Saturday, January 8, 2011

Low-Brow Reading

It’s been a loooong time since I last posted. There have been many reasons for that – work and family being the two main ones. But really, I just haven’t been reading. Things have picked up a bit since I put the Modern Library aside for a while. I’ve been working on this post, in many variations, since September, so hopefully it was worth the wait.

Way back in August or September, there was a little controversy in the literary world. Jonathan Franzen's Freedom was released to much fanfare, including double reviews in the New York Times. Two popular authors, Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, started a twitter frenzy that was dubbed Franzenfreude, complaining that female authors get put in the category of popular/commercial fiction or chick lit and are thereby ignored by the literary establishment. As a chick-lit and popular fiction ignorer, and a fan of decidedly high-brow literature, I had wanted to do a long post on the subject taking up the torch for literary fiction as clearly superior (and therefore more deserving of any reviews). But by late September, a post no longer seemed relevant as the controversy died down, and I also didn't feel like I had all the information. I had never read anything by Picoult and Weiner - in fact, I had purposely avoided them. All of the charges being thrown from Picoult and Weiner could easily (and justly) be thrown at me. I do look down on commercial fiction, and women’s commercial fiction specifically. I do lump all books marketed “for women” as chick lit and mean it in all its derogatory ugliness, failing to distinguish between so-called “shoe porn” of the Candace Bushnell variety, and other more general fiction that just happens to be written by women. And looking at the list of books I have read over the past few years, very few have been women, though I have my own excuse for that (blame the Modern Library).

So, before slinging insults at Picoult and Weiner, and other commercial women’s fiction, I wanted to be in a better position to judge. So I did the unthinkable and read a book by Jodi Picoult.

I did a little research prior to selecting which to read. I could have selected any one of the dozen or more Picoult books, letting the chips fall where they may. But believe it or not, I really didn’t want to embark upon this project just to be insulting or snarky. In order to make all attempts possible to avoid that, I sought out the one that I felt would interest me the most. I settled on her 2000 novel, Plain Truth for two reasons: (1) familiarity with the subject matter and proximity to the setting; and (2) I saw the made-for-tv adaptation of the novel a few years ago (the only Lifetime movie I believe I ever watched) and I found it entertaining – for a Lifetime movie, that is.

I wouldn’t say that I was particularly “into” the novel. There were certain points where I felt compelled to keep reading, and points where I would go weeks without even thinking of it. Which is why it took me four months to finish. The prose was often clunky, the dialog awkward. “Jacob, I stopped trying to figure out American juries around the same time Adam Sandler movies started raking in millions at the box office” or “Questioning Coop as a witness rated high on my scale of discomfort – somewhere, say, between suffering a bikini wax and braving bamboo slivers under the nails.” It’s not high-art. At some point I became immune to it, for the most part, and able to focus on the story, which is what people read Picoult for. As far as I can tell, at least. And the plot had many twists and turns, as should be expected from courtroom drama. But the end of the trail really got to me. The jury is out deliberating, day after day. Will the prosecution win, and sentence a poor Amish girl to prison, or will the defense win, and a no one be punished for the baby’s death? We’re waiting and waiting, and suddenly, they decide on a plea bargain, Katie gets to wear a monitoring bracelet, and everything is good. This felt to me like Picoult’s jury got away from her, or she couldn’t decide what to do – Katie couldn’t go to jail, but perhaps she didn’t want to come back that she was innocent, though I believe that that would have been just a fine outcome in itself. It felt like Picoult gave up waiting, wanting to wrap everything up without too much mess, and so took the plea bargain way out.

Though I think this novel was likely the best pick I could have made, I often wished it wasn’t so close to home, literally, because I found myself picking a lot of details apart. There were a number of geographical mistakes, the most obvious of which is that there is not an Amtrak station within 30 miles of State College, and a number of glaring issues with the depiction of the Amish. Now, I’m not an expert on the topic by any means, and though my own interaction tends to be with Wenger Mennonite than the Amish, I’m also not unknowledgable. I mostly resented the depiction of the Amish in Lancaster County as country bumpkins who don’t know what traffic is. Yes, parts of Lancaster County are very rural, and I suppose there could be some Amish in those parts of the county that never ventured out of their township into the metropolis of Lancaster City. But I would imagine that is the exception, not the rule. Drive along Route 30 sometimes, including through Paradise, a community mentioned several times in the novel, and you will know what I mean. Many Amish are business owners that serve the non-Amish community, often in urban areas. They even shop at Walmart. This isn’t to say that the Amish aren’t sheltered to some extent from the world – they certainly are. Picoult defiantly did her research on many of the details of Amish life, but the portrayal of the so-called English world as completely foreign and unfamiliar to them felt disingenuous. It served its purpose within the plot of Plain Truth, but I did not feel it was an entirely accurate characterization.

So, in the end, what can I say? I know why people read this type of novel. And by “this type of novel,” I don’t mean novels written by women, or marketed to women, or novels that a lot of people purchase. I mean a novel in which everything is surface. And that, I believe, is the distinction between literary fiction and commercial fiction. There is no subtlety here. In other words, I didn’t have to think about anything. Oh sure, I could have wondered what really did happen to Katie’s baby, whether she really did kill it or not. But that’s not really the same type of thinking that is invoked by say, novels by Jeanette Winterson or Margaret Atwood – two contemporary female novelists who (1) get reviewed by respected establishments and (2) sell far fewer novels than Picoult or Weiner.

People read these types of novels for pleasure, for escape. To be entertained. I suppose I never really approached reading for simple entertainment or escape, and I never understood the drive to do so. That’s me, though. Plain Truth wasn’t bad. It is easily consumed, like fast food – quickly churned out for the Pertinent Topic of the year. But it wasn’t high-art, as I mentioned before. And that, perhaps, is what frustrated me about the Franzenfreude hullaballoo. Picoult and Weiner write, I suppose, for the masses. They make a lot of money doing that, because there are a lot of people in the world who want to escape for a bit with reading, such writers provide them with satisfaction, and that’s perfectly fine. Adam Sandler makes a lot of money doing the same thing with movies (to use Picoult’s own example, quoted above). But in 100 years, people (hopefully) won’t be talking about Big Daddy in the same way we talk about Citizen Kane, or even The Wizard of Oz. In the same way, look at the bestsellers from the early 20th century. Other than one or two every decade, we’re not reading the popular fiction of yesteryear. They were reading The Broad Highway by Jeffrey Farnol and The Rosary by Florence Barclay, not Gertrude Stein or Thomas Mann. Sometimes good fiction happens to be popular. But popular fiction isn’t always good fiction, as in, fiction that will still be relevant in some way in 2110. And I doubt that Picoult & co. will be amongst those that are.

I’m not going to comment at all on the merits of Jonathan Franzen. Having never read anything he’s written I am as equally unqualified to evaluate his work as brilliant or not as I was to evaluate Picoult. But I’m going to way in a bit here on the controversy that got me reading Picoult to begin with.

There are two aspects to the debate. The first color, which is where Picoult and Jennifer Wiener specifically steered the ship of Franzenfreude, is the coverage of female writers versus male writers. But what does that mean? Are serious books written by women reviewed less than serious books written by men? What is the cause of that? Are men writing superior books to their female counterparts? Or is serious fiction by men published more often than serious fiction by women? As in, if two-thirds of the serious fiction published is written by men, then two-thirds of the reviews of serious fiction should be reviews of books written by men. But there is a question beyond that which is, are women writing as many serious novels as men but getting published less often? What if fifty percent of all serious, really good books (by whose standard, of course?) are written by women, but only one-third of the serious, really good books published are written by women? I don’t know. And I’m not about to spend my time counting up reviews, as others have done.

It is here the Jennifer Wiener may have a point that I am certainly willing to concede: that there may be a gender bias here somewhere. Why aren’t there more prominent women writers of literary fiction? But I don’t know that it’s right to blame the NYT for that. Lionel Shriver, a serious writer of definitely not fluffy female stuff has stated she has had to fight her own publishers to keep her books from being marketed to the women-only reading public. Wiener also brought up the name Nick Hornby as a (semi?) commercial fiction author who gets much more respect that Wiener and Picoult. Is that the result of the gender bias? As someone who has read Hornby (High Fidelity), and thought it was decent, I will say no, it’s not. High Fidelity was quirky and interesting. Plain Truth was predictable and cheesy. Honestly, I feel Hornby would more likely be classed with the likes of Joyce Carol Oates, another on-the-margin-of-commercial-v.-lit, than Picoult, though I cannot speak for Wiener. This is just judging from the limited number (as in, one per) of novels by each that I’ve read so perhaps I’m judging prematurely? But regardless of the number of female v. male novelists, or published novelists, or reviewed novelists or respected novelists, I agree with C.E.Morgan’s assertion that we shouldn’t champion mediocre novels by females out of defensiveness. We should seek out good literary fiction by women, but we shouldn’t praise it just because of the gender of the writer.

The second aspect to the debate is commercial fiction versus literary fiction. Picoult and Wiener seemed quickly to distance themselves from this in favor of the gender angle. (Though at least Wiener acknowledged she knows she isn’t as good a writer as Jonathan “Genius” Franzen – with the snide remark about his intellectualism.)

This aspect of the debate can quickly devolves away from what books are “worthy” of reviews into questions about the place of genre fiction, including romance, and do graphic novels count here anywhere? People get defensive when you start comparing quality, because judgments about artistic talent or expression are really based on the observer’s individual taste. Or is it? I might not like a particular style of art, but can I make a value judgment on the artist’s talent even if it isn’t what I like? I think in many instances you can. Others disagree. And this is where I think Picoult and Weiner are wrong. Though there is a fuzzy area around the middle (in my opinion populated by those such as Oates and Hornby, as mentioned above), it is pretty clear what should count as commercial fiction and what should count as literary fiction, and why they are two very different things.

Wiener/Picoult tried to frame the debate surrounding the lack of respect for commercial fiction, particularly when geared toward females, in that Franzen and others like him get kudos for writing about the same subjects as “chick-lit” authors who are ghettoized for doing so (thus the gender bias angle). Picoult stated, “a lot of the same themes and wisdoms I find in commercial fiction are the same themes and wisdom as what I see lauded in literary fiction.” The majority of fiction books that are written are about “Family, Relationships and Love” (as one of their websites’ announces to potential readers). The Great Gatsby, Anna Karenina, The Sound and the Fury, To Kill A Mockingbird, A Handmaid’s Tale, Crime and Punishment, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Portnoy’s Complaint are all about family, relationships, and/or love. But that’s not the point. It’s not that Picoult and Company write about the same topics as their male counterparts and get less respect for it. There is a difference.

And that difference is the quality of the writing. Commercial fiction is much more predictable, more formulaic (how many Picoult novels include a crime or a trial?), and everything is wrapped up with a beautiful, Martha Stewart-esque bow. People who consistently read literary fiction over commercial fiction are looking for something beyond plot or character development. They want good writing. The kind of writing that demands you read with a pen or pencil in hand for underlining. Have you ever heard a commercial literature devotee say, “Well, that novel had a good plot, but I didn’t like the writing.” You won’t, because that’s not what they are reading for. And let’s be truthful. Commercial writing, especially in the vein of what Picoult writes, is not on the same level of those novels listed above. They are not on the same level as the many women authors who do write consistently about Family, Love and Relationships – whose writings are considered literature with a capital L. And the reason why isn’t because they are women, or because they commercial fiction writers, but because their writing isn’t as good. If it was, it would be literary fiction.

Commercial fiction is easily consumed, like wolfing down a hamburger and fries at a fast food joint. Literary fiction is much more like upscale dining. McDonald’s shouldn’t win culinary awards, and it shouldn’t expect to. A new McDonald’s opening down the street shouldn’t be reviewed by a food critic. Fast food/fine dining. Not consumed for the same reason. Shouldn’t be packaged the same way. Shouldn’t be expected to get the same coverage or praise from Great Restaurants Weekly. Both food. Not the same.

A female author on par with Jonathan Franzen (or any other “white male literary darling”) whose books are relegated to the chick-lit section due to some error on their publisher’s side has a right to be angry about that treatment. But the reviewers at the New York Times and other such establishments should not be expected to comb through the thousands of published novels every year hoping to find those one or two gems that were mislabeled. They have to start somewhere, and that somewhere is a category largely called literary fiction. Maybe reviewers miss something great by doing that, but there is only so much time in the world, and only so much space in the newspaper.

A review for the likes of Picoult and others like her would not be of consequence. Yes, it would give her a pat on the back, and maybe some feeling of acceptance by the literati (“you like me! You really like me!”), an article she could cut out and put in a scrapbook. And maybe it would move a few thousand more copies of her novels. But she’s already topping the best seller lists. Maybe I’m wrong about the other people in the world who read the NYT for recommendations, but I don’t think that they are looking to find out if they should read this week’s best seller. The job of the NYT, and what I look at it for, is to introduce me to writers and novels that I would likely not otherwise have heard of. People either will or will not pick up the mass market paperbacks at the airport, or Walmart or wherever. Franzen’s novels, and novels by writers like him, would never have the success they do without the New York Times, and even with two reviews, they will never have the mass popularity that Picoult or others do without critical adoration or even attention. And the good thing is, with the internet, there are hundreds and hundreds of reader review sites out there reviewing everything your heart could desire.

I searched the NYT and found four reviews for Jodi Picoult – none of which were for Plain Truth, so it gave me the opportunity to look at plots for her other novels and compare them to Plain Truth to see if that novel was truly representative, and I believe it was. Each of the reviews were written by Janet Maslin, who was described as “panning” Picoult’s works. While the reviews aren’t exactly positive – they are called “proficiently constructed” and described as having the “subtlety of a jackhammer”, Malin does say that Picoult is a “solid, lively storyteller.” I agree with all of those statements. But what struck me is how similar all of the plots sounded. I think Maslin sums up quite nicely (I’m combining two reviews here): “There are reasons why Ms. Picoult’s books are so widely read. However doggedly she belabors the obvious, she writes articulately and clearly, making her all too much of a rarity among popular authors. Her stories are more reassuring than disturbing, and their surprise twists pose no threats. These novels have soap opera momentum, and they guarantee comforting closure. When writers become this popular…they can coast in ways not possible for the up-and-coming. The opportunity to be long-winded yet perfunctory, paradoxically daring yet formulaic, is available to only proven hit makers at the top of the heap.”

What got on my nerves the most about the controversy was the strain of anti-intellectualism that pervaded it. When you wipe away the maybe-a-ploy-to-divert-attention-from-the-fact-that-we-are-jealous-of-Franzen’s-talent-not-his-reviews of calling it all gender-bias, there is a not-entirely subtle hint that it’s those “elites” who want to read books – or reviews – with big words that run the newspapers and shut out people who write for the masses – as in stuff without the word “lapidary”. The reviewers are condemned for not giving equal weight to empty-calorie airport novels (that are justly categorized as so) as they do to the tomes that actually make us think, or pick up a dictionary. To quote Picoult: “I think reviewers just like to look smart.” They also pull out Dickens and Austen as “popular” authors. Well, let’s be honest. Austen-as-popular-writer isn’t exactly historical truth, and Dickens was a damn good writer and created some of Western literature’s most enduring characters and literary moments (despite being popular). There is nothing wrong with a book being a best-seller or having mass appeal. But as I said before, being a best-seller does not make a book Literature. I can’t say if Franzen or any of the other (male) authors mentioned in the context of this controversy will be read a century from now, but I can venture one guess – Picoult likely won’t be.

I suppose in the end, when I pick a book, I want something that speaks to me. To quote Jonathan Frazen, via A.V. Club interview, “when I connect with a good book, they are telling me a story that seems true, and are telling me things about myself that I know are true, but I hadn’t been able to put together before.” And how books, or what books, speak to anyone is different from person to person. I suppose I look for complexity, subtlety, good writing, three-dimensional characters that I will remember forever. Sometimes this also includes giving me an opportunity to understand myself, or my life, or my relationships, or whatnot, in a new way. And that’s what the really important books in my life have done. And I know – instinctively, I didn’t have to actually read Picoult to know this – that commercial literature isn’t where it’s at for me.