging that dead horse why not just stand up and shout: “proud never to have been reviewed in the Times.”
There’s probably a huge feminist issue with undervaluing the “chicklit” label in general, but why not embrace it instead of fighting against it at every turn. Why kick up a fuss in the first place unless you really want to be judged on the same level as Franzen by the same people, the same reviewers — and then what’ll someone say when the coverage is less than glowing? Will there then be the same brouhaha over the kind of coverage, the negative reviews, the harshness of the criticism? I doubt it. But I know one thing for sure, it certainly won’t affect their sales — the ability for Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult, enviably, being able to make a living from their pen as Aphra Behn attempted to do all those years ago. We’ve come a long way indeed. Women drive this industry. They buy the majority of the books, edit bucket loads of them, find authors, nurture authors, create culture, discuss culture, form book clubs, read Oprah, etc. The real issue here isn’t that women’s fiction is ignored by the literary establishment. The real issue here is the age-old fact that women will read all kinds of genres — men, not so much. And if we’re out to criticize the establishment, why not take a poke at the fact that women’s fiction seems to always be packaged in the same way: floaty white covers, pictures of shoes, foggy, pretty scenery — why aren’t these writers demanding that their publishers take a step back and repackage the books so they’re taken more seriously?
The more I write about this, the more I read about, the more I think that it’s not so much the review that sparked the debate, it’s the idea that there are gender divides in our industry that maybe shouldn’t be here. But, regardless, I’ll be one of the many who puts Freedom up on a pedestal for how it deals with human nature in the world today — the issues that it raises, how Franzen writes about people, their plights, their inner lives, and the emotional consequence of actions. It’s a deep, engaging, political novel, one that feels fresh as compared to the rote books of late from his contemporaries (McEwan, Irving, I’m looking at you), and I frankly don’t care whether Jodi Picoult likes it or not. I’d urge anyone to read it and then try to disagree with me. It might not be the book of the decade but it’s certainly about to become the book of the year.