Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Weiner Picoult v. The World

After a late summer vacation and the beginning of fall classes, the Ape gets back into the blogging-swing. Coming up at The Reading Ape: reviews of Franzen’s Freedom, Moody’s The Four Fingers of Death, a reading disease self-diagnosis, and further considerations of reading and the gender gap.

But up first, we pause a moment to reflect on the Weiner-Picoult v. The New York Times whirlwind that kicked up over the last couple of weeks.  Jason Pinter’s interview with the duo for The Huffington Post provides an abundance of mill-grist, so let’s take a look (Ape note: we have never read a work by either Picoult or Weiner.).

1. I am shocked, SHOCKED, to discover there is gambling in this establishment!
Jennifer Weiner: I think it's a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that 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.
Takeaway:  Unfortunately, Weiner’s basic point is correct: female writers have not received the same sort of attention that male writers have. So it’s not the sentiment that is particularly interesting here, but the timing (after all, Woolf covered this all 80 years ago in A Room of One’s Own). There seems to be something specifically galling about the Franzen hoopla for Weiner (let’s put a pin in the phrase “serious critic’s attention” for future use).
2. Sometimes the Answer is in the Question
Picoult: …When in today's market you only have a limited review space for books, I wonder what the rationale is for the New York Times to review the same book twice, sometimes in the same week.
Takeaway: The people who write about books for The Times want to write about books they think are important, not giving the widest possible coverage. The narrowing of the focus necessarily increases the wattage given to certain books, and multiple reviews of high profile books tempers the clout of any individual review with multiple perspectives. 

3. The Medium is the Message
Picoult:… I read a lot of commercial fiction and a lot of the same themes and wisdoms I find in commercial fiction are the same themes and wisdoms as what i see lauded in literary fiction.
Takeaway: One thing that the both Picoult and Weiner seem to overlook is the primacy of form in “serious criticism.” Perhaps Picoult is right that the themes and wisdoms are similar, but presumably the style and shape of those themes and wisdoms are not. The mass market appeal of a Picoult novel (or for that matter a Larsson or Grisham) due to “readability” suggests an artlessness that doesn’t appeal to people who spend their lives thinking about literature. 

4. Careful, your Ad Hominem is Showing
Weiner: First of all, I think it's hilarious that a guy who went to Sidwell Friends, Yale and Johns Hopkins, favors "made-to-measure Lord Willys shirts," snacks on charcuterie, sips Calvados and throws book parties at "the velvet-cloaked Russian Samovar" is presuming to lecture anyone on what constitutes true populism. Let the word go forth: my populism is real...and it's spectacular. 
Takeaway: This is not a takeaway so much as it is context: both Weinder and Picoult went to Princeton. 

5. The Flattening of Culture
Weiner: 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?
Takeaway: Weiner suggests that a literary critic should have the same breadth as a critic of music or film, but as any serious reader knows, literature, as a genre, resists that sort of coverage. A film reviewer could reasonably see all the new releases in any given week; this is simply impossible for even the most active book reviewer. Couple that with the relative depth of serious book reviews and you start to see why the reviews in The Times can seem more arbitrary than its film or music reviews. 

6. Yea, But See, They Don’t Care About That.
Weiner: I think if the NYT cares about its darlings finding a wider audience, the smartest thing it can do is be a little more respectful toward the books readers are actually reading.
Takeaway: It’s not at all clear that this is the mission of the NY Times. In fact, we sincerely hope it isn’t. If the goal of The Times was to give attention to the books people were actually reading, we’d have mostly Twilight, Clive Cussler, and Sophie Kinsella reviews. And the food writing would be about Doritos. 
Criticism is the last line of a winnowing process that starts with agents, moves to publishers, then to booksellers and critics. Whatever cache the Times Review still has is because there is a level of discernment implied in what it reviews. Take away that discernment and the prestige evaporates. We’re not suggesting that the Times doesn’t require self-reflection (what doesn’t after all?), but that asking them to map popularity is counter-productive. 

7. I Still Don’t Get It
Weiner: I think a most respectful and informed attitude toward a wider range of books would help everyone - commercial writers, literary writers, men, women, and, most importantly, readers.
Takeaway: Weiner and Picoult, by their own admission, make a jillion dollars from their books and their readers adore them. What “help” do they need exactly? We wish they would just pull a full Fredo and say it: “I want respect and I was passed over!” We can understand this feeling and do indeed sympathize with it.
There is a case to be made, we think, that most readers feel estranged from literary writing; it is difficult, provocative, and sometimes experimental. It is, in a very real way, artistically elitist. And it’s these types of books that The Times highlights. Weiner and Picoult might be spot on when they say their books are similar enough to Hornby or Tropper to warrant inclusion: we are not familiar enough to say. 
If the Ape is honest with his primate-self, though, our attitude about the discernment of “serious critics” echoes the sentiment of Colonel Nathan Jessop in Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men: I want them on that wall. I need them on that wall.
          But perhaps those of us who care about such things need to do a better job watching the watchers.


  1. "And the food writing would be about Doritos."
    Ah brilliant! Also, so sad but true.

    Prior to this debate, I had only read Franzen of the three authors. After this debate... I will still only read Franzen. I've had quite enough of Weiner and Picoult's madness from their more than ample coverage this past week, and though Weiner seems quick with her wit, I wish she had taken the time to be more thoughtful about the arguments she was going to make. Forgive me for being childish, but I now only want to refer to her as Jennifer Whiner.

  2. I just don't get Weiner or Picoult's point. They are both best-selling authors and gazillionares. The New York Times reviews literary fiction, which they, admittedly, do not write. So what's the issue? They aren't reviewed by children's literature magazines or science fiction publications, either. It's just not their audience- so why do they care so much, since they're successful without it?

  3. I have not read any of Picoult's novels, but Jennifer Weiner is one of my favorite writers (though her last book disappointed big time).

    As has been pointed out, both writers do not need the attention of the Times to sell their books (Weiner even tweeted something to the effect that she was going to weep into her royalty statements) so I'm perplexed as to why this bothers them so. They are certainly getting the publicity now, but I don't think it will get anyone to pick up their books.

  4. I think it's a shame that Weiner and Picoult have made this complaint at this time and used Franzen as the vehicle, when their real beef is, as best I can figure it, the lack of critical attention for commercial fiction by and about women. Bringing Franzen into it muddies the issue. This particular gripe would make more sense coming from Zadie Smith or Marilynne Robinson--someone in the same category as Franzen.

    Now if, as Weiner says, critics do cover other commercial fiction and ignore commercial books by women or even entire genres dominated by women, that is worth a rethink. However, it has nothing to do with Franzen. That's a complaint for when Nicholas Sparks is (god forbid) on the cover of Time.

    The literary vs commercial argument is trickier for me. Personally, I'd love for there to be more review space in major media outlets, so that commercial and literary fiction could get coverage. It would certainly help me find the better Doritos when I have a yen for them. But space is limited, and as glad as I would be to see more coverage of all kinds of books, if I have to choose, I'd rather the weightier stuff get the attention.

  5. I actually just typed and then erased a four paragraph comment from this post! I realized that if I had that much to say about it maybe I should have my own post on the subject-DUH! Anyway, you raise several valid points about the limits of book critics, the purpose of outlets like the NYT, etc...But all of this assumes that we as a society have a singular definition of what is "literary" or "important" or "serious" fiction, and I think that underlying assumption is what actually needs to be challenged. For the rest of my thoughts, you'll have to come visit me at Book Addict Reviews :)

  6. Bring on the review of Freedom! I may be the last person in book blogdom to not have read The Corrections ages ago. I just finished it, and I was duly impressed. I look forward to your review of his latest.

    As for the whining above, it fails entirely to evoke my sympathy.

  7. Dear Ape, you had me at hello, but the way you worked in the Godfather allusion....Now, how about a post on the Godfather disease. Some of us have most of the dialogue memorized, you know. Leave the gun.

  8. Hi Ape! Hope your school year is lovely! I just started up this semester and am taking three Eng classes at once...big mistake. The Linguistics is killing me.

    Anyways, I have to say I don't get the argument on this: these women are exposed and are selling huge amounts of books. Seriously, I was in Wal Mart today (yeah, that sucked) and the entire book aisle was dominated by them. I didn't see a single copy of Freedom. They can't say their gender has held them back in any way, except in the title "literary fiction". I think that's what they are feeling slighted about...they want to think they are literary but by definition, mass-market is as good as it gets.
    I read the NYT, LROB, Granta, etc and it's not to find reviews of their books. I'm not a book snob but I want challenges, not movie-of-the-week material.

  9. Wow - you handled this much more maturely than I did. All I said about it was that some of Weiner's comments were so powerfully stupid they practically drool. Do you really think Weiner's basic point is correct in #1, though? My interpretation of that was she was annoyed that she's labeled as chick lit, but Franzen is LITERATURE! But they both write about family and feelings. Later on, yes, she explores the idea that she thinks she should get more attention because she writes sobfests for women. But there, I thought she was so stupidly wrong, it colored the rest of how I read the interview...

  10. Steph-
    Problem is, there is something to what they are saying I think, but the timing and tenor does seem strange.

    But they admit that they aren't competing with Franzen, but guys like Jonathan Tropper, Nick Horby, and Carl Hiassen. It does make the timing peculiar, since they admit they don't write literary fiction, but I don't think that's quite enough to dismiss them out of hand. The Times does review a fair amount of general fiction (especially mysteries as they point out), so I don't think it's non-sensical for them to talk about it.

    I think it really is the RESPECT thing. This matters to them, and I think I can understand that.

    Ah, the Nicholas Sparks comparison seems appropriate, but again I'm a bit out of my comfort zone comparing these folks. Like you, if I had to make the choice, I want the very best stuff featured in what limited space there is for book reviewing.

    I'll watch for your post, for sure.

    Getting close to being done with the Franzen, so stay tuned. Probably have a review ready for after the holiday weekend.

    If forced to speak only in Godfather quotations, I would not starve. I'll leave it at that.

    I'm not even sure they want to be thought of as high-brow, but do want to be acknowledged somehow. Clearly it's not exposure or sales; it's something less tangible. I don't think being intangible makes it silly, but it does make it hard to understand from an outside perspective.

    Yes, literature by women has, historically, had a harder time getting recognized. I'd like to think it's less true today, but my post today makes me wonder. And like I said above, there is some cognitive dissonance in using the Franzen hype as the moment to make this claim, which clearly isn't really about Franzen at all.

  11. I'm feeling pretty smug because it seems I read just about 50/50. Don't care if the writer is male or female, just so long as the book is well written. Don't really know your taste in books except to say I think you seem a 'literary' type reader. Moreso than me at any rate. But I'll recommend two terrific women writers: Elizabeth Hay, most especially her book, GARBO LAUGHS. Also Connie Willis, most especially her books: PASSAGE, DOOMSDAY BOOK and TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG. Her latest, BLACK OUT is terrific as well, though it is the first half of a two book duet. The second half, ALL CLEAR is due out any day now. Martha Grimes is another writer you might like as well. Oh, and Elizabeth George. Their series of books should probably be read in the order of publication. Happy reading.

  12. The sad thing about Elizabeth George as an example of a female author is that all her books are about powerful men and helpless, yet exquisitely beautiful, women. I had to give her up because it became so trite. Martha Grimes too, really, when you consider her Richard Jury character...I can't think of a single powerful women in either of their books. SO, that begs the question, is it enough that the writer is female or that the writer, of either gender, writes women in a respectful way?

  13. Amy, it seems to me that there is a not so very beautiful and not so very helpless main co-character in Elizabeth George's Inspector Lynley books - his on-again off-again partner Barbara Havers. (And yes she has been treated shabbily in some instances precisely because of her looks, but that's the reality we live in.) And yes, most of the other women in his life are perpetually attractive (in contrast) which can be kind of annoying, I agree. But George's writing is so good, I'm still reading her. As for Grimes, have you read COLD FLAT JUNCTION? The main character is a smart, precocious 12 year old girl who completely carries the book. A great character. A brilliant book, in my view. And yes, Richard Jury is prone to noticing a woman's looks first, but really there are other women in the books, especially in that satire of a village where Melrose Plant hangs out, who quite hold their own. And after all, it is a Richard Jury series. In fact, Grimes and George are two of the few women writers who write men fairly well.
    I don't think they are called upon because of their genders, to write only woman as their main characters. Not at all. By the way, though I didn't like her at all, I thought Lynley's late wife was a fairly strong character. There ARE different kinds of strengths, after all.

  14. I wanted to take a stab at addressing your takeaway from point 3. I might be totally off but maybe there will be something in my thoughts.

    'Perhaps Picoult is right that the themes and wisdoms are similar, but presumably the style and shape of those themes and wisdoms are not. The mass market appeal of a Picoult novel (or for that matter a Larsson or Grisham) due to “readability” suggests an artlessness that doesn’t appeal to people who spend their lives thinking about literature.'

    So, we can't compare Piccoult's approach to writing to that of authors of literary fiction who experiment with structure, or write with a focus on technical aspects of language (well that could mean anything couldn't it - I'm thinking of authors interested in the sybilance of their words, the effect a particular word has on a person etc if that makes sense). So your ideas about the shape and the style of the themes works for me there, comaring authors like Piccoult with literary authors of this type isn't a comparison of like for like.

    But what about literary authors who focus more on the ideas they want to express than how they express them? I'm thinking of the kind of literary writers who construct good sentences and the sentences amount to a great created fictional world, but the goal of writing sentences for them is not to create something I'll lazily call linguistic beauty. I don't know enough about Franzen to know if he is such a writer, but Hornby writes to tell stories and express ideas rather than to experiment with form and he writes in strong, ordinary prose that is very readable. Right now I'm reading something by Philip Roth and he strikes me as broadly the same kind of writer (in 'The Plot Against America he writes sentences and creates a narrative that anyone familiar with English and a linear narrative would find readable with a bit of effort).

    Might this subsection of literary authors be comparable stylistically to authors like Piccoult (who writes good sentences, creates substantial worlds, but isn't especially preoccupied with the effect language or structure might have on the way her readers perceive her story)? If there are no stylistic differences between the style of writing an author of literary fiction uses to writes their novel and the type of writing popular authors like Piccoult use then the two sets of authors can be be judged on an even field. The only way the style and shape of the themes popular and these kind of literary authors take up then is how successfully, or unsuccessfully they examine them (and how well they write) isn't it and that's the same kind of difference found between literary authors, where one might superficially approach a theme, while another might hit meaningful depths in it. So as long as they write well and examine their themes with depth there's a case that both Piccoult and someone like Hornby should at least be judged and then judged equally, even if it emerges that one has created a better book?