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Chick Lit v. the NYT
August 26, 2010 7:36 AM   Subscribe

Best selling authors Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult speak out about how the New York Times treats "chick lit": "when a man writes about family 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."

Apparently, the Huffington Post interviewer didn't do all his research. The Times Magazine just did a feature story on Picoult and her success last year.
posted by roomthreeseventeen (85 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
Yeah, Jenny Weiner you pretty much negated your point of view with this:

I don't write literary fiction - I write books that are entertaining, but are also, I hope, well-constructed


So, she's pissed that the Times Book Review, which when it comes to fiction reviews only literary fiction, doesn't review your self-described non-literary fiction works?
posted by spicynuts at 7:47 AM on August 26, 2010 [6 favorites]


It would help the case of women authors if Jodi Picoult wasn't making it.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:49 AM on August 26, 2010 [18 favorites]


Spicynuts beat me to it, but:

I don't write literary fiction - I write books that are entertaining, but are also, I hope, well-constructed and thoughtful and funny and have things to say about men and women and families and children and life in America today.

My hot dog cart stand sells boiled hot dogs and reheated frozen pretzels, which are delicious and which anyone can enjoy on a hot July afternoon. I demand to know why those elitists at Michelin have repeatedly refused to include it in their guide.
posted by Mayor West at 7:52 AM on August 26, 2010 [8 favorites]


This is nothing but sour grapes. After all, the Times reviews tons of fiction by women on "family and feelings," in the daily paper as well as other sources. The Times just happens to indulge the elitist view that being a "best-selling author" is not enough to make you a good and worthy one. Heck, I don't know if Jodi Picoult or Jennifer Weiner are good or great writers. But the suggestion that they must be the victims of discrimination, because they're not recognized by a particular handful of critics (incidentally, mostly women at the daily times), is insidious.

Attacking this aesthetic judgment through the back-channel of calling gender bias is disgusting, but should serve as a reminder that any movement, no matter how righteous, will attract the attention of the self-seeking. We cannot implicitly trust even people who complain of sexism, because the attraction of a powerful complaint is amoral.
posted by grobstein at 7:55 AM on August 26, 2010 [6 favorites]


The only thing more tiresome than the NYT's book reviews, which are increasingly shallow and tied as if by an umbilical cord to their lists of bestsellers, are the grievances of list-anointed authors that they too should get DP'd.

(I do not doubt for a minute that there's gender discrimination at play here, but much of this is like the complaints of the Micheners, the Kings, the Turows, the Patersons . . . Or, to put this more in terms of romance and crap like that, the whinges of that Madison County fellow. Perhaps Sparks is the acid test here.)
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 7:55 AM on August 26, 2010


Being ignored by critics is criticism. She clearly doesn't like it.
posted by WPW at 7:58 AM on August 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yet when Joyce Carol Oates writes about "family and feelings," the result is assuredly "literature with a capital L." Jodi Picoult et. al. might try checking out this Joyce Carol Oates gal.
posted by applemeat at 7:59 AM on August 26, 2010 [7 favorites]


And for that matter so should Jonathan Franzen.
posted by applemeat at 8:00 AM on August 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


A fairly cogent reply from one of HuffPo's bloggers.
posted by HumanComplex at 8:00 AM on August 26, 2010


Like Clyde Mnestra, I don't doubt there's some bias - gender-based, snobbery, etc. - at work, but why on earth would I waste time on Picoult or Nicholas Sparks when I could read Alice Munro?
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 8:03 AM on August 26, 2010


A fairly cogent reply from one of HuffPo's bloggers.

She had me right up until "If a brilliant writer like Stephen King.."
posted by applemeat at 8:06 AM on August 26, 2010 [4 favorites]


I suppose Picoult and Weiner will have to settle for their huge pile of money.

I never heard Franzen complaining that Hollywood wasn't backing up a Brinks truck to his house to make an adaptation of one of his novels like they did for Weiner's "In Her Shoes".

Being popular and literary is a difficult tightrope to walk and it's hard enough to be one or the other let alone both.
posted by inturnaround at 8:20 AM on August 26, 2010


Jodi Picoult: Think about Jane Austen. Think about Charles Dickens. Think about Shakespeare. They were popular authors. They were writing for the masses.

I read a Jodi Picoult book once, which I've mentioned on MetaFilter before. As I wrote there, "If you pick up a copy for yourself, watch for the changing fonts for each speaker, especially the edgy typeset used for the misunderstood teenager who sets the abandoned warehouse fires that keep risking the life of his firefighter father."

Jane Austen she ain't.
posted by Partial Law at 8:26 AM on August 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


I think Jen Weiner was the one who tweeted the very comment that, "I'm going to weep into my royalty check". She's funny and honest and that's what makes her great.

Ugh. This is just... nauseating. The first thing that comes to mind when reading this is when, in Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Violet and Veruca turn to each other and say "Let's be friends!" "BEST Friends!" and obviously... they each mean the exact opposite. It's a front women put on when competing with each other that's just absolutely chilling to watch.
posted by sonika at 8:28 AM on August 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


Just to clarify, I don't like Weiner's writing at all. Jodi Picoult has some very good books. House Rules is actually GREAT, mostly because she doesn't try going for the twist ending that many of her other books have.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:31 AM on August 26, 2010


Jonathan Franzen's Freedom: the novel of the century.
Jonathan Franzen is the great American novelist reborn, a literary genius for our time. Only recently, a critic was lamenting the decline of the American novel, the passing of the age of Updike, Roth and Bellow. But there is no excuse for pessimism about the future of serious fiction when a writer such as Franzen is coming into his prime. His hit The Corrections won him an army of readers, then he published a set of provocative cultural essays – and this autumn, Freedom, his first novel since The Corrections, will be finally be published. It is an extraordinary work, which develops and deepens the immense talent so evident in The Corrections in a way that is at first troubling, then addictive – and then, with mounting satisfaction, convinces you this is simply on a different plane from other contemporary fiction.

Freedom has the same seductive narrative impulse that made Franzen's previous family drama so engaging. This book, too, is an intimate and profoundly realistic novel of family life and close relationships, with a triangle of characters at its heart who compare themselves with the characters in Tolstoy's War and Peace. In fact, War and Peace is the only "high" reference point in a novel whose inhabitants mostly speak and think in terms of popular culture – one character even comes from Hibbing, Minnesota, birthplace of Bob Dylan, and he and his friends are conscious of this connection, sharing a love of the film Don't Look Back. Elsewhere, a mother and son argue about the qualities of Married With Children. As the plot traverses the last wretched decade – it is, very precisely, a novel of our time – communications technology keeps updating, with a daughter telling the older characters that young people text, they don't email, and blogs becoming part of the comedy.

Well, comedy or tragedy. The Russian literary allusions are no joke: this is a formidable and harrowing work. So was The Corrections, but in this book there is a moral grandeur and a relentlessness that burned its way that much deeper into my imagination. To put it bluntly, The Corrections made it plausible to speak of Franzen in the company of Philip Roth. This new book demands comparison rather with Saul Bellow's Herzog or something loftier – it is self-evidently a modern classic.

Franzen's daring has been to take on soap operas and HBO mini-series, demonstrating that if you want modern emotional dramas, the novel can provide them today as effectively as it did in the 19th century. But, he also offers something no HBO series can – the solitude and moral introspection of the novel, the beauty of prose, the imaginative love affair you form with characters you alone see in the way you see them. Freedom is the novel of the year, and the century.

posted by caddis at 8:33 AM on August 26, 2010


Jane Austen she ain't.

Jane Austen? Really?

Come on. What writer is Jane Austen, in the year 2010? Or would aspire to be Jane Austen, other than to write Pride and Prejudice zombie mashups?

Jonathan Franzen sure ain't Jane Austen either, that's for damn sure. A more overrated and overlionized writer I've never encountered.
posted by blucevalo at 8:37 AM on August 26, 2010 [6 favorites]


This is a crap argument. The real issue is that neither of them are anywhere near as good as even low-end literary fiction. Lionel Shriver is a woman writing about "family and feelings" and she is taken very seriously - and rightly so. When Jennifer Weiner writes something without a completely predictable ending or Jodi Picoult comes up with something different from the 15 books she's already written, then I'll give them some credence.
posted by something something at 8:40 AM on August 26, 2010


I will gladly say something positive about Jennifer Weiner if she can somehow arrange to get me the hours of my life wasted on Good in Bed back.
posted by naoko at 8:46 AM on August 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


To be clear: it's not just "men." It's "white men." Picoult and now Weiner are accusing the Times of racial and gender bias. They are specifically saying that books by white men are more likely to receive positive attention and reviews in the New York Times.

This began with a tweet from Picoult:
NYT raved about Franzen's new book. Is anyone shocked? Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren't white male literary darlings.
She continued speaking about this here.
"It is my personal opinion that yes, the Times favors white male authors. That isn't to say someone else might get a good review- only that if you are white and male and living in Brooklyn you have better odds, or so it seems. The NYT has long made it clear that they value literary fiction and disdain commercial fiction - and they disparage it regardless of race or gender of the author. I'm not commenting on one specific critic or even on my own reviews (which are few and far between because I write commercial fiction). How else can the Times explain the fact that white male authors are ROUTINELY assigned reviews in both the Sunday review section AND the daily book review section (often both raves) while so many other writers go unnoticed by their critics?"
From the HuffPost article:
Weiner: However, I think it's irrefutable that when it comes to picking favorites - those lucky few writers who get the double reviews AND the fawning magazine profile AND the back-page essay space AND the op-ed, or the Q and A edited and condensed by Deborah Solomon - the Times tends to pick white guys. Usually white guys living in Brooklyn or Manhattan, white guys who either have MFAs or teach at MFA programs...white guys who, I suspect, remind the Times' powers-that-be of themselves, minus twenty years and plus some hair.
NPR's story about this also focused on both the Times Book Review's alleged racial and gender biases.
posted by zarq at 8:48 AM on August 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Jonathan Franzen sure ain't Jane Austen either, that's for damn sure. A more overrated and overlionized writer I've never encountered.

Who's overrated and overlionized? Austen or Franzen?
posted by curuinor at 8:52 AM on August 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't understand why I haven't won the National Book Award.
posted by OmieWise at 8:52 AM on August 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Who's overrated and overlionized? Austen or Franzen?

Franzen.
posted by blucevalo at 8:55 AM on August 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Didn't Michiko Kakutani slam Franzen's memoir - The Discomfort Zone - in 2008?

I find it rather ironic that to make their point, Weiner and Picoult single out white male writers but fail to acknowledge their fellow women writers who write about "feelings" and "family" but are highly regarded as authors - Zadie Smith (most certainly a literary darling), AS Byatt, Hilary Mantel, AL Kennedy, Jeanette Winterson, Joyce Carol Oates, Doris Lessing, Marilynne Robinson, Anita Brookner... I could go on forever. These writers are never going to be mistaken for "chick lit" authors. Writing is challenging, writing well takes a lot of hard work, but writing a good story and awing people with your style requires quite a bit of talent. Weiner and Picoult are competent at best.

Weiner and Picoult do have a valid point about the sexism in the literary world, and uh, maybe they have an ally in AS Byatt. Only Byatt's complaint is that women who write about Serious Stuff are viewed as "unnatural". That would be fun to see.
posted by peripathetic at 8:57 AM on August 26, 2010 [9 favorites]


Three propositions no longer searching for an author:

1. "the Times tends to pick white guys"

Almost certainly true, considering the proportion of authors published by major houses, with longstanding reps, etc.

2. "the Times favors white male authors"

Probably true. There's bias everywhere; there are counter-biases (see, e.g., Booker short-lists), but probably not equal in force and perhaps prone to tokenism.

3. It follows that the reason we haven't received the recognition we feel we're due is necessarily because of bias, not because we're crap.

Unstated, but implicit, and dubious.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 9:02 AM on August 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Do I think I should be getting all of the attention that Jonathan "Genius" Franzen gets?

I wonder if she did ironic-air-quotes when she said that. Because if there's one way to ensure that people like you and want to take you seriously, it's doing ironic-air-quotes.
posted by griphus at 9:03 AM on August 26, 2010


Because if there's one way to ensure that people like you and want to take you seriously, it's doing ironic-air-quotes.

I thought it was quoting 17 year-old Seinfeld lines.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 9:09 AM on August 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


...I was just about to follow up with that, Alvy.
posted by griphus at 9:10 AM on August 26, 2010


Were the NYT showering James Patterson and Lee Child with awards and accolades, I could see their point, but as it stands, they don't really have much of a leg to stand on.
posted by Shepherd at 9:12 AM on August 26, 2010


"If you pick up a copy for yourself, watch for the changing fonts for each speaker, especially the edgy typeset used for the misunderstood teenager who sets the abandoned warehouse fires that keep risking the life of his firefighter father."

Holy fuck, seriously?
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 9:12 AM on August 26, 2010


Jesus Christ, take it up with your publishers. Have you seen the covers of their books? They SCREAM Chick Lit and Beach Books. Hell, I just loaded Weiner's books on Amazon and the top few have beaches or boardwalks on them--or a close up of bare legs on what looks like a towel.

There are plenty of contemporary female authors who write about family or feelings whose books aren't considered Chit Lit. This year alone I've read books by Nicole Krauss, Rivka Galchen, AL Kennedy, AM Homes, Carolyn Parkhurst, Lydia Davis, and Deborah Eisenberg. Coincidentally, none of these books have "Chit Lit" covers.
posted by dobbs at 9:19 AM on August 26, 2010 [5 favorites]


I like some of Picoult's writing. The Pact had me on the edge of my seat for a rainy weekend a few days in a way, and I mean this sincerely and do not say it lightly, I hadn't experienced since reading The Count of Monte Cristo.

Keep in mind, Alexandre Dumas was a plot writer. He wrote great stories and he wrote them very well. Some of his works don't have anything more deep than what's there. Oh, sure, you can argue the time and the place and what it means for a multiracial man to write what he wrote as he wrote it in the time he wrote it, but still....his books are primarily adventure and action movies in novelized form. And I love that!

I think in some of her books Picoult demonstrates a similar talent. It's not necessarily deep. It's not necessarily an intellectual masterpiece, but there's something to be said for writing a book that keeps moving and can elicit emotions and feelings from someone without them having to spend twenty minutes puzzling over what a paragraph may mean.

Now, I love Don DeLillo, to bring up a contemporary and considered literary artist, but if I had to choose between rereading The Pact or rereading Underworld, I'd happily throw Underworld into a garbage bin, toss in a match, and never once look back or feel the tiniest inkling of regret.

Point is, I think Picoult has potential to be more than a "chick-lit" writer. Maybe she hasn't reached it yet (and I've only read one other book by her), and too, Don DeLilo's written some godawful crap that just isn't worthy of the praise it received. I think this goes back to labels, and once you're labeled as a "chick-lit" author, the critics won't take you seriously, but if you're labeled as an "extraordinary writer of our time," they will --- even if what the latter wrote is less good than the former's.
posted by zizzle at 9:25 AM on August 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Also: Chiclet.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 9:26 AM on August 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


If you read further about the controversy, you will see that Picoult was not speaking of her OWN work, which she acknowledges is commercial, but of the work of OTHER female authors who are ignored by literary critics in favor of "white guys with MFAs." Particularly if they write about topics seen as quintessentially female.

But boy is everyone ready to jump all over the "her books are trash so her points are worthless!" bandwagon. Ugh.

Dobbs -- how many of those authors have had reviews in the NYT?
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:27 AM on August 26, 2010 [8 favorites]


I'm kind of curious. If one wanted to make a list of literary fiction that was about neither family nor feelings, how far could one get? Irrespective of the gender of the author...

Unless of course, one is talking about writers who deal with both family and feelings. Then one might have to drop some big names. Not all of them deal with family.

To add to the list of women who are certainly considered Literary and deal with both family and feelings, there's Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, plus the many listed above. If we wanted to, we could really go on forever here. Oh, don't forget AS Byatt, Margaret Drabble, Margaret Atwood....
posted by bardophile at 9:28 AM on August 26, 2010


It's funny watching these authors scramble over one another to be king of the "middle-class novel." All the great novels are anti-middle class novels, by definition, because they stand out from every other novel. For example the Great Gatsby was an anti-middle class novel because he showed how hard work and having a dream doesn't always equal success, in fact it gets him killed (a core bourgeois value de-mythologized). Franzen seems to be attacking the mythology of Freedom, which was front and center during the Bush II years. What core values are Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult challenging their readers with? Let me guess.. infidelity, trust, etc.. the same banal every day things over and over again. Not to discount those things as important, they are, but those kinds of novels are as common as sand and that's the point.
posted by stbalbach at 9:33 AM on August 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Um, this really seems like a case of "be careful what you wish for." From what I know of Jodi Picoult*, I really don't think she'd like the end result of what a New York Times review would be.

Also, the NY Times Review of Books is not Siskel and Ebert at the Movies. They don't review every book. They review books of a certain kind -- which usually ends up being critically well-received books -- and they don't spend a lot of time on books they aren't going to recommend, and those that they end up trashing usually end up as being the sophomore or later books by authors who have previously been critically applauded.


* What I know of Jodi Picoult -- I tried to read the first chapter of her book but couldn't after we got it signed as a birthday present for my boyfriend's high school aged niece, who reads her books and, as far as I know, has never read a novel outside of school. She appreciated the gesture but we later found out that she was embarrassed that her grandmother had told us she read Picoult's books because though she finds them an entertaining way to pass the time at the pool, they're "really not the good" (and trust me, she's far from a lit snob and if I am in any way, that's certainly not a side of myself that my in laws would ever have had reason to see, so for her to see them as a guilty pleasure, well, God only knows what people who get paid to be bitchy about bad books would do, .)

posted by MCMikeNamara at 9:37 AM on August 26, 2010


Most of this stuff is unreadable garbage. That is why it gets no respect.

You know what else doesn't get respect? MOST LITERATURE THAT IS RELEASED! Only a few books out of the thousands released each year are reviewed by publications. Out of those, I'd say female authors are represented quite well.

For my thoughts on chick lit, you may refer to my earlier remarks.
posted by reenum at 9:40 AM on August 26, 2010


House Rules was the most discordant and least sensible book on mental illness I have read.
i think that women, and genre fiction writers, and populist writers get fucked over in the New York Times, and domestic melodrama is under rated (compare for example, Cain's noir and its critical reception to female written melodrama at the same time) but I also think Picoult is dangerous--not only a bad writer in terms of formal issues of plotting, characters, word choice, and the like, but her ideas and how she transmits them are intensely problematic.
posted by PinkMoose at 9:44 AM on August 26, 2010


Also, the NY Times Review of Books is not Siskel and Ebert at the Movies.

And I happen to consider this a failing. Why not review books by genre the way Siskel and Ebert did? Why not review books based on what they purport to be? And do so seriously?

I've read a lot of books that would be considered "Chick Lit," and I've read a lot of books considered highly literary and a fabulous commentary on x-issue in four thousand pages. I read them for different reasons, but each, in my opinion, are important and do deserve to be taken seriously for what they are. Why dismiss, what is essentially becoming, an entire genre (chick lit, beach books, etc.)?
posted by zizzle at 9:47 AM on August 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


Why isn't anyone talking about Lydia Davis yet? Let's talk about Lydia Davis.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:48 AM on August 26, 2010


I don't want to read guys talking about families and feelings either. I was thinking about Franzen when I read the "Families and feelings" thing and lo and behold that's what this is about.
War and Peace is the only "high" reference point in a novel whose inhabitants mostly speak and think in terms of popular culture – one character even comes from Hibbing, Minnesota, birthplace of Bob Dylan, and he and his friends are conscious of this connection, sharing a love of the film Don't Look Back. Elsewhere, a mother and son argue about the qualities of Married With Children. As the plot traverses the last wretched decade – it is, very precisely, a novel of our time – communications technology keeps updating, with a daughter telling the older characters that young people text, they don't email, and blogs becoming part of the comedy.
Are you kidding me? Sounds absurdly boring. I don't understand how people can read this stuff. Can't they sit around and talk about Married with Children with their own parents? I don't get it. Picoult's novel about an angsty arsonista sounds more interesting, frankly. Even if it's bad.
posted by delmoi at 9:55 AM on August 26, 2010


And I happen to consider this a failing. Why not review books by genre the way Siskel and Ebert did? Why not review books based on what they purport to be? And do so seriously?

Because that's not what the New York Times Sunday Book Review is about. This can be seen as a failing or it can be seen as filling a need that publications like Entertainment Weekly or USA Today don't. There is only so much space; should they really fill it with why they don't like a book or should they ignore it? Life isn't a university; not everyone gets a grade.

However, I may be particularly blinded by this issue as the last book I picked up because of something I'd read in the Times was "A Thread of Sky"*, which is written by a non-white woman and about non-white women and so full of the stereotypical "chick lit" issues that it would sound like a parody of them if you reduced it to the plot points. So I'm not sure I see the same problem that was raised by the initial article anyway.

* Actually, I didn't read this review but heard an interview with the author on the NY Times podcast.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 9:56 AM on August 26, 2010


Eyebrows McGee, I don't think anyone's said that her books are trashy, though I can see why you would get that impression. Picoult is claiming that books about "family and feelings" written by women are trivialized by hoity toity publications, but she conveniently ignores that there are "quintessentially female" books that aren't snubbed by even male establishment critics. Comparing "chick lit" to "white male MFA fiction" is a little like comparing apples and oranges, no? If she defended all women writers, commercial and literary, or if she were championing Susan Sontag or Claire Messud to be on the cover of Time, she would have won me over. So while her arguments are valid, she does come across as a bunch of sour grapes here.

Personally, I don't enjoy Jodi Picoult's novels, but she is a decent writer, she works hard, and she deserves her success as brand name author. Nor do I care for the Franzens and the Lethems of the world. I'm currently acquainting myself with women writers who are criminally left off literary canons and "best of" lists; "women's fiction", if there really is such a category, is such a very mixed bag.


*Just examples, not who I REALLY think should replace Franzen.
posted by peripathetic at 10:05 AM on August 26, 2010


Ahhh...white people arguing about why more white people wont read their work.

Excellent.
posted by hal_c_on at 10:10 AM on August 26, 2010


Also, The Millions has a list of Time covers occupied by authors since the 1920s. Looks like American culture's moved away from the literary in the last thirty years or so.
posted by peripathetic at 10:16 AM on August 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ahhh...white people arguing about why more white people wont read their work.

Let's have this conversation in every thread!
posted by shakespeherian at 10:20 AM on August 26, 2010 [9 favorites]


These girls could probably learn a thing or two from that french guy George Sand. He sure knew how to write a book!
posted by Devils Rancher at 10:26 AM on August 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


What core values are Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult challenging their readers with? Let me guess.. infidelity, trust, etc.. the same banal every day things over and over again. Not to discount those things as important, they are, but those kinds of novels are as common as sand and that's the point.

Warmly agree, stbalbach.

I've read both authors - and enjoyed them both (with tons of fishwife caveats!) and they both gently confirm small 'c" conservative eternal values after an external onslaught of very contemporary issues (i.e. plot).

As you say, these values are important.

The same values are also the meat & veg of the best-selling authors who have (deservedly) endured.

But when you look at 18th & 19th century lending library ledgers - you will see listed dozens and dozens of long totally-forgotten novels, all by past Picoults -and Weiners -all confirming the obvious to the last bittersweet twist.

You can trace the rise and fall of hugely popular best sellers - some of them more popular than Austen or Dickens at the time (based on borrowings) - showing that bad karma will come around, beauty is skin deep, the tramp has a heart of gold (and only needs someone to love her for who she really is...) - and reminding us to smell the roses - even when life sucks.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 10:28 AM on August 26, 2010 [5 favorites]



What core values are Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult challenging their readers with? Let me guess.. infidelity, trust, etc.. the same banal every day things over and over again. Not to discount those things as important, they are, but those kinds of novels are as common as sand and that's the point


Picoult's books aren't about those issues at all. She usually does "ripped from the headlines" stuff, a la Law & Order.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:31 AM on August 26, 2010


There's a few different arguments going on in this discussion.

1. The fact that writers who are women are often underrepresented even while doing work comparable or better than their male colleagues.

2. The fact that the New York Times often prizes certain types of writers or work. Clearly, this is not limited to the New York Times. Look at the New Yorker's recent list of writers under 40 and find one without an MFA from a top program.

But let's not get distracted from the real point of all this:


Why isn't anyone talking about Lydia Davis yet? Let's talk about Lydia Davis.


3. Lydia Davis is a hell of a writer. And she translates! I don't know why she hasn't won the Pulitzer for Best Writer Ever. It's criminal.
posted by fryman at 10:31 AM on August 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


Because if there's one way to ensure that people like you and want to take you seriously, it's doing ironic-air-quotes.

"Finger Flexures" has a more literary ring to it.
posted by Devils Rancher at 10:35 AM on August 26, 2010


3. Lydia Davis is a hell of a writer. And she translates! I don't know why she hasn't won the Pulitzer for Best Writer Ever. It's criminal.

In my estimation, they need to invent about thirty prizes a year with the sole intention of awarding them to Lydia Davis.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:49 AM on August 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Lunch with Lydia Davis
posted by OmieWise at 10:49 AM on August 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


Looks like American culture's moved away from the literary in the last thirty years or so.

That's possible, but it's also possible that Time Magazine has ceased to be relevant or representative of American culture in the last thirty years or so.
posted by mike_bling at 10:51 AM on August 26, 2010


Actually, both are possible, if not probable.
posted by blucevalo at 11:00 AM on August 26, 2010


I meant to say: simultaneously possible.
posted by blucevalo at 11:01 AM on August 26, 2010


Let's have this conversation in every thread!

Well if every thread started concerns that issue, doesn't it make sense?
posted by hal_c_on at 11:22 AM on August 26, 2010


Lunch with Lydia Davis

I am in Love with her.
posted by shakespeherian at 11:25 AM on August 26, 2010


What writer is Jane Austen, in the year 2010?

My money's on Mary Robinette Kowal, and not just because she fits the dress.
posted by straw man special at 11:31 AM on August 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


"when a man writes about family 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."

Oh, bullshit. Bel Canto (Ann Patchett), A Thousand Acres (Jane Smiley), Possession (A.S. Byatt), White Teeth (Zadie Smith)... these are just off the top of my head. All by women, all dealing with "family and feelings," all taken very seriously by critics.
posted by scody at 11:46 AM on August 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


I just had to give props to the as-yet-unmentioned Grace Paley, who also got plenty of NYTRB screen time. Or Marisha Pessl, or many other people who write 'literature', rather than 'fiction'.
posted by zvs at 12:19 PM on August 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Jhumpa Lahiri. Zadie Smith.
posted by naju at 12:31 PM on August 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


How many times best sellers have neon pink or green covers?
posted by djduckie at 12:34 PM on August 26, 2010


I just had to give props to the as-yet-unmentioned Grace Paley...

zvs,
I just read that too quickly as the "as-yet-unmarried Grace Paley..."!
posted by Jody Tresidder at 1:28 PM on August 26, 2010


writer. If AM Homes wasn't quite so misanthropic she'd write a lot like Jennifer Weiner; I read
In Her Shoes and The Corrections around the same time, and to me they had similar themes if different execution, and one has stayed in my mind whilst the other is mostly now forgotten. I love the fact she has fat or nerdy characters who don't end the book losing weight or having a make-over. I like how they seem like real people in a genre where characters are often shop dummies with a ring on their finger.

There's a lot of terrible 'chick lit' out there - people ripping off Bridget Jones under the misapprehension that it was a book about a fat woman, or books that read like the stockist page in Marie Claire - and there's a bit of good stuff too. I would daresay that many of the people deriding chick-lit on this thread have never read any, or at least only come across the shite. It's the equivalent of a good bar of chocolate - you won't want to eat it for every meal, or even that often, but sometimes it hits the spot nicely. I'd like to see literary supplements do genre fiction more often, because there are some really great novels that get overlooked because they're filed on the wrong shelf in the bookstore or library. Muriel Gray made this point a few years ago - that the minutiae of life is what's covered in chick-lit, and it should be considered no less worthy of attention than the big novel about the post-colonial experience or the salaryman trapped in American suburbia.

I've read some really terrible lit-fic in my time (Chbosky, Pessl and Vollman, I'm looking at you, and I want my £3 back) but I would happily read Weiner, Lisa Jewell, early Jenny Colgan, Karyn Bosnak or Emily Barr than I would the latest Amis-dribble or that awful thing that was the follow-up to ...Kevin. (Seriously, Lionel, you can write about dysfunctional children but you can't write a British accent..) There is nothing wrong with commercial, popular or entertaining fiction. There is something wrong with bad fiction.
posted by mippy at 1:37 PM on August 26, 2010


Also: if you are on sodium valproate, you really really appreciate genre fiction because the clicking along of the plot really helps with managing to finish the book. At one point, I missed being able to read so much that I came off my meds and read twelve books in a month.
posted by mippy at 1:38 PM on August 26, 2010


Jhumpa Lahiri. Zadie Smith.

Amen!
posted by hal_c_on at 1:46 PM on August 26, 2010


I'd like to see literary supplements do genre fiction more often, because there are some really great novels that get overlooked because they're filed on the wrong shelf in the bookstore or library.
The New York Times has that bi-weekly crime column, right? For the most part, crime novels aren't considered serious enough to merit full reviews, but they're included in the book review. I think the idea is that, although crime novels aren't serious literature, serious people might read crime novels. Whereas the NYT Book Review would probably not admit that their readers might be slumming in chick lit or romance or anything like that. And I do think that crime as a genre is gendered male, even though a lot of really good crime novelists are women. Similarly, you can say that you enjoy reading spy novels without killing your credibility.

I think the whole question of literary prestige is sort of interesting, and there are definitely some gender dynamics at work. I think it's too easy to say that men get to write about families and feelings and women don't, though. It's more complicated than that. Maybe it's that women have to be a lot more overtly literary or subversive to write about romance, family or feelings without getting the chick lit label.
posted by craichead at 2:24 PM on August 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


For example the Great Gatsby was an anti-middle class novel because he showed how hard work and having a dream doesn't always equal success, in fact it gets him killed

Dude, spoiler tags?!
posted by Theodore Sign at 2:26 PM on August 26, 2010


The Guardian does have a crime column, and a monthly graphic novel one (unless it's a more mass-appeal one), but only really reviews the more literary chick-lit (names escape me just now). My point is that in every genre there are great books amongst the dross, and yet review supplements devote themselves wholly to one genre - lit-fic - when it comes to reviewing fiction. It seems enormously myopic to me and really, if I want an entertaining read, I want to know that the commercial fiction I might pick up isn't completely crap.

Weiner: Nick Hornby, Jonathan Tropper, Carl Hiaasen, David Nicholls...all of these guys write what I'd call commercial books, even beach books, books about relationships and romance and families. All of them would be considered chick lit writers if they were girls. But they're not, so they get reviewed (not always positively, but still), and they sell

I think this is the point. One Day got serialised on Radio 4, as do Nick Hornby's novels - making Book at Bedtime means you're being taken a little bit seriously. Yet if it were Lisa Jewell who wrote How To Be Good, you can bet the broadsheets wouldn'tve touched it. There is a weird little trend, at least in Britain, for a kind of chick-lit written by men - basically the same novel but with a men;s point of view - Mike Gayle is a good example. I've never been quite sure what differentiates this from writers like Hornby and Nicholls, with their plain prose and relationship drama.
posted by mippy at 2:47 PM on August 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


For example the Great Gatsby was an anti-middle class novel because he showed how hard work and having a dream doesn't always equal success, in fact it gets him killed

Dude, spoiler tags?!


Rob: Just listen to me. If I said to you—
Barry: —"I haven't seen Evil Dead II yet", yes.
Rob: Would you get the impression that I really wanted to see it?
Barry: Oh, uh, well you couldn't have been desperate to see it, otherwise you'd have already gone.
posted by limeonaire at 2:58 PM on August 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


Ah, well now, that's the film dialogue.

I always disliked the updating of About A Boy to the present day in the film - one of the loveliest scenes in the book was where the-boy-whose-name-i-can't-remember tried to manouever his friend around a train-station avoiding all news-stands with headlines on Kurt Cobain's death. Also, because I was eleven years old around the time it was set too.
posted by mippy at 3:20 PM on August 26, 2010


I think that this issue rests upon the unacknowledged difference between "literary fiction" as a marketing category and "literary" as meaning that which has artistic merit. I say "unacknowledged" because often times the assumption is that "literary fiction = literary" and that if something is good or has artistic merit, it counts as literary fiction, and if it is not good, then it counts as commercial fiction. You often see this in the case of science fiction work, where, if it is considered literary, then it is no longer considered "science fiction", because the assumption is that science fiction is a subset of commercial fiction.

Conversely, though, this gives rise to the assumption that literary fiction is somehow not commercial fiction.This is absurd. While so-called literary fiction may not be marketed and sold in the same way as so-called commercial fiction - for example, Franzen probably won't get a mass-market paperback edition of his new novel - it is still very much produced to be sold and consumed. Franzen is very much a commercial writer, despite his own protests. He has sold a lot of books. He is on the cover of Time. He is a popular and commercial author. That doesn't mean that he cannot also have literary merit. (I'm just using him as an example. Personally, I don't think he's bad but I don't think he's all that great.)

Some authors have both commercial and artistic success (Philip Roth), some have commercial but not artistic (James Patterson), and some have artistic but not commercial (Stephen Dixon). I think Picoult and Weiner fall into the "commercial but not artistic success" camp and feel that it is because their work is not considered "literary fiction" and thus not eligible for artistic evaluation. There is probably a bit of truth in this. But it could also be that their work isn't very good. I wouldn't know, though, because I haven't read any of it.

I think that there are two types of genre - marketing and artistic. The marketing genres are just the sections you find in a bookstore. It is often a purely commercial decision to brand something as "Romance" or "Mystery" rather than "Literary Fiction", and, yes, this often affects a work's chances at being evaluated artistically. However, I think the converse is also true, that something being branded as "Literary Fiction" can hurt its commercial chances.

I think that the assumption that "literary fiction" is merely a set of things that have the property of "artistic merit" needs to be challenged. It is utterly false. Anything can have artistic merit. I truly believe that all this pointless bickering about what is or is not "literary fiction" or all the countless genre fights leads to good work not being read. And that's a shame. I have friends who won't read anything that isn't "literary fiction" and they end up missing out on a lot of good work. I also have friends that won't read anything that isn't "science fiction" and they miss out too. With the state of the publishing industry the way it is, I think anything that arbitrarily prevents someone from reading something they would otherwise purchase and enjoy is bullshit that needs to be swept away.
posted by fryman at 4:13 PM on August 26, 2010 [4 favorites]


Nope, grandma reads these women. Don't count.
posted by Esoquo at 5:39 PM on August 26, 2010


Genre writers bleating about the moribund literary establishment remind me so much of children, caught in the paradox of wanting something so bad yet professing in the same breath to despise it: "I'm not crying! I didn't want to go his birthday party anyway cause it sucks!!"

It shows what a job the lit establishment has done on some writers. Unhappy with their millions of happy, dedicated fans and dollars, they still want approval from the cultural gatekeepers that despise them. Give it up. If you truly didn't care, why are you complaining so much.

They should that Patterson link from a few days ago - there's a guy who's reconciled himself to writing what he writes. Also, take a leaf from Stevenson's book: "Here lies one who meant well, tried a little, failed much: — surely that may be his epitaph of which he need not be ashamed."
posted by smoke at 5:39 PM on August 26, 2010


Eyebrows McGee, I'd favorite your comment a million times, if possible. And those comments saying "oh, poor them, the NYT doesn't review middle-of-the-road popular fiction," let's talk Stephen King, Tom Robbins, Tom Clancy, Michael Crichton, etc. All middle-of-the-road, popular fiction writers, all reviewed by the New York Times.
posted by tzikeh at 5:45 PM on August 26, 2010


It's a front women put on when competing with each other that's just absolutely chilling to watch.

People. Not just women. Some people.

All middle-of-the-road, popular fiction writers, all reviewed by the New York Times.

All white men.
posted by cmgonzalez at 7:22 PM on August 26, 2010


Eyebrows McGee:

If you read further about the controversy, you will see that Picoult was not speaking of her OWN work, which she acknowledges is commercial, but of the work of OTHER female authors who are ignored by literary critics in favor of "white guys with MFAs." Particularly if they write about topics seen as quintessentially female.

Respectfully, I think this is completely wrong. Of course she is sufficiently sensitive to appearances not to protest *solely* on her own behalf, but she hardly thinks she is sidelining herself by acknowledging that she's commercial. She finds oddly appealing Wiener's remark that "I'm going to weep into my royalty check," as if that's somehow attractive, or even a fair description of how either of them appear to be content with royalties. But she then seems to protest "the unwritten schism" -- as opposed to all those written schisms out there -- between commercial and literary work, and says that they both enjoy very similar "themes and wisdoms." This by itself reflects such a bad understanding of what makes review-worthy literature that it almost disqualifies her right there.

I admit that I have not read beyond the links here and in the HuffPo piece. But one of the two pieces linked there says that Picault's initial remarks were self-focused ("In her comments to The NYTPicker, Picoult made it plain that her sensitivities derive from her own feelings of mistreatment by the NYT. ").

So I don't think it's fair to say that she is simply speaking on behalf of others, or accepting her own fate -- it rather comes across as if she's wrapping herself in the same mantle. That's not to say that her underlying point is wrong, but it does fairly raise the question of whether her own treatment is due to the fact that she can't write.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 8:18 PM on August 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


This calls for a link to Steve Almond on Dick Lit.
posted by tangerine at 10:25 PM on August 26, 2010


The impression I get with Patterson is that writing goes hand in hand with business, whereas as nice as the money is, many writers want to be told they're good writers. A lot of the Penguin Modern Classics were never best-sellers, but you can bet if I wrote a book I'd rather get a silver spine than a film deal out of it.
posted by mippy at 1:51 AM on August 27, 2010


I also think Picoult is dangerous--not only a bad writer in terms of formal issues of plotting, characters, word choice, and the like, but her ideas and how she transmits them are intensely problematic.

PinkMoose, would you mind saying more about this? I'm genuinely curious about the specifics of this statement. (I've only read My Sister's Keeper, fwiw.)
posted by athenasbanquet at 3:28 PM on August 27, 2010


It's mostly gut and mostly about the autism book--but i think that she is v victorian in her ideas of disease, in the sense that if they cannot be cured, they must be mainstreamed, and if they are not to be mainstreamed, they are to be pitied.

also her sexual politics, and her excusing certain really creepy behaviour as sort of normal is skeezy.
posted by PinkMoose at 7:18 PM on August 27, 2010


Me: All middle-of-the-road, popular fiction writers, all reviewed by the New York Times.

cmgonzales: All white men.

Yes, that was my point. That the NYT will review middle-of-the-road popular fiction, so long as it's written by men; hence, the women authors have a valid argument.
posted by tzikeh at 11:05 PM on August 27, 2010



Me: All middle-of-the-road, popular fiction writers, all reviewed by the New York Times.

cmgonzales: All white men.

Yes, that was my point. That the NYT will review middle-of-the-road popular fiction, so long as it's written by men; hence, the women authors have a valid argument.


I'm also willing to bet that most of those men were reviewed after several years of commercial success. In other words, some NYT reviewer saw off-the-charts bookselling for the same name repeatedly and went, "Oh, shit. I guess I better review this author people have been reading like crazy in order to stay relevant and up with the times."

In particular, I think of Terry Pratchett, whose work you find in the "Fantasy" sections of bookstores but many of which could possibly be considered satirical commentary on our own world. His work is bright, intelligent, witty, fast-moving, and can actually cause people to think and consider certain values. But you don't find him classified as "Literary" or as "Literature." But it took nearly 10 years after first publishing in Britain for his work to make it to the US. I don't think he was reviewed by the NYT until the late 90s, though I could be wrong about that. My googling isn't so hot tonight.
posted by zizzle at 7:35 PM on August 29, 2010


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