If you spent much time in the literary corners of the Internet this week, you probably got wind of the Franzen-fracas, that is, Jodi Picoult’s and Jennifer Weiner’s irritation at the coverage (over-coverage?) of the release of Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom. It started with a couple of snarky tweets from Picoult and Weiner and led to umpteen-zillion tweets, blog posts, interviews, and articles about sexism in book reviewing and the status of literary and commercial fiction. I could probably fill this post with links to the conversation, but for simplicity’s sake, I’ll just point you to this Huffington Post interview where the two authors state their case.
The whole conversation circled around multiple issues. First, there’s Picoult and Weiner claiming their work isn’t taken seriously because they are women. The New York Times was their primary target here, and I really can’t speak to that because I don’t read more than the odd review now and then in the NYT. Outside the NYT, though, I’m not under the impression that women aren’t taken seriously in the world of literary fiction. If you look at the major prize lists from the past few years, you’ll see nearly as many women as men listed. Sure, it’s not a perfect 50/50 balance, but there are too many women listed for me to call it tokenism. Granted, given that women are the predominant purchasers and readers of fiction, one would think the balance would tip the other way, so there may be some bias at work, but I think Weiner is overstating the case.
For me, the more interesting part of the conversation has to do less with gender and more with genre, and how it relates to gender. Their detractors say that Picoult and Weiner are mere chick lit authors who write fluffy, insignificant crap, while Franzen’s work is artful and important. Interestingly, I haven’t seen much direct criticism of Franzen’s writing. The criticism is more along the lines of his work being no better than that of the women writers who don’t get any critical attention.
Before I go any further, let me state for the record that I have read a book or three by all three authors involved in this discussion. Picoult’s books are my least favorite. The two I read seemed to follow a simple formula: big issue, varying points of view, twist at the end, lots of heartstring tugging in between. Franzen falls in between for me. I read and did not like The Corrections. I found the characters unpleasant and uninteresting and the storyline a little overly conscious of its own hipster cleverness. However, I can see that it was well written. It’s just not to my taste. Weiner’s books are my favorites of the lot. They’re not great art, but they don’t slavishly follow the chick lit formula either. The characters and plots are sufficiently varied to hold my interest, and the writing is competent, but not spectacular.
That said, I wouldn’t say that I like Weiner’s books in the same way that I like the books of the authors I tend to read the most, which raises that whole question of the distinction between commercial and literary fiction that I’ve danced around before in this space. One of the comments that Weiner made in the HuffPo interview is that women’s novels about family and feelings are automatically treated as commercial fiction and ignored by critics. I’m sorry, but I have to call bullshit on that. Yes, that may happen sometimes, but I think the categorization has to do less with what is the book about than how is it about it. Marilynne Robinson, Zadie Smith, Isabel Allende, Andrea Levy, and Margaret Atwood, just to name a few, all write about family and feelings, and their work is taken seriously by critics. Again, imbalance may exist, but it’s an imbalance, not an automatic shunting to the corner.
As far as getting critical attention goes, Picoult’s and Weiner’s problem is not that they are women writing about family and feelings, but that they are writing about it in a superficial way. They are, as both readily admit, writing commercial, not literary, fiction. As I was pondering this distinction, I happened upon this terrific post by literary agent Nathan Bransford that explains the distinction rather well. Bransford writes that “In commercial fiction the plot tends to happen above the surface and in literary fiction the plot tends to happen beneath the surface.” He goes on to explain what he means in more detail, using Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead as an example of a book with a plot beneath the surface.
Regardless of what some of her detractors might say, Picoult’s books are about serious topics: school shootings, organ donations, and other ethical issues. Same with Weiner, although her topics are more personal and universal: self-image, friendship, parenting, sisterhood. All of these themes could appear in literary and popular fiction. But mostly, in commercial fiction, you can take the message at face value. That doesn’t mean the authors tell you what to think. Picoult in particular is known for showing many sides of the issue. But you don’t have to dig to get at the main idea. I think that’s where a huge chunk of the distinction resides. That and the fact that the prose tends to be more on the workmanlike side.
If you read the interview carefully, you’ll see that a big piece of Weiner’s complaint is not that Franzen and the like get praised—it’s that male commercial writers do and female commercial writers don’t. Weiner says quite clearly that she doesn’t see her work as the equivalent of Franzen’s. She does, however, see it as comparable to that of Nick Hornby, Jonathan Tropper, Carl Hiaasen, and David Nicholls. I’ve not read Tropper or Nicholls, but I have read Hornby and Hiaasen (well, 1/3 of a Hiaasen), and as far as those two authors go, she has a fair point.
As it happens, I like Hornby better than I do Weiner, but a huge chunk of my affection could be for his British voice. But he, like Weiner, takes on heavy topics with a light touch. In fact, I remember a brief period years ago when the term “lad lit” was tossed around as the male equivalent of “chick lit” and Hornby was always mentioned as the exemplar. So it seems to me that if Hornby and Hiaasen get critical attention, there’s no good reason Weiner should not. Similarly, if male authors of commercial fiction in other genres get critical attention, then Weiner and Picoult should too. To ignore their books while taking note of commercial books in genres that aren’t dominated by women does look like something worth calling shenanigans on.
I could probably go on and on about this—I found this conversation both fascinating and vexing. The whole question of popularity and its relationship to quality and worthiness of review pages is equally interesting and could be a post in itself. And then there’s the whole idea of how different kinds of novels are good in different ways. What makes for good chick lit is altogether different from what makes a good mystery or a good literary novel, and so on.
However, because either of these topics could be a whole post in itself, I’d better stop now and let all of you, dear readers, weigh in. So go to it! Have you read any of these authors? What do you think of them? Do you think women are given their due in the literary establishment?
In Other News: Jenny and I are pleased to report that we were shortlisted for Best Literary Fiction blog in this year’s BBAW Awards. Thanks to the judges and to everyone else who voted us onto the longlist, and congrats to all the others who were shortlisted.
Notes from a Reading Life
- The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief by Francis S. Collins. For my church’s book club. Some good arguments for the compatibility of faith and science, but not likely to convince the skeptic on either side.
- Devotion by Howard Norman. Some nice writing and an intriguing premise don’t make up for a contrived and silly plot or boring characters.
- Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih. Compelling Sudanese novella about clashes between cultures.
- Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee (audio). My second Coetzee. Very interesting book. Still working out my feelings about it.
- The Mirage by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. My monthly Morland Dynasty book. This is number 22.
- Half Magic by Edward Eager (audio). Just started this, and the story seems charming, but I do not like the audio production so far.
- The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood. Rereading one of my favorite Atwood novels.
- What Good Is God? by Philip Yancey. An exploration of how faith helps people through difficulty.
- Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882 by Roger Daniels. For my church’s book club.
On My Radar
- Thus Was Adonis Murdered by Sarah Caudwell. A mystery novel involving a goupr of barristers, a trip to Venice, and a murder. Reviewed by Dorothy at Of Books and Bicycles.
- The Irresistible Henry House by Lisa Grunwald. A novel about a man who as an infant was a “practice baby” for a home economics class. (Seriously! And it’s based on something that really happened!). Reviewed at The Literary Omnivore.
- Fludd by Hilary Mantel. I don’t think it’s possible for Catherine at Juxtabook to post a rave review without tempting me to read the book she’s reviewing. In her review, she says that this book about a Catholic parish in Lancashire in the 1950s is “a witty historical novel, about the restraints of religions on the surface, but about much more than that in its many layers.”