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I was certain the most important debate in the literary world (or just in my mind) involved e-books versus, well, book-books…
Half of my brain says the traditional joy of holding a book with a cover and pages couldn’t be surpassed by high-tech digital gadgets. Yet the other half says this triumph of technology making its way into the literary world must surely be the wave of the future. Either way, reading, in any form, is about the enjoyment of the experience and the enlightenment a well-written piece can bring to an individual’s life. Isn’t that what it’s all about?
On August 25, I happened upon a debate that made me consider how incorrect I may be. It’s a literary spat that runs much deeper than its surface jabs may suggest; it has more to do with readers and writers critiquing and grading books for their “superiority” than to simply appreciate the act of reading. The debate prompts readers: is “chick lit” and women’s fiction real lit?
I read the Wall Street Journal’s Robbie Whelan’s comment via Twitter (retweeted by best-selling author Jennifer Weiner), “Picoult & Weiner arent (sic) only bad writers, but also idiotic, obnoxious brats.”
“Why?” I wondered, feeling the muscles in my forehead contract. After following the tweet trail, I realized the issue began when best-selling author Jodi Picoult blasted the endless media coverage of critically acclaimed author Jonathan Franzen, who recently released a new book titled “Freedom.” Picoult tweeted on August 16, “NYT raved about Franzen’s new book. Is anyone shocked? Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren’t white male literary darlings.”
It was on August 23 that Jennifer Weiner joined in with refreshing, wry banter about the chopped-liver status of female writers who find themselves under the awkward umbrella of chick-lit.
I’m not sure I even know what constitutes chick-lit. I believe there is a market for stories about young, professional women strapping on their stilettos before romping around with girlfriends to meet boys, but if that is the traditional definition of chick-lit, then Picoult and Weiner need not apply. Their novels always involve a female protagonist, but there is always a complex relationship, remnants of lingering pain from childhood or an emotional strife at the base of the plotline that eventually leads the character to understand herself or the situations around her from a new perspective.
I know, as do many other women (and undoubtedly many well-informed, open-minded, evolved men), that Picoult and Weiner along with their women’s fiction literary counterparts write relatable, entertaining novels that provide an emotional education for the reader. Oddly enough, I could say the same about the work of many male writers. For example, one of my all-time favorite books is “Revolutionary Road,” a fictional lamentation of the bored, stifled existence of married Connecticut suburbanites and the eventual implosion of their lives. This book was thought-provoking, delightfully disturbing (in a great way) and responsible for revolutionizing the way I viewed my own life and future plans; it provided me with an emotional education.
“Revolutionary Road” would sit nicely alongside many books categorized as women’s fiction, yet it receives an elevated status, perhaps as “literary fiction” authored by a male, Richard Yates. I wonder if Franzen’s novel, “Freedom,” which discusses a fractured American family, receives literary distinction for the same reason. As Weiner points out during an August 26 interview with the Huffington Post, “I think it’s a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that when a man writes about family and feelings, its 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.”
In the four weeks since this situation arose, there have been countless articles written–many in support of Picoult, Weiner and the entire women’s fiction genre. But there are certainly those who have, in so many words, insinuated that commercial women’s fiction writers are nothing more than winey crybabies who annually churn out mindless nonsense, similar to Whelan’s sentiments that initially alerted me.
It concerns me that women who write for a predominantly female audience are being attacked so blatantly. Tastes are entirely subjective and not everyone will like everything, all the time. But authors like Picoult and Weiner are not being attacked for the prose they write nor for the plotlines they construct (Weiner speculated in a tweet that she doesn’t believe many of her detractors have even read her writing), but for the simple fact that they are women writing for women. Sexism, anyone?
The more I think about it, the more I want to argue this as a status or class issue rather than an issue of sexism. This is a particularly touchy subject in the United States, but I think some people like to make sure other people know what they are reading and what genre they appreciate the most. It’s a sort of elitist effort to be seen as intellectual. I think this may also be a matter of condescension toward commercial writers. Commercial fiction often evokes emotions, while its literary cousin twice removed is all about highbrow thought processes and social commentary.
I can’t help but see many similarities among the two fiction sub-genres especially in terms of theme, conflict, relationships and style. However, commercial fiction reaches the masses and speaks to the general public. As a result, these are the books that grace the best-seller lists. Literary fiction, on the other hand, reaches the critics, speaks to a much smaller segment of people and these are the books that critics choose to review. This reminds me of that joke – “if a tree falls in the forest…” if a literary novel makes the critic’s review but no one was there to read it, was it worth the critical accolade?
I don’t intend to disparage literary fiction the way others have done to commercial fiction, nor would I ever disrespect prominent harbingers of news and culture (and book reviews) like the New York Times or Time Magazine. But reading shouldn’t be about status or bullying.
My advice is to read what informs you, what inspires you and what entertains you regardless of what highfalutin snobs say you should read. Cataloging books in a library or bookstores allows for easy access, but categorizing books to elevate the status of one while demeaning the inherent value of another is crass, pointless and not-in-a-good-way exclusive. Chick-lit, women’s fiction, mystery, romance, sci-fi, romance, etc. – all real lit!
The jury is still out as to whether I’ll actually succumb to the e-reader phenomenon. However, no matter what I decide, I’ll be reading whatever I like regardless of whether or not it’s technically considered intellectual. Isn’t that rule #1 to empowered womanhood – “be who the woman you are, not the woman others think you ought to be”?
P.S. Early on in this discussion, I began following Jonathan Franzen on twitter. I can’t believe I am about to say this, but I am glad I did. He seems to have a very odd, sardonic sense of humor, which I really like. See what you think by following him at @EmperorFranzen, and keep up with this debate by following Jennifer Weiner at @jenniferweiner and Jodi Picoult @jodipicoult. Of course, you can always follow me, too @jmorrispisani.