The whole Jodi Picoult, Jennifer Weiner, NYT Franzenparty thing

25 08 2010
Lightning Strikes NY Times Building

Image by Johnia! via Flickr

When Jodi Picoult started tweeting about how un-surprising Michiko Kakutani’s glowing review of Franzen’s Freedom was and how the NY Times book review is only interested in “white male literary darlings,” I’ll confess to having become intensely interested in this topic because it brings so many issues about the book world all together. I mean, just look at it: You have criticism against the relevance of a single publication’s book review, as high falutin’ as they may be, in an era when book reviews aren’t even that important anymore (so sayeth Goodreads); you have the entire commercial versus literary fiction debate and whether the NYTimes should be covering that; and you have the really hot and steamy sexism (and I guess race, too, although that’s even sillier) charge. I’ve even seen it thrown in there that the NYTimes only likes authors with MFA’s. That’s all good stuff. It’s like Jerry Springer for book nerds.

I think the sexism charge is outright ridiculous and we really need to knock that one off. As PWxyz’s Jonathan Segura blogged, even a quick glance of the Sunday Book Review shows that there are of lot of books being reviewed that were not written by over-educated white dudes from Brooklyn. It’s just a dumb card to play and it comes out way too early in the “game.” Can men do anything at all and not be accused of being favored due to their sex? Is there any such thing as true accomplishment for a guy? Who’s the one being sexist here?

It’s tempting to see it all as just sour grapes. I’m willing to concede that Picoult doesn’t have sour grapes and was just expressing her (however misguided) opinion. But oh, the poor others who haven’t been similarly acknowledged by the NYTimes. That’s the point of “chick-lit” Jennifer Weiner’s #Franzenfreude hashtag and the reading list that it has been generating. I agree, let’s celebrate those well-written family novels as well. But does that mean we can’t stop for a second and look at Franzen’s without going all ape-shit about it? Maybe this guy is right and the charges of sexism are just a smokescreen for resentment of the literary writers by those who actually make a decent bit of scratch writing successful commercial fiction. Personally, I think that Weiner’s opening tweet is the lamest of them all: “Carl Hiaasen doesn’t have to chose between getting a Times review and being a bestseller. Why should I? Oh, right. #girlparts.” Or is it because she is a bestselling author of “chick-lit”? The Times clearly doesn’t review genre. She’s been playing that tune for years now, too (see her rant in comments to this 2007 post on the Times’  Paper Cuts blog). Which is it?

And that issue doesn’t even touch the merits of Franzen’s writing, which, in all of this is only a tangential, teensy-weensy sidenote to the whole drama. That’s why the argument has headed off into the absurd. It’s become about who is deserving of acclaim based on so many extra-literary features and very little is actually said about whether or not Franzen might just be a pretty damn good writer. I started reading The Corrections last summer and got about a quarter of the way through before getting distracted by something else, but I thought it was brilliantly written and I’ll confess it did have that whole modern-day Buddenbrooks feel to it. I found Chip to be a very compelling character, pathetic and simultaneous over- and underachieving, exposing a lot of uncomfortable fears I have about myself. That’s the sign of literary fiction’s focus on character. That’s not the sign of bad writing. Is it not possible that NYTimes is just interested in reviewing well-written books?

Mostly, it’s just disappointing. I understand Franzen’s not the most likable guy. I rolled my eyes at his blowing off author videos while making an author video. I look at him and all I see is ego. Are you surprised? An egotistical writer? It’s not like that never happens. But he’s no LeBron James either. And I guarantee you more people care about LeBron. And LeBron makes a hell of a lot more money. This is overall a silly debate. I think it’s far more important that we have a book that actually does make a little noise once in a while. That we celebrate an accomplished novel by an accomplished writer and be glad that we still have that. Anything that draws attention to books, big books, is good, right? And who gives a damn who writes them as long as they keep doing so (and that goes for Jennifer Weiner, too).

Eventually I will get around to reading Freedom (and The Corrections), but because I appreciate his writing. But not before I’ve read the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. Or Cherie Priest’s books. I probably won’t read Jennifer Weiner anytime soon, because she doesn’t write about experiences that I think I can ever really appreciate. Audrey Niffenegger is okay, though. See, because not only do I not generally care what naughty bits the authors have, I don’t usually think too long on whether I’m reading genre fiction or literary. In fact, I’d like to see the whole separation of the two go away, since it serves very little purpose other than to limit ideas and, more importantly, it keeps people from reading promiscuously. More than anything, though, I’m mostly bored with it and think we should just move on.