A Woman of No Importance?

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Historically, so-called women’s fiction is a bit of a mess. The Bronte sisters, studied in literature and MFA programs the world over, were forced to publish under male pseudonyms, while authors such as Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott, who enjoyed some success in their respective periods, were still condescended to.

When I was in high school, I read an essay about the importance of women writing in first person. I can’t recall the exact words, or even the anthology I read it in, but the gist of it was this: third person is considered more literary, and the attitude from which men write, because men wish to be hailed as literary. Women write in first person, not because they do not wish to be literary, but because to write ‘I’ and be recognized as a woman, is still a fresh and beautiful thing.

Recently, authors Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner took on the New York Times in a fairly public manner, decrying the paper as sexist for routinely skipping commercial reviews in favor of literary ones. Here’s what Jennifer Weiner had to say, from their interview with Jason Pinter, over at The Huffington Post (26 August 2010):

"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."

Franzen has not yet, to my knowledge, made a comment.

Historically, so-called women’s fiction is a bit of a mess. The Bronte sisters, studied in literature and MFA programs the world over, were forced to publish under male pseudonyms (Acton, Ellis, and Currer Bell), while authors such as Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott, who enjoyed some success as female authors in their respective periods, were still condescended to, or even brought under the hammer by a few of the greats. Here, for example, is Mark Twain on Austen:

"I haven't any right to criticize books, and I don't do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can't conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read 'Pride and Prejudice' I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone."

Moving into more modern times, there’s plenty of Literary fiction (note the capital L) written by women if you know where to look. Good examples include Jean Rhys, who remained a hidden gem until Wide Sargasso Sea hit the shelves in 1966 and Flannery O’Connor, whose first novel, Wise Blood, slipped under the radar (O’Connor’s second book, A Good Man is Hard to Find, was published to much critical acclaim). Much as I love these authors, authors who’ve given such quality work to women’s fiction, I think it may be time we moved on.

Moving Swiftly On

Although I came late to American literature (via Fitzgerald, then Frost, and eventually Hemingway, Vonnegut, and Steinbeck -- note the lack of women in the friend-suggested “American writers you have to read list”), I am a big fan of Flannery O’Connor, Sylvia Plath, Alice Walker, and arguably the first American poet, Anne Dudley Bradstreet. That said, I think it’s very easy to use Big-Name-Capital-L authors as a defense against chick lit, populism, and Oprah’s Book Club picks.

In an article for The Atlantic ('Freedom' and the Future of Literary Fiction, 23 August 2010), Lorin Stein who, until recently, worked for Franzen’s publisher Farrar, Stroux, Giroux (FSG), and is a fan of Franzen’s new book, Freedom, wrote,

"But already, in the first mini-backlash against the book—or really, against the all the attention it's received—we hear it implied that fiction should restrict itself to entertainment or fade into obscurity: that critics should spend more time celebrating mass-market novels because they're what the people "actually" want. This fake populism pretends to speak for women (as if women weren't the overwhelming consumers of serious fiction, whether written by women or men). Really it's the logic of the Hollywood blockbuster machine."

I am a consumer of literary fiction. And I’m a self-identified literary snob. I like books with a literary voice, and I prefer character-driven fiction to plot-driven fiction. But chick lit is not the evil literacy killing pulp of the Philistines, either.

Full disclosure: I’ve not read Jodi Picoult, though my sister-in-law tells me I should. I have read Jennifer Weiner’s first book, Good in Bed (witty in parts and frustrating in others) and watched the Toni Collette film adaptation of her second novel, In Her Shoes (also witty in parts and frustrating in others). Weiner’s first book didn’t suit me, as a reader, but I certainly can’t tar it with the trashy-travel-reading brush, either.

As snobbish as it sounds, I’d much rather curl up with The Bell Jar (a favorite of mine; I wish that second book had not ended up as kindling) than the punnishly appropriately named Good In Bed, but it’s true. That said, Plath’s novel is a product of Plath, her struggles with oh-so-many issues, and the times, just as Weiner’s novel is a product of Weiner’s struggle with weight, what my English teacher called “the body beautiful,” and a product of her--or rather our--times.

Wait, wait, don’t panic yet. I’m not saying we should ditch studying O’Connor or throw The Bell Jar into the kindling pile. But while there may only be seven basic plots, there are an infinite number of ways to tell a story, ways which we’re still discovering. When it comes down to it, popular, best-selling authors like Picoult and Weiner are just as valid in the story telling world as Lit authors like Jonathan Franzen, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Toni Morrison, as are more crossover authors like Margaret Atwood (to me, she straddles the line between genre fiction and literary fiction, but that’s a whole other blog post).

Is the Mass Market Funding Lit Fic?

During the original fracas, Jennifer Weiner tweeted that she’s busy “weeping into her royalty check”. The argument that mass market novels fund literary discoveries has been circling the book world for a while, though I can’t help but wonder if it should be circling the drain, instead.

While it’s true there are many great literary authors out there just waiting for an agent or editor to snatch them up, and that many of them will ear so little from their writing that they’ll be forced to keep a second job to make ends meet, literary fiction is not dependent upon the mass market. Anyone, literary author or otherwise, who gets a write up in The New York Times' review section is sure of strong sales figures for that title, at least.

Why? Because big time reviews are free advertising space which reach literally millions of readers. Even with reported declines (Joseph Plambeck, in The New York Times, Newspaper Circulation Falls Nearly 9%, 26 April 2010), weekday editions of the New York Times reach around 1.4 million people, weekend editions 950,000. If only five percent of the people reading The New York Times on a Tuesday morning buy the book, that’s 70,000 books sold. We might prefer to think of our literary geniuses as starving artists but the truth is, the ones getting attention are doing pretty well for themselves -- better than a lot of chick lit authors out there.

It’s easy to be snobby about Oprah’s Book Club (which actually has some great Lit picks worth checking out) and book club reading in general. It’s also easy to pick on women like Picoult and Weiner because, ultimately, it’s a sad fact of human nature that we tend to go after anything, or anyone, that is "other". But the thing is, even if you want to say chick lit is formulaic as some critics have, you can’t say it’s not about discovery because discovery is the root of storytelling. Every author, even Eric Hill, the man who brought us Spot the Dog, is writing about the human experience in some way. As the much more eloquent Emerson put it,

“‘Tis the good reader that makes the good book; a good head cannot read amiss: in every book he finds passages which seem confidences or asides hidden from all else and unmistakeably [sic] meant for his ear.”

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