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When Is a Literary Feud NOT a Literary Feud?

For all those tired of debating who is a “real” American and to whom Constitutional rights apply, and don’t, the feud between literary star Jonathan Franzen and bestselling novelists Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult is a welcome distraction.

 

Actually there is no feud. It’s just two popular women writers angry at the kind of laudatory press Franzen is receiving.

The two women say Franzen is getting too much play for his new novel Freedom (which, incidentally hasn’t even hit bookstores yet) and that his subject matter is one that women like them write about all the time but for which they never receive the kind of press Franzen is getting (the cover of Time being the breaking point, perhaps). Picoult is quoted as saying that the New York Times favors “ white male authors” and Weiner, in the Huffington Post, says that she thinks “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.”

While Weiner admits she is not a literary fiction novelist, while Picoult argues that the themes of her work and Franzen’s, for example, are the same, even if she is a “commercial” writer and he’s not, both writers feel unduly dissed that critics don’t seem to take them as seriously as they do Franzen.

Yet neither of them see the disconnect. They just want the press. Or as Weiner argues (not at all convincingly) “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.”

Good luck with that. If a brilliant writer like Stephen King had to publish dozens of books before the “literary establishment” took him seriously as a writer and not just a horror/thriller author, Weiner has a long row to hoe.

But does it matter?

One benefit of reviews in mainstream, influential publications like Time and the New York Times is to introduce readers to writers who may not be on the average reader’s radar. Stephen King didn’t need the press. Weiner and Picoult, among others, don’t need it either: they sell and sell and sell. And one reason, I argue, is that their books are far “easier” to read than Franzen or a host of other more literary writers like Paul Auster, Philip Roth, Marilynne Robinson or Margaret Atwood. No one needs to convince a reader to pick up the new Picoult in the airport or order the latest Weiner from amazon.com. But readers of those books might benefit from reading something slightly more challenging, something that pays as much attention to the writing as the plot and subject matter. And that’s where the critics come in. PIcoult doesn’t like the Times devoting so much space to Franzen, but there are now, thanks to the internet, dozens of reader review sites where people can weigh in. Those populist reviews can balance out the critics if one wishes them to. But I think it’s still important for real critics to write real reviews.

Picoult may be right that “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” but there is still a difference in how well one writes about those themes and wisdoms. The truth is that authors like Picoult and Weiner can’t hold a candle to Franzen. But they also can’t hold a candle to Margaret Drabble, Anita Brookner, Margaret Atwood, Elizabeth Strout, Anne Tyler, or a number of other “women” writers who write on many of the same themes as Franzen, Weiner and Picoult: family, life, children, work, relationships. Why the two women are picking a fight with the coverage of Franzen’s new novel is confusing. It seems more about professional jealousy than equal coverage or women’s rights.

What is literary and what is not literary has been up for debate since writers began writing. Some popular writers (in fact Weiner does it in the HuffPo article) like to cite Charles Dickens as an example of a “commercial” writer because he wrote for the masses and his work was serialized in newspapers. But what is never pointed out is that Dickens was a superior stylist. Not only was his craft exemplary but over a hundred years later readers can still delight in both his themes and his writing. Whether today’s popular, commercial writers will stand that test of time is, I suppose, arguable. Jonathan Franzen’s work will.