I have a soft spot for anyone who launches broadsides at the Literary Establishment as exemplified by the New York Times Book Review. So when Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner (two writers whose books I admit to not having read) attacked the NYTBR for its fawning coverage of Jonathan Franzen’s new novel Freedom (cue Mel Gibson’s Braveheart), I did smile. Weiner even started a Twitter meme (#Franzenfreude) putting out the call for people to name good family drama novels written by women.
I remember thinking that Franzen was just plain stupid for rejecting the Oprah pick of his novel The Corrections. He had written a manifesto in Harper’s years before complaining about the difficulty of experimental fiction and how books shouldn’t be difficult for the masses to read (I know I’m oversimplifying here but I’ve said all I’m ever going to say about Literary Manifestos here). Then he turned around and wrote a book that conformed to his manifesto’s tenets and it was a bestseller (embraced by the masses) and he was shocked and annoyed that it was embraced by the masses. Whatever.
I read The Corrections. I had picked up a hardcover copy in the remainder pile at Barnes & Noble. Not sure why I remember that, probably because I was surprised to find the bestseller and unwilling Oprah pick in the remainder pile. I enjoyed it. I don’t know yet that it’s a book that is a document of its time that exists out of time, the way the great ones do (Crime & Punishment, Pride & Prejudice, Moby-Dick, The Great Gatsby, etc.).
In the interview, Jennifer Weiner says at one point,
Finally, I’d love it if the Times actually “celebrated” my genre, but at this point I’d happily settle for the paper merely acknowledging it. As it stands, thrillers and mysteries and speculative fiction can get daily reviews, or considered in the NYTBR round-ups. Chick lit gets ignored, unless it gores one of the paper’s sacred cows (note to self: don’t mess with Anna Wintour!). Romance gets ignored completely…and that, I think, is the most damning argument about gender bias at the Times. How can anyone claim the paper plays fair when genre fiction that men read gets reviewed but genre fiction that women read doesn’t exist on the paper’s review pages? It would be as if the paper’s film critics only reviewed tiny independent fare and refused to see so much as a single frame of a romantic comedy, or if the music critics listened to Grizzly Bear and refused to acknowledge the existence of Katy Perry or Lady Gaga. How seriously would a reader take a critic like that?
This is something that has always puzzled me. Music and movie reviews are far more broad than book reviews (not that there is much left to book reviews in newspapers). Movie critics like Roger Ebert review art films, foreign films, action films, comedy films, romance films, romantic comedy films, horror films, science fiction films, fantasy films, etc. In film there seems to be far more comfort with people enjoying movies that have a sell-by date and those that do not. With fiction books this is not the case. There is a strict delineation between what is considered Literature and Everything Else (aka, genre fiction).
It’s as if critics assume people only read what is classified as Literature or they read in genres. Never mixing. Off the top of my head I can think of two Very Literary writers both of whom are known for liking mysteries: Toni Morrison and Jorge Luis Borges. Borges even made a distinguished career out of constructing literary mysteries.
I am reader who definitely falls into the Literary category, but I enjoy a good sci-fi novel every now and then and like books that mix genres (A Brief History of the Dead and The End of Mr. Y, to cite two cool examples).
All of this is to say that I enjoy watching the literary dust-up and will probably go to the library and pick up one of Weiner’s books soon to see what the fuss is about. With Franzen’s latest, I’ll wait a few years for the adulatory noise to lessen a bit.