Last year, Stephen King gave an interview to USA Today in which he was asked to account for his critical renaissance. How did he make the move from pulp-peddling horror hack to an award-winning capital-A Author?
King was brutally frank. "Most of the old critics who panned anything I wrote are either dead or retired. The newer ones read me when they were young, which tends to make for an easier ride and more sympathetic readers."
My first thought was, "Wow, that's really harsh."
My second thought? "Wow, that's kind of true."
The critical landscape shifts with time. Ideas of what's important and what's not, what's literature and what's merely a book-shaped object, who's qualified to tell the big stories and what constitutes appropriate authorial behavior are all subject to interpretation, and to change.
I was reminded of this when I read Ellen Heltzel's critique of a lecture featuring Ann Patchett and Elizabeth Gilbert.
Evidently, there was giggling involved.
"Here were she and Gilbert, two women writers I have long admired, chatting in front of hundreds of people like two girls at a slumber party. Longtime correspondents by mail, they owned up to their real reason for coming to Portland, which was so the two of them could spend time together. They went to yoga! They had lunch! They shopped! After offering this glimpse of their day, Britney and JLo -- I mean, Ann and Liz -- proceeded to talk about their lives with the once-over-lightly gloss that affected parts of Gilbert's phenomenal bestseller Eat, Pray, Love. Their verbal badminton was big on self-deprecation, but that hardly obscured the smugness in the air."
No word on whether the ladies gave each other pedicures, and whether the polish was sparkly, but it's safe to say that Heltzel was Not Amused.
"What would Philip Roth do?" she sniffs, in an essay posted on the National Book Critics Circles' website. Presumably, the answer she's looking for is not "write a book with an aging male protagonist whose struggles with identity and mortality are alleviated by an affair with the hot lady janitress." (And yes, I know The Human Stain isn't Roth's most recent work. I just really like writing 'hot lady janitress.')
There's a bit of a pot/kettle problem when Ellen Heltzel, of all people, goes after you for a lack of gravitas. Heltzel is one-half of a book-reviewing duo who style themselves "the Book Babes." They've got a website with a banner advising that "books are better than Botox," and have built a brand on an intimate, chatty, you-go-girl tone, which makes me wonder if Heltzel's rant isn't a cleverly camouflaged attempt to kneecap the competition.
If you've read Gilbert's work (and by now, who hasn't?), then you know that her confiding, urgent tone is precisely what so many women found irresistible.
If you've read Patchett's novels, you know that she's an impressive prose stylist, a big-deal writer with serious chops and the prizes to prove it....but if you've read Truth and Beauty, her memoir of her long and difficult friendship with the late Lucy Grealy, you also know that she spent large portions of her time in graduate school carrying her diminutive BFF around in her arms.
I doubt the audience was horrified by the easy, breezy intimacy that got Heltzel's panties so bunched. In fact, I'd bet many of them were charmed -- or, at least, aware, that it could have just as easily been two guys sitting around talking about comic books and Lost as two chicks discussing yoga.
Heltzel ought to know that these days, intimacy and candor are hardly unusual for writers of either gender. Rare is the author who doesn't blog, or Tweet or maintain a Tumblr, or sit for interviews about what he did on his summer vacations. Even Cormac McCarthy climbed off his high horse long enough for a televised chat with Oprah. Wake up and smell the Boniva -- it's a new day out there!
The double standard is still alive and well and lovingly tended by critics like Ellen Heltzel...but it's going to change.
The dichotomy of men writing big, important books about war and women writing little, lapidary books about domestic life is shifting, simply because, of the new crop of bright young boys, not many have been soldiers. Most of them are writing about assimilation and identity, or families in crisis, or exploited children, or office politics. In other words, girl talk...or at least subjects in which women writers can claim equal expertise.
Nor are today's male writers behaving like the Great White Men of the past. They're sneaking out of the house after curfew to write genre books under fake names, or superhero screenplays or appreciations of video games. Really, boys. Do you think Philip Roth's sitting around playing with his Xbox?
True, men's books are, still, almost always, taken more seriously. Yes, high-minded women writers have to struggle with a marketing machine that thinks that anything written by someone under forty with a functioning uterus should get a cute, sparkly cover and, often, few reviews. None of this will change overnight.
But it will change, because the people who think that a man's book has more worth just because it's a man's book -- who believe, as Heltzel writes, that "the bass voice still has more resonance than the soprano, metaphorically speaking," due to "our own internally wired biases" will eventually give way to those whose biases are wired quite differently.
Whether they're the graying literary lions who proudly profess that they don't read women, or female critics who can only get that giddy little thrill when the voice that speaks to them is basso profundo -- those folks are being downsized, they're getting laid off, they're seeing their book sections shuttered, they are (not that I'm wishing this on anyone!) shuffling off to that Great Reading Room in the Sky.
The writers and critics who will replace them will have come of age with different values, different experiences and expectations, different books under their belts. They'll have read Junot Diaz and Edwidge Danticat; Jonathan Safran Foer and Marisha Pessl, Gary Shteyngart and Lara Vapnyar, Keith Gessen and Rivka Galchen, Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx, Joshua Ferris and Kate Christensen, Ishmael Beah and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie,
They'll believe that there's room for everyone on that stage, and that all of them, from the professorial lady writer who stands behind a podium to the authors who sit in armchairs, feet tucked cozily underneath them can, as Heltzel puts it, "serve themselves and the cause of literature." They'll know that literature need not speak in one (old, white, male) voice with its hands clenched tight on the podium - that it can, in fact, speak in many voices, that it can lecture, and laugh, and that it can also sing.