Monday, August 30, 2010

Picking your battles

by Jim

As Jessica discussed last week, authors Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner have been vocally irritated by the raves for Jonathan Franzen’s new book, Freedom. They’ve lashed out at the New York Times for focusing too much on white male authors but also for their almost complete discounting of all commercial fiction. These are points that lend themselves to ample debate. I’ve mentioned before that I think fiction across categories and types can be brilliant. And I have ample concerns about the blinding whiteness of the literary landscape (which is a topic for a whooooole other post). So why do I find myself so irritated by the articles coming out?

First of all, it’s a little tough to stomach the argument when it’s coming from two of the bestselling authors in the country. Why are they so angry they aren’t getting reviews? Can’t they just dive into their money a la Scrooge McDuck whenever they need to feel loved? I’d find this a lot easier to stomach coming from someone straddling the commercial/literary divide who hadn’t broken out and needed reviews to break through.

Second, did you catch this in the Guardian article? “Picoult also criticised Kakutani's use of the word ‘lapidary.’ ‘Did you know what [it] meant when you read it in Kakutani's review? I think reviewers just like to look smart,’ she tweeted.” Oh no, she didn’t… Mocking someone for using a “smart” word is already ignorant. But coming from an author? That’s disgraceful. Working with language is what you DO. If you want to understand why people don’t take you seriously, you probably shouldn’t indicate that you yourself don’t take the language that seriously. Not knowing the word? Totally fine. It’s not like I don’t make regular stops at But Picoult’s tweet is just anti-intellectual and insulting.

Mostly, though, I’m annoyed because these articles are linked to a novel by someone whose last effort, nine years ago, was a masterpiece. People aren’t excited about Freedom because it’s by a white man. They’re enthusiastic about getting to dive back into the landscapes of the person who created The Corrections, one of the best written, most deeply moving novels of the past decade. Pick on someone divisive like Jonathan Safran-Foer or someone whose output is uneven like Jonathan Lethem. Hell, they even have the same first names and all live in the same borough of New York City. But attacking Franzen…you’re just sabotaging your own arguments.

I’m probably exposing all sorts of biases here. What do you all think?


  1. I agree completely that there are biases, but I don't believe it ultimately serves anyone to use a specific example of a work that receives acclaim in order to point them out. To create an impact, it might be better to demonstrate the trend by listing the reviews published about work written by women and minorities and comparing that to the number of reviews published for literary works written by white males. We would also need statistics for the number of novels published by each. This is too much work for any of us, so we can't make the argument and it doesn't get made. Unfortunately. Because I think both novelists were right. Commerical work is dismissed, and yet it pays the bills--not just for the writers, but for a lot of other people in the business. Excellent work in any genre deserves recognition, regardless of the writer's gender or ethnicity.


  2. Forgive me, but it does sound a bit like you're suggesting Picoult and Weiner should be happy with what they've got and just shut up already about sexism because their success shows they're not experiencing it, and... I disagree. Why shouldn't authors (women or not) who have an audience speak out on these issues? Wouldn't an author who hadn't broken out yet be decried as an envious, attention-grubbing mediawhore out to steal some of Franzen's (or any other similarly-lauded author's) time in the spotlight? I don't think success disqualifies a person from speaking up about the unspoken but nevertheless very real biases that continue to exist in our world, however unjustifiably self-congratulatory we may have become about these biases having been eliminated.

    For whatever it's worth, I found Kakutani's review to be a little over the top in its deployment of adjectives, and the use of the word "lapidary" to be gratuitous at best in context. In other words, I'd make fun of that usage, too, and if working with words doesn't give you license to pick apart what others do with words, I don't really know what does.

    For me, the most distasteful thing about the whole affair is the degree to which the media is treating it as an opportunity to once again gaze at its own navel, but I'm not getting a good sense of what bothers you most about it, and I'm wondering if you could clarify more in the comments.

  3. Seems to me, you should get your news straight from the source. You might change your mind.

  4. I have to say, everything posted here is exactly what I was thinking...sort of, but yours is better said.

    1) Why does it have to be about women and men? Why can't we celebrate both sexes without attempting to belittle one or the other. Both men and women write absolutely amazing novels.

    2) With this being a "Capitalist" society, can't the NY Times publish what they want? Seriously, isn't it up to them (editor) to dictate what gets printed on their pages? If you want to control a magazine and all it's content, attempt what Ron Burkle is doing.

    3) Don't these ladies know that this has hurt them and propelled Franzen's popularity? My wife loves Picoult; she was reading House Rules when this topic hit the news, but it doesn't look like she's going to be reading anymore Picoult.

    4) It appears to be sour grapes. Whatever it may be, a disillusioned magazine, a racist society, a man/woman debate, it doesn't really matter to the populace because they will make their own judgments and from what I'm hearing and seeing, it looks like sour grapes.

    I'm not saying these two female authors will lose their career choice. I'm just saying they lost respect.

  5. I actually find Franzen to be quite a polarizing figure. His writing is clearly masterful - but to me his literary worldview is so sour and his characterizations are so cynical that the work invites you to dislike the author. The Oprah hoopla didn't help either. I think part of the vehemence of the reaction against "Franzen and all he represents" stems from a knee-jerk dislike of the man. He comes across as a literary snob. I don't root for him.

    That said - this #franzenfreude twittergate is beyond petty. It's WAY past its expiration date.

  6. Well, as I understand it, their beef isn't with Jonathan Franzen or his new book. He's just representative of what they see as the New York Times's bias toward the notable white, male authors of today.

    I don't think they are angry they aren't getting reviews. I don't see that as their motivation here at all. I think it's interesting that you see their motives as selfish, because I see them as the exact opposite. Fighting on behalf of other female writers whose voices might not be listened to in this debate. I don't think they are rallying this cry for their own sakes, at least financially or professionally--as you said, they're in about as good a position as a writer could hope for. (Other than, oh say, Jonathan Franzen.) If anything, I think they're taking a risk by sticking their necks out. And I have to say, I admire them more for doing that.

    Singling out Jonathan Franzen kind of dilutes what I see as their argument though. I know Jennifer Weiner was only using him as an example of a larger hypocritical trend she was commenting on, but it's easy for people to miss the point of her argument and focus on the name she mentions. On the other hand, I don't think this would have blown up into a media brouhaha, and we wouldn't be having this discussion, if she hadn't used Franzen as her example.

  7. I think the race to call something sexist sorta ruins the argument in the first place. Particularly, as Jim said, the author in question has produced such good work. If it were a white male who couldn't string a sentence or story together, then the case for sexism wouldn't be quite as laughable.

    Let's save our cards for the face of actual offense as opposed to sabotaging ourselves.

    Having read Picoult, I wondered why she was a bestselling but I didn't think it was my place to correct her fans.

  8. I'm with Jenn (above.) Jennifer Weiner has been talking about this problem for years. Her books have been dismissed as "chick lit" by so many, and it annoys her. I'm annoyed by it too. All books with single female protagonists seem to be squished into that insulting category. I was once frozen out of a bookstore after asking for one of Ms. Weiner's books--"we don't carry chick lit." Even more frost when I asked for Anne Tyler. (I'm happy to say they went out of business soon after.) But this IS a problem. The Franzen hoopla just hit a nerve.

  9. don't pick on a fellow writer ever. Even if you can't stand their work they've still put HEAPS of time and effort into it and really whats to say yours is do good...

  10. Right on Jim. Love the scrooge mcduck comment.

  11. I swear to the gods...some day I will commit the DGLM blog password to memory. MEANWHILE...howdy, it's Jim.

    Many thanks to the person who sent the Weiner blog link. She makes a lot of good points there--all better than she made on Twitter or in the HuffPo interview.

    First thing's first: I think Weiner's super-talented. And again, I think there is a lot of legitimacy to these debates. I think she and Picoult lost a lot of legitimacy by linking the argument to one author and also (I might get shot for this) for doing it on Twitter. Probably, they didn't expect any of this uproar, so I don't want to make it seem like the committed some horrible sin against publishing. I just think that the way this went down, it sounds like a lot of sour grapes. And a big part of that, beyond linking the debate to Franzen at first, was using themselves as examples.

    The example in her blog makes SO much more sense to me: if John Grisham is getting Times reviews, why isn't Nora Roberts? That's a very fair comparison--both hugely successful commercial writers, both very talented. And a lot easier to stomach than something like, "Why aren't I reviewed like Nick Hornby?" Again, I think that's a valid question...for someone else to ask. Weiner and Hornby do have a lot in common and write comparable books.

    So like I said, I don't have problems with the argument. I have problems with its presentation. It all read too self-serving to me, though Jennifer Weiner's blog entry made it a lot easier to stomach.

    And Melina, I don't have ANY problem with anyone taking a Kakutani review to task (trust me). Instead, I thought (and still think) that Picoult's tweet about it was ridiculous. She didn't argue that the word was unnecessary, inaccurate, or poorly employed. She simply got snarky about the fact that it's not commonly known. And that's the kind of reverse snobbism couched in bland sarcasm that makes my skin crawl. You saying it was a "gratuitous" and finding the review "over the top?" Completely fair. Someone disliking it because they didn't know a word is just lazy. And again, the kind of thing that makes it too easy to attack the messenger.

    Long story short: I think these two authors are exposing a very real issue. And I was frustrated by how they were approaching it because I worried that it would make the real issue too easy to shove under the covers. Again.

  12. I agree with Melina, it sounds like you're saying that because Picoult and Weiner are successful exceptions, they should shut up and stop complaining about sexism.

    I think it is better for successful exceptions to speak out than relatively unknowns that haven't broken out yet. I mean, if they haven't broken out yet, who is going to listen to them?

    And come on, that Freedom is a great novel is not the point.

    The point is that there are many great novelists out there and it certainly seems that being white and male will give you a leg up on exposure.

    I don't like that Picoult ragged on Franzen to make her point but I still think it's valid.

    -Tina K.

  13. Oops, just read your comment after posting mine. Thank you for the clarification that it is the presentation and not the argument that you have a problem with.

    Tina K.

  14. It's interesting, I followed this whole thing through blog posts--starting with Sarah Dessen, following to Jennifer Weiner, and then picking up the conversation in a variety of other places. I didn't follow the Twitter conversation at all, and I wonder if I did if I would have had a totally different interpretation of things. A forum with a 140 character limit doesn't seem like the best place to raise this debate, and without having read the tweets I can imagine how they might have come off as more self-serving or whiny or flippant. And to have everything under the hashtag #franzenfreude certainly doesn't help clear up that they weren't directly attacking Jonathan Franzen. But I suppose #whitemaleliterarydarlingsfreude doesn't have the same ring.

  15. Jim - Thanks for responding. I think you're making a good point about the way the argument's been made is sort of undermining its validity. With respect to "lapdiary," I think I read Picoult's comment as a sort of shorthand for "you know at least half your readership is going to have to look that one up, so back away from the thesaurus with your hands in the air," but I do know that is reading a lot into a very short comment that does come off as pretty flip. I agree that Twitter probably isn't the right place for this kind of debate, given the form. I'm fascinated by the language of hashtags, though, and I do kind of think franzenfreude is a hilarious example, even though it trivializes what's being said here.

  16. the ladies have a voice and they used it on behalf of the rest of us. its sad people are choosing to misunderstand the whole point they have nothing against Mr. Frazenen

  17. I think sometimes someone who has nothing to lose has to be the one to point out an inequity. Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner are doing so well that their houses are not going to pitch a fit and balk about their next book because they pointed out that the NYTimes has biased coverage.

    *I* could do it-- and it would have one of two results.

    1) No one would listen, because who am I? I have no platform. I think this is the most likely result because the YA community has been complaining for years that the NYTimes is utterly disinterested in YA until *after* it takes over the world, a la Harry Potter, Twilight and Hunger Games.

    Or, 2) people would listen, and then my house would be ticked because their nice little YA author isn't playing nice, people tangentially related to the industry would think I was being a grasping whiner and avoid my books, etc., etc..

    The way the story was launched was an accident-- I'm sure Picoult had no idea that a couple of snide tweets were going to turn into an Incident. Once it did, I think she and Weiner did an admirable job of pointing out the actual inequities: books that are "women's fiction" get marginalized simply by being about women's issues. Men writing on the same topics get lauded-- or at least get reviewed. If Nicholas Sparks were Nikki Sparks, she'd be just another women's fiction author, shelved in the romance section.

    But I do feel like Picoult erred when she went after Kakutani. Everybody knows Kakutani is in love with her own reviews and hauls in the kitchen sink, the dishwasher, and the breakfast bar when she gets going. If she weren't over the top, she wouldn't be Kakutani. Furthermore, making people look a word up in the dictionary is NOT a bad thing.

  18. Oh horrors, half his readership would have to look up and learn a new word? How dare an individual whose target audience presumably enjoy reading expose them to a word they may not know? Gasp, providing them with an opportunity to enhance their vocabulary? I'm appalled.

    As for the rest of their argument I think it is valid but the way it was presented came off petulant. They could have made the same argument without being catty and providing so many reasons to dismiss their position.

  19. Just because they claim to be attacking sexism doesn't mean that's what they're really about.

    Their racism/sexism charge has been pretty much debunked ( and Picoult has since conveniently changed her story to claim that the Times is biased toward literary fiction. The nerve of literary critics!

    She has also made some very ignorant comments about the history of literature, in addition to trashing the craft of wordsmithing as Jim pointed out above.

    Weiner, for her part, seems to believe that women writers who remain comfortably within traditional gender boundaries should be considered as noteworthy as men who push their writing outside of traditional gender boundaries. Their whole argument is a morass of backward logic, exploited sentiments, and the sort of foregone political conclusions more indicative of activist profiteering than literature.

    Let's not misread the entitled tantrums of a couple of Ivy League brats as some sort of Rosa Parks moment. Weiner's smug remark about her royalties makes it abundantly clear where her head is. This isn't about gender equality or advancing literature. It's just sour grapes and selfishness.

  20. I hadn't followed the flap, but find their irritation totally appropriate. I read the NYT review of Freedom with horror. I know that Franzen is a great novelist because I read The Corrections and agree with your characterization of it. One of the best books of its decade for sure. For that reason, I am pretty likely to read Freedom. But if I hadn't known Franzen, I would have avoided it based on the NYT review, which makes Franzen sound like one more self-satisfied white male pettily picking away at white liberal values, smirking at women's ambitions. I was particularly stunned by the male reviewer's assertion that Franzen is such a wonderful observer of female sexuality, which is apparently "self-canceling." I don't have the review in front of me, but the whole description included a string of absurd adjectives along this line. Doubtless, some people do have self-canceling sexual desires, and doubtless some of those people are women, but I feel like I learned more about the women the reviewer is attracted to than I did about the book.

    All of this to say that, yes, the NYT definitely has a problem in the way it writes about gender and the way it doesn't even write about race. I am stuck in a very white area and would love to be able to learn about the all the interesting new African-American literature coming out, but I very rarely find anything in the the NYT. Good for Picoult and Weiner for using their prestige to call out the Times.

  21. I missed this post until now because I was dealing with my own book release, but I want to add this: The Scrooge McDuck remark is unfair.

    Weiner and Picoult are artists. You may think one or both are bad artists, but art is what they create, and they want their work to be seen and judged as art.

    No amount of money is ever going to make that feeling go away, and we shouldn't expect it to.

    And isn't it pretty well established here that the NYTimes reviews way more men than women?

  22. I hate it when the wrong people make a good point. Yes, women are treated unfairly. But the reason why I gave Picoult one chance and once chance only isn't because she's a woman, it's because I'm over it. I feel like I already read her in elementary school when I was reading Lurlene McDaniel. And as for Weiner, I read Good in Bed, thought it was poorly plotted, and never felt compelled to try her again. Forget the NYT; Picoult and Weiner don't get reviewed in my blog.