Critical controversy, #Franzenfreude, and writing about women writers

Mature woman holding cup, sitting in armchair reading

Do you read book reviews in mainstream media – newspapers and magazines, and/or their websites – any more? There actually are some of them still around, despite the rapid disappearance of dedicated book-review sections in newspapers during the last few years. And while many of us seem to be getting book information and recommendations from book blogs and other new sources, traditional review outlets like The New York Times still carry influence and weight – like it or not, they still matter. To some people, including best-selling authors like Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult, they matter a lot.

Weiner has been vocal for years about the fact that the Times does not review her books, even though she’s placed several of them on their bestseller lists – and she became even more vocal a couple of weeks ago, when the Times published two pieces, a review and a feature, about Jonathan Franzen’s upcoming novel Freedom within just a few days. Weiner was following up on Picoult’s Twitter comments about the review – and the Times‘ attention to, and seeming bias in favor of, “white male literary darlings” over women fiction writers – with her own “#Franzenfreude” tweets.

Picoult and Weiner discussed their viewpoints with the Huffington Post last week. What’s been described as the “Franzen Feud” isn’t really that personal; it’s more an issue of the attention given to certain types of fiction over others, particularly when produced by certain types of authors. Weiner acknowledges that she doesn’t write “literary fiction,” but notes that some of the elements she incorporates into her novels seem to be taken more seriously in fiction written by men:

“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…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.”

Picoult – who has been reviewed by the Times occasionally (and not necessarily positively) – believes that the paper’s reviewers overlook general-market commercial fiction (while giving attention to genre writers of both genders in addition to the aforementioned “literary darlings”), and that this is ultimately short-sighted on their part:

“(H)istorically 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 mentioned some male authors who cover territory similar to that in her novels – Jonathan Tropper and Nick Hornby were two examples – noting that they don’t seem expected to choose between commercial and critical success the way female authors are. Commercially, though, “domestic” or “relationship” fiction does seem to be more often produced by women writers, and to appeal more strongly to women readers…and as it so often does, that brings the discussion back to “chick lit.” Linda Holmes of NPR’s pop-culture Monkey See blog considers that a term that’s long since outlived any usefulness:

“(A)t this point, I think the only solution is to stay away from the term ‘chick lit’ as much as humanly possible, because it’s become a term that means ‘by and about women, and not something you need to take seriously, although we’re not necessarily saying those things are connected, so it might be a giant coincidence’…I don’t know what ‘chick lit’ is anymore, except books that are understood to be aimed at women, written by women, and not important. And I can’t get behind that.”

Since I discovered book blogs, I’ve drifted away from mainstream-media book reviews. However, even before that, I noticed I was finding fewer and fewer of the books I actually wanted to read via those reviews.

I’m not much of a genre reader, although I don’t make a point of avoiding genre elements in general fiction. Having said that, the fiction I prefer to read isn’t necessarily “literary” per se, either. I’ve found some modern literary fiction a bit too self-referential and self-aware for my taste, with writing – well-crafted though it may be – that can become gimmicky and get in the way of the storytelling. That doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate literary merit and technique, however, and I absolutely seek out good, engaging writing. I prefer fiction that’s drawn from the real world, and that contains characters and conflicts that I can understand, even if I don’t fully relate to them. I prefer fiction that’s centered around people’s relationships and how they’re affected by situations. I look for meaningful themes and relevant observations about life. And as it happens, I tend to find that kind of fiction is more often written by women.

My LibraryThing catalog is close to a 70/30 split between female and male authors, and my list of “favorite authors” is not single-gender. However, some of my favorite male writers are less likely to write the type of fiction I generally favor; I usually turn to them for my forays into genre (or, more accurately, genre-mixing). When it comes to “domestic” fiction, “relationship” fiction, “realistic” fiction, or whatever label you use to describe it, I admit that my own bias is heavily in favor of women authors. While they may write with humor, I look for authors who take their themes, characters and stories seriously – and I take them seriously.

One of the beauties of the book-blog world – which, like my LibraryThing catalog, is quite dominated by women – is that across nearly all genres and niches, we do take authors and books seriously. Sometimes we talk about the same books that traditional book reviewers do, but we’ve made space for so many others that they don’t. We’re filling a void that established book-criticism outlets don’t seem to care so much about – and quite frankly, that’s their loss. And if those outlets – and the authors they’re bypassing – aren’t taking us seriously, that’s their loss too.

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