Genre/Commerical vs. Literary again

16 09 2010

Koa Beck gets it, while weighing in on the Picoult/Weiner/Franzen thing and asking why there are so few literary women writers getting attention. She writes, correctly, that the reason you see so little serious literary criticism applied to the works of Picoult, Weiner and other “beach” literature is not sexism, but rather that, frankly, it just isn’t deep enough to merit it:

Collectively, we have now arrived at a time in literature, and even our culture, in which popularity and quality have completely diverged. There is the occasional overlap but only individual cases, especially in writing, to speak of. Popularity alone can no longer serve as a testament to strong, well-written, reflective literature. If it did, He’s Just Not That Into You could be considered a classic or The Real Housewives could be deemed a powerful drama. Popular identification with a work does not automatically affirm a piece as poignant or well-crafted.

It’s not really a new idea, is it? Mass entertainment is supposed to be popular. That’s the point. I’m sure some will weigh in to defend the low-brow, but it really doesn’t need defending. If I read Adorno a lot, I tend to have a problem with it, but lately I’ve done little of that and I’m content to just enjoy lighter reading. It’s fine as it is and it only gets messy when they begin to suggest that they’re artistic, too, because really the majority of those works just aren’t.

What I really enjoy, though, are those precious few attempts in genre fiction to also be artistic and exemplify good writing. You can’t bang out a literary work during NaNoWriMo or even at close to the speed that genre writers must in order to make a buck, but I think it’d be an interesting challenge for those who are claiming victim status while weeping into their huge royalty checks to give it a try to see if they’re successful at it.

For what it’s worth, the comments section on the post has a fair number of suggestions for women writers of literary fiction, none of whom I’ve ever read and that’s something I’ll have to look into. For what it’s worth, though, it’s been a while since I’ve read any literary fiction, male or female. The last two I read were Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (Vintage Contemporaries), both of which I’d recommend (especially Diaz, which is one of the best books I’ve read in the last 10 years).

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5 responses

16 09 2010
Ruthie

Here is an article by Lionel Shriver about publishing’s collusion in what I like to call pastel-ification:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2010/sep/02/publishers-ghettoise-women-writers-and-readers

For the record, I’ve never read Shriver, Picoult or Franzen, but what Shriver wrote here did make me look through my book shelves and look at the covers of the female literary writers, and I do think that the covers for the works by Proulx, Smiley, Kingsolver, Barker, Mantel, etc., have been ‘feminised’ to a certain extent – they are certainly a lot more ‘soft-focus’ than those of Irving, McEwan, Faulks, DeLillo, Updike, etc, despite not being notably more ‘chickish’ in content. Although I read a lot of genre fiction (crime and mystery mostly), I avoid pastel books like the plague (Picoult, Binchy, Kinsella, etc), but it makes me wonder now whether my judgment that those books are about happy endings, cocktails and shopping is premature, and how many young female writers get their works edited and marketed into the popular genre niche, despite any literary aspirations and talents they might originally have.

That said, our book landscape is slightly different – we have the Orange Prize for Fiction which is just for women writers, and which does propel some young, new female writers into the public, book-buying eye, thanks in part to being sponsored by one of our largest mobile phone networks. That said, it was won this year by Barbara Kingsolver, who is hardly up-and-coming.

16 09 2010
robdougherty

Shriver’s case is a very interesting one, but I’m not sure it’s as widespread as that. I mean, Mantel’s Wolf Hall cover is a rich red and though I can only speak from my own experience, I feel fairly compelled to give it a look and I don’t see it being overtly feminine. Annie Proulx less so, because you’re right that the cover for the Shipping News is too “pastelifcated” for my taste (not the current yellow one, which I think is pretty neutral, but there used to be if I recall a blue seascape one that struck me as very feminine at the time). Regardless, I know Proulx is a fine writer in every regard and I’m glad you mentioned her.

I think that’s a good question to ask though, since the current shit storm is mostly about the reviewers and critics not paying enough attention. It does sound like, from Shriver’s perspective, that publishers/editors/agents are also doing women writers a disservice by insisting on marketing to women. There’s good financial reason for it – women buy more books than men – but still it compartmentalizes a lot of literature to the feminine realm where many male readers (and subsequently the critics) may fail to notice it. The converse isn’t always true. I respect that one of the positive differences between women and men is that women are generally (and forgive me if this crosses the line) more willing to read across overt gender lines than men are.

But it’s one thing to market and tinker around with the cover. I’m not sure we can extend that to the writing itself. In fact, I can’t really wrap my head around the idea of an editor asking a writer with more high-brow literary aspirations to toss away all of the time she might have put in producing a quality piece of literary fiction in favor of dumbing it down to Picoult levels.

16 09 2010
Ruthie

Yes, I think that the compartmentalisation issue does play a role in how the critics react to it, how it gets picked for prize lists, etc. Certainly there is almost no pastel-lit in the review pages of the papers I read, and that is one of the places I go to find new authors I might be interested in. Either that or I just go to the book shop and literally judge a book by its cover, in which case I won’t pick up the pastel ones. You’re right though, I don’t suppose there is much actual editing down, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there was some financial pressures brought to bear.

I also suspect you might be right that there is more genre-crossing among female readers – certainly from my circle of friends and family with whom I discuss books, the rigid adherents to genre, whatever it is, are all male.

I’m almost tempted to read some Picoult now, just to see what all the fuss is about. But I won’t. I’ve been off that stuff since Bridget Jones’ Diary.

16 09 2010
robdougherty

Here’s what we should do: You should read a Picoult novel and I’ll go read a Jennifer Weiner one and we’ll see if they’re really as bad as I think they probably are. Of course, I wouldn’t spend money on it. It’d be the library the whole way – which, incidentally shows 150 holds on the first returned of their 43 copies of Fly Away Home. I suspect that regardless, Weiner’s going to do just fine whether I think she’s crap writing or not.

17 09 2010
Ruthie

Erm, yeah – I just googled her (Weiner) as I’d never heard of her, and she has a blog entitled ‘A Moment of Jen’ or something, and having skimmed the first post, I think we can take it as read that she should not get money from either of us. The same probably goes for Picoult.

Thanks for this post, though – and the others on this topic, as it would have completely passed me by otherwise – it’s made me think about how I choose what to read.

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