I was sitting at a book club gathering the other night when a friend and her husband walked in a bit late. She had her baby in one hand, a homemade cobbler that looked like it was right out of Sunset magazine in the other and a five-year-old tugging on her skirt. She apologized for being late, set the cobbler down onto the counter, lovingly passed the baby to her husband and guided the five-year-old to gravitate more toward his father's orbit than hers. As my friend pulled the tin foil off the cobbler, the entire congregation of our book club swooned and celebrated how great her husband was with the baby and how the five-year-old doted on him. As he left to appreciative applause, the group chided the mom for being late.
As she settled in with her much needed glass of wine, we went on to discuss the book at hand - a harrowing tale of race relations in the Deep South during the 1960s from the perspective of a young woman. A woman opened with "I'd like to know who suggested this Twinkie of a book?!"
The book was The Help.
The great thing about art is that its beauty, like most things, is in the eye of the beholder. A book speaks to you, a painting moves you, a song quiets you - nothing anyone says or annoyingly sighs about art should be able to sway your adoration of it.
But, back to The Help, let me add that all of the women in the book club loved the book. They couldn't put it down. The woman of the infamous "Twinkie book" comment came home early from work to finish and couldn't stop thinking about it. This is my concern.
I absolutely understand not liking a book - or that some books don't speak to you. That's the beauty of art. But, everyone liked the book. Loved it, in fact. It made them think differently. So why was the first thing that was said about it so degrading and cutting? Do we believe that pleasure should be guilty and that things aren't valuable or worthwhile unless they're difficult? Or do we believe, somewhere in all of our 2013 glory, that women writing about relationships and family are simply not as "important" as when a man does? Sure, there are heavy issues, but we'll make sure to note that the book is "light hearted" and a "great beach read." And the most important thing of all, how does this affect our relationship with ourselves as women, wives and mothers? Do we think our perspective isn't as important as men's? Or if we diminish or actively malign whole swaths of literature as being trite and unimportant, will they consider us one of them?
All too often, when a woman writes a book about family and relationships the reader will sigh that she felt the narrator's inner monologues were "whiny" whereas when a male writer contemplates these same topics he is being "introspective." If a female writer uses humor in her dialogue she will be dismissed as "snarky", whereas if a male writer uses humor, he has a "biting wit." So called chick-lit writers get pinned with "predictable" endings, while male writers writing about the same topics have endings that are "satisfying." Readers will scoff that things like that don't happen in the "real world," while male writers will have a "powerful, epic and relatable" denouement. My book club member will talk about this "Twinkie of a book" at the next book club because it still resonates with her, whereas she can't even remember the title of that other book she felt was so very important at the time.
These so-called Twinkie books won't be set on a shelf with pride or "accidentally" left on coffee tables when company comes over. Oh, this ole thing? Sniff. No, these are the books you enjoy and give to a friend with the caveat that the insight was "unexpected" and that "for a book that should have been fluff" it was "actually quite good." The friend will take the book and later pronounce that she, too, was shocked she liked it, considering how she doesn't usually pick up "that kind of book."
Of course, there are always exceptions. This is the beauty of art, humanity and our individuality. There are female writers who have never experienced this and people who like what they like regardless of what anyone says. There are male writers who get passed over and plenty of genre fiction that is never respected - authored by men and women. Fantasy and sci-fi (written by men and women) has been loved by savvy readers forever, but has only just recently gained "legitimacy" in the eyes of the industry and reviewers. I understand that there are several different paths, perspectives and experiences. This is mine.
And maybe the moral of this story is as simple as me needing to join a new book club.
Liza Palmer's newest book, Nowhere but Home, came out earlier this month.