The recent Jonathan Franzen-induced debacle of sexism in the world of literary criticism has sparked many responses. The Internet seems to vibrate with disputes pitting literary fiction against commercial fiction in a contemporary class war.
The Huffington Post interview given by Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner contains many noteworthy observations about how books are sold, marketed, reviewed, and digested by the public. The type of prejudice Picoult and Weiner describe is real; women writers often get corralled into various sub-genres of literature such as commercial literature, chick lit, or pop fiction while male writers are often deemed "literary." As someone who is dedicated to writing and understanding writing myself, I have often wondered why when I do read New York Times pieces highlighting strong literary fiction, the book is more times than not written by, as Weiner describes, "white guys living in Brooklyn or Manhattan, white guys who either have MFAs or teach at MFA programs."
However, Picoult and Weiner make no mention of quality writing when commenting on what is deserving of literary criticism. Picoult and Weiner assert that commercial fiction should be given more literary acknowledgment by major publications because it appeals to the masses. Picoult says:
Because historically the books that have persevered in our culture and in our memories and our hearts were not the literary fiction of the day, but the popular fiction of the day. Think about Jane Austen. Think about Charles Dickens. Think about Shakespeare. They were popular authors. They were writing for the masses.
Austen and Dickens absolutely had mass appeal, and of course, there will forever be the struggling high school sophomore who realizes amidst Great Expectations that Dickens got paid by the word. However, it should be noted what Dickens did with those words -- that is, he formed some of the strongest, most resilient literature in the English language. To say that Shakespeare "persevered in our culture" because he wrote for the masses is to deny the enduring nature of his themes and the utter brilliance of his craft. That's why he's still remembered nearly 400 hundred years after his death and the only people who remember Jacqueline Susan 40 years later are those who first recall the biopic starring Bette Midler.
Collectively, we have now arrived at a time in literature, and even our culture, in which popularity and quality have completely diverged. There is the occasional overlap but only individual cases, especially in writing, to speak of. Popularity alone can no longer serve as a testament to strong, well-written, reflective literature. If it did, He's Just Not That Into You could be considered a classic or The Real Housewives could be deemed a powerful drama. Popular identification with a work does not automatically affirm a piece as poignant or well-crafted.
What has yet to be said in this debate is that, regardless of sex or race, commercial books are simply not on par with literary fiction when it comes to producing provocative writing. The recognized style of commercial books is cheaper, less authentic, more formulaic, and more predictable, known for comfortable endings and neatly packaged characters that function more as cartoons than representations of actual people. When it comes down to fiction writing -- solid, genuine fiction writing -- that attempts to push boundaries and say something unique about our nature or the way we live, commercial lit doesn't have that kind of reach. If it did, it would be called literary fiction.
Commercial books do not deserve serious critique because, generally, the writing does not merit it.
Clearly not everyone reads fiction looking for powerful imagery, subtle metaphor, innovative sentence structure, or complex characters. Many readers like to kick back on their vacations and train rides with something that can be more easily consumed and, for those reasons, commercial lit belongs on the designated shelves where it can be found, enjoyed, and celebrated by its consumers, not in the New York Times book review.
The question I feel that should be asked in the literary community in lieu of this sexist uproar is not why are commercial books not being reviewed seriously, but why are there so few prominent women writers of literary fiction?
Earlier this summer, I read a piece in the New York Times books section entitled "Bright Young Things." It highlighted two new books by young writers Sloane Crosley and Emily Gould. Being a young female writer myself, I was delighted to see two women being featured in such a prominent way. Yet, I found both books to be rather lackluster and, in the end, I wondered why these two writers, who were being showcased by the New York Times as "bright young" female writers of today, were not as strong as I had hoped.
With the exception of a few female literary giants who are regulars in The New Yorker and the New York Times, it seems that even when a big publication does take note of a compelling female voice, she isn't nearly as strong a writer as her male colleagues.
It concerns me to see endless profiles of "white guys living in Brooklyn or Manhattan," who do tackle family, love, and heartbreak with startling prose while many women contemporaries communicate the same themes superficially.
Where is the new biting Lorrie Moore of this generation? The up-and-coming Sigrid Nunez of today? The next Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie? Another young Lydia Davis?
They're certainly not on the "New Releases" table in Barnes & Noble nor are they being profiled in the New York Times. And although there is the slight possibility that this mythical Moore-Nunez hybrid is merely biding her time on the chick lit shelves, cashing in her royalty checks while she thinks up her own rendition of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, I highly doubt it.
Koa Beck is a fiction writer and literary blogger. Read her lit blog at www.koalani.net