With the publication of Jonathan Franzen's fourth novel, Freedom, which was extensively covered in the New York Times while Franzen himself appeared on the cover of TIME magazine, a controversy broke out online over whether Franzen's star treatment was indicative of the literary establishment's alleged shoddy treatment of commercial writers, in particular writers of what is commonly referred to as 'women's fiction.' Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult, both #1 New York Times bestselling authors, found themselves in the middle of the fray. Weiner and Picoult were gracious enough to discuss with me their thoughts on what role gender plays in literary criticism, the importance of popular fiction in our culture, and whether progress is being made.
Jennifer Weiner is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of seven novels and one short story collection, including her most recent novel Fly Away Home. There are more than 11 million copies of her books in print in 36 countries.
Jodi Picoult is the New York Times bestselling author of seventeen novels, the last three of which debuted at number one on the New York Times bestseller list, including her newest novel, House Rules.
Why do you feel that commercial fiction, or more specifically popular fiction written by women, tends to be critically overlooked?
Jennifer Weiner: 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.
Jodi Picoult: I think you only have to really look at the facts. I don't think it's overlooked in all venues. I think the New York Times reviews overall tend to overlook popular fiction, whether you're a man, woman, white, black, purple or pink. I think there are a lot of readers who would like to see reviews that belong in the range of commercial fiction rather than making the blanket assumption that all commercial fiction is unworthy. But it's not universal. The Washington Post for example, back when they had their book review section, used to do the widest reviews, because there were so many kinds of fiction reviewed, not just literary fiction. That's where my gripe comes from. When in today's market you only have a limited review space for books, I wonder what the rationale is for the New York Times to review the same book twice, sometimes in the same week. I want to make it clear that I have absolutely nothing against Jonathan Franzen. I hope I read ("Freedom") and love it. None of this was motivated as a critique against him or his work, just that he is someone the Times has chosen to review twice in seven days.
Have you had experiences where you've felt, due to either the content of your books or your gender, your books have been misrepresented or dismissed?
Weiner: The only mention my books have ever gotten from the Times have been the occasional single sentence and, if I'm lucky, a dependent clause in a Janet Maslin flyover piece: "Look! Here's a bunch of books that have nothing in common but spring release dates and lady authors!" I don't write literary fiction - I write books that are entertaining, but are also, I hope, well-constructed and thoughtful and funny and have things to say about men and women and families and children and life in America today. Do I think I should be getting all of the attention that Jonathan "Genius" Franzen gets? Nope. Would I like to be taken at least as seriously as a Jonathan Tropper or a Nick Hornby? Absolutely.
Picoult: Oh yeah, sure. But you know what? That's your trade off. I think Jen Weiner was the one who tweeted the very comment that, "I'm going to weep into my royalty check". She's funny and honest and that's what makes her great. There's that unwritten schism that literary writers get all the awards and commericals writers get all the success. I don't begrudge the label of 'commercial writer', because I wanted to reach as many readers as I could. I read a lot of commercial fiction and a lot of the same themes and wisdoms I find in commercial fiction are the same themes and wisdoms as what i see lauded in literary fiction.
Though the Times has devoted tremendous space to covering writers such as Jonathan Franzen and Gary Shteyngart, it has also done numerous positive pieces on thriller writer Lee Child and raved about Laura Lippman's work. Do you feel that the reviewing plane is evening out, or do you see these as anomalies?
Weiner: The examples you cite reinforce my argument that women are still getting the short end of the stick. If you write thrillers or mysteries or horror fiction or quote-unquote speculative fiction, men might read you, and the Times might notice you. If you write chick lit, and if you're a New Yorker, and if your book becomes the topic of pop-culture fascination, the paper might make dismissive and ignorant mention of your book. If you write romance, forget about it. You'll be lucky if they spell your name right on the bestseller list. I think I remember seeing one review of Nora Roberts once, whereas Lee Child can count on all of his books getting reviewed. This strikes me as fundamentally unfair.
Picoult: In my personal opinion I think those are anomalies more than the norm. But again it is one person's opinion.
Writing for The Atlantic, Paris Review editor Lorin Stein said, "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)." How would you respond to that?
Picoult: Fake populism? Go see who's lined up to go buy Mockingjay. And I bet you you're not going to find just kids, you're going to see a lot of men and women as well. And that book is going to create a huge bump in bookstore traffic and that is going to benefit everybody. I think there are readers out there and I don't think the book is dead. And more importantly I don't think readers have to choose between literary and commercial fiction. And why has all this hoopla from the past week pointed to that commercial authors are at war with literary authors? I don't think that's true. And shame for the media who makes it seems like we're all griping and picking each other apart.
Weiner: First of all, I think it's hilarious that a guy who went to Sidwell Friends, Yale and Johns Hopkins, favors "made-to-measure Lord Willys shirts," snacks on charcuterie, sips Calvados and throws book parties at "the velvet-cloaked Russian Samovar" is presuming to lecture anyone on what constitutes true populism. Let the word go forth: my populism is real...and it's spectacular. (Here's where I'm getting my Stein stories).
But seriously: of course Lorin Stein has no quarrel with the way the Times does business. All of the writers he names, all of the writers he edited at FSG were warmly and often repeatedly reviewed there. He's got a stake - philosophical and financial - in maintaining the Grey Lady's status quo.
I'm not where sure Mr. Stein got the idea that Jodi Picoult and I were presuming to speak for all women. I am not, and never would, presume to speak for anyone but myself, and I'm just one woman, even after a hearty lunch of charcuterie and Calvados.
However, I think it's irrefutable that when it comes to picking favorites - those lucky few writers who get the double reviews AND the fawning magazine profile AND the back-page essay space AND the op-ed, or the Q and A edited and condensed by Deborah Solomon - the Times tends to pick white guys. Usually white guys living in Brooklyn or Manhattan, white guys who either have MFAs or teach at MFA programs...white guys who, I suspect, remind the Times' powers-that-be of themselves, minus twenty years and plus some hair.
Finally, I'd love it if the Times actually "celebrated" my genre, but at this point I'd happily settle for the paper merely acknowledging it. As it stands, thrillers and mysteries and speculative fiction can get daily reviews, or considered in the NYTBR round-ups. Chick lit gets ignored, unless it gores one of the paper's sacred cows (note to self: don't mess with Anna Wintour!). Romance gets ignored completely...and that, I think, is the most damning argument about gender bias at the Times. How can anyone claim the paper plays fair when genre fiction that men read gets reviewed but genre fiction that women read doesn't exist on the paper's review pages? It would be as if the paper's film critics only reviewed tiny independent fare and refused to see so much as a single frame of a romantic comedy, or if the music critics listened to Grizzly Bear and refused to acknowledge the existence of Katy Perry or Lady Gaga. How seriously would a reader take a critic like that?
Though you have had your differences with the critical establishment, you have had tremendous commercial success as #1 bestselling authors. Does your success ever temper critical slights?
Picoult: No, actually every year I tell myself that I'm not going to read any reviews and then I do. We're all human and when I read something negative it hurts. I think when you write it's part of the game, you're going to get some good reviews and some bad reviews and that's how it goes. I don't write for the reviews. I write and if I give it my all then that's really the best that I can do.
Weiner: Nick Hornby, Jonathan Tropper, Carl Hiaasen, David Nicholls...all of these guys write what I'd call commercial books, even beach books, books about relationships and romance and families. All of them would be considered chick lit writers if they were girls. But they're not, so they get reviewed (not always positively, but still), and they sell. If Nick and Jon and Carl don't have to choose between a slot on the review page and a space on the bestseller list, why should Jen and Sophie and Emily?
The good news about not depending on the paper's imprimatur means I've built a career from the ground up. Instead of critics saying, "You MUST READ this book," and people buying it because they felt they had to, readers came to my novels through word of mouth (and through a lot of hard work on my part, and my publisher's). I think - I hope - that this means that I'll be in it for the long haul, unlike the fashionable writers who have to depend on the critics to get noticed.
Why do you feel that it is important that commercial fiction receive critical attention?
Picoult: 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.
Weiner: Because, honestly, I think if the NYT cares about its darlings finding a wider audience, the smartest thing it can do is be a little more respectful toward the books readers are actually reading.
A while back, the NYTBR ran a review by Mark Sarvas in which he asserted that there are very few novels written about work (note: here is the review Weiner refers to). Well, as even the most casual chick-lit reader knows, work is one of the great subjects of all of those single (or married) girls in the city novels. The Devil Wears Prada, I Don't Know How She Does It, Piece of Work, Make Him Look Good, Lily White, Free Food for Millionaires...all books about women in the workplace. But because they're women's work - commercial books by women, about women - Sarvas, presumably, had never read or even heard of them, and there was no one at the Times to say, "Hey, actually, fella, there are lots of books about work," because, I'm guessing, no one at the Times had read them or heard of them, either.
Now, say I'm a reader of chick lit and I happen across Sarvas's review. I'm probably thinking, "This guy's an idiot." Or, if I'm kinder, I'm thinking that the paper of record cares so little about my tastes that they won't even acknowledge that the books I read, and love, exist. How seriously am I going to take the paper's critics when they start beating the drums for Gary Shteyngart, or Colson Whitehead, or Charles Bock? Answer: not very. By willfully ignoring commercial women's fiction, the Times has made itself, as an institution, an unreliable narrator. I don't trust it, and I won't buy what it's selling.
This reality is reflected in the numbers. According to Bookscan, the Nielsen-esque service that tracks an estimated 70 percent of book sales, Super Sad True Love Story sold just shy of five thousand copies its first week in release, even after two very positive reviews, a magazine Q and A and the publication of Shteyngart's essay on the perils of technology. I think that comes out to something like one copy sold for every word the Times lavished on him.
You might argue - I'm betting Lorin Stein would - that women who read romance or chick lit, or Jodi Picoult or Jennifer Weiner - aren't going to pick up the new literary darling, no matter how the paper treats the books they like. But, as Stein correctly points out, women are the major consumers of all fiction, commercial and literary. I think a most respectful and informed attitude toward a wider range of books would help everyone - commercial writers, literary writers, men, women, and, most importantly, readers.
JASON PINTER is the bestselling author of five thriller novels (the most recent of which are The Fury and The Darkness), and is an agent with the Waxman Literary Agency. His first novel for young readers, Zeke Bartholomew: Superspy!, will be released in the summer of 2011. Visit him at www.Jasonpinter.com or follow him on Twitter.