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Smart people saying dumb things, part XXIV: Jodi Picoult, Jennifer Weiner

August 23, 2010

Jodi Picoult

Why is that writers of commercial fiction cannot be satisfied with popularity and riches, but must begrudge the reviews earned by their more literary brethren (and sistren?) Consider Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, who charge that The New York Times favors “writers who are white, male and live in Brooklyn.

Picoult fired the first salvo last week in response to Michiko Kakutani’s rave review of Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom.

“NYT raved about Franzen’s new book. Is anyone shocked?” she wrote on Twitter, reports the Guardian. “Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren’t white male literary darlings.”

Weiner promptly joined the fun, tweeting right back: “Carl Hiaasan doesn’t have to choose between getting a Times review and being a bestseller.  Why should I?  Oh right #girlparts.”

Jennifer Weiner

Oh, ladies: You would be referring, I preseume, to the Jonathan Franzen? That “literary darling” who called Kakutani “the stupidest person in New York City” in 2008, after a less than glowing notice of his 2007 memoir, The Discomfort Zone?

And you would be referring to the Michiko Kakutani, lead book reviewer for The New York Times, whose reviews this summer have included books by Mona Simpson, Stefanie Syman, Anne Beattie, Jane Smiley, Laura Bush, and Sue Miller?

The Kakutani who Norman Mailer once wrote “disdains white male writers?” The very same reviewer who, just recently, has diced up such male literary darlings as Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Yann Martel? Okay, so these blokes don’t live in Brooklyn. But they don’t have “girl parts,” either.

Obviously the sexism charge is a smokescreen. What’s really at work here is what we might call “genre ressentiment” — a form of resentment so pathological philosophers and psychologists reach for a French word to contain it. “Ressentiment” is a word with complex connotations, but as used here means resentment toward those more successful or esteemed who have not directly harmed you.

Thus, it is not enough for a chick lit maven like Picoult to sell 14 million (and counting) copies of her novels, or Weiner to write bestsellers that are turned into movies starring the likes of Cameron Diaz. Money and devoted readers are not enough. They want critical esteem, too.

I understand the impulse, having seen it in many varieties over the years. Nearly two decades ago, I sat in the audience at the Key West Literary Seminar and listened to mystery writers and crime novelist talk about how they carried the beating heart of literature, now that literary fiction had abandoned narrative. I wish I had a dollar for every sci-fi writer who told me sci-fi and fantasy constitutes the real mainstream of literary endeavor.

This is the second time in less than I week I find myself in the uncomfortable position of defending Kakutani, who is not my favorite reviewer. I agree with Picoult that she guilds her writing with 50-cent words like “lapidary” or, as many others have noted, “limn.” (Quickly I add: In 23 years of book reviewing I have not once used either word).

Nor am I fan of Franzen. Though I have not yet read Freedom, I thought his last novel, the immensely successful literary tome, The Corrections, to be a calculated careerist move by a writer thirsting for establishment cred. An edgy and exciting young writer deciding to trace over the lines of the traditional narrartive of suburan familial angst. In contemporary terms, it was as if Gary Shteyngart had decided to become John Updike.

Nor yet is The New York Times above criticism. It’s stuffy and doesn’t review enough fiction and, like Picoult, I’m aghast at the waste when, as happens almost every week, the Sunday Book Review and daily reviewers like Kakutani review the same titles.

Nonetheless, I must say: Sorry, ladies. You made your choice. You took the road more traveled, and your punishment is to be rich, famous, and disregarded by The New York Times. The rest of us, even if we enjoy a chick lit novel now and then, or a mystery, or a space opera, ought to be glad any major publication still reviews serious literary books at all.

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61 Comments leave one →
  1. August 23, 2010 1:42 pm

    This is so smart and so funny I want it on a t-shirt. Man oh man, I am so sick of privileged authors complaining about being “mistreated.” I’d give all three of my NYTBR reviews for half of Jodi Picoult’s readership and 2010 royalties.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      August 23, 2010 10:10 pm

      Why, thank you, Lev. We who labor in obscurity need take what consolation we can. I prefer mocking my betters.

      • August 23, 2010 10:26 pm

        That’s why I wrote my mystery series. There are pot shots at all sorts of people there, including writers, and they fit, because the narrator teaches writing. :-)

  2. Candice Simmons permalink
    August 23, 2010 1:43 pm

    Bitch, bitch, bitch…(no pun intended).

  3. Samantha Schoech permalink
    August 23, 2010 5:20 pm

    Franzen writes better books than either of those women. Sorry. They can go buy mink hankies to cry into.
    And read Freedom. It’s not perfect but it is WELL worth your time.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      August 23, 2010 10:12 pm

      I don’t read much commercial fiction, though I do not scorn those who do. We all have our indefensible pleasures. For example, I am utterly unable to explain why I enjoy watching Milla Jovovovich kill hordes of zombies. But I do…

  4. August 23, 2010 7:18 pm

    Grumble grumble. Wish I could grumble about being ignored while living – ACTUALLY LIVING – off the income from my many limp-along novels. Don’t you just hate whiners? No whining allowed. What a turn off. I’ll probably buy Franzen’s book just to see what the big deal is. Wish I knew the moves that he and the other notables have. Wait a minute, I think I’m actually into some low-scale grumbling here. I see a wee bit of whiner’s remorse making faces inbetween the lines. No doubt about it, Picoult & Weiner are addictive!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      August 23, 2010 10:16 pm

      I couldn’t get through The Commitments…er, I mean, The Comestibles…er, dagnabit! The Corrections. But I may give Freedom a chance. Even though I’m put off by the title, which thumps its chest and declares its own importance…

      Duff, I’d put The Altar of the Body up against any book what’s never won the National Book Award nor been on Oprah….

      • August 23, 2010 10:27 pm

        I think it was originally called “The Contusions” but his editor was afraid that newspapers would assign it to their medical reporters.

      • August 24, 2010 9:11 pm

        If you could hear my heart right now, Chauncey thumpedy thumping L-O-V-E. Poor Altar got buried, but someday … well …

  5. Elizabeth Karen Reinhart permalink
    August 24, 2010 12:51 pm

    As a subscriber to the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and the London Review of Books as well as the NYT, I read multiple reviews of a single book. I appreciate the instances in which the daily paper and the Sunday Book Review review the same book. Although sometimes I am unsure whether these reviewers have read the same book. There have always been literary darlings who have been overrated — multiple reviews help sort out who these writers are.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      August 24, 2010 10:48 pm

      I agree in principle, but with the space allotted to book reviews shrinking at an alarming rate, I think it’s irresponsible for The New York Times to review the same book twice. Give that second review to a worthy book that otherwise will go unnoticed.

      • August 25, 2010 5:12 am

        I’ve given up on mainstream reviewers. Not only will the NYT review the same book twice, but the Times and most other major outlets focus on releases from the big houses, ignoring indie presses and university presses. Even Salon does this, and it’s very sad.

  6. Oline permalink
    August 24, 2010 5:27 pm

    I have done lapidary work as a hobby…does that count? Made a lovely pin and several necklaces

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      August 24, 2010 10:49 pm

      I’m sure it limned your natural beauty.

  7. August 24, 2010 7:41 pm

    Good read. props

  8. Ariel Gonzalez permalink
    August 24, 2010 10:55 pm

    Reminds me of the kerfuffle that broke out between Stephen King and Shirley Hazzard at the 2003 National Book Awards. After receiving his medal, King scolded the audience for not acknowledging popular writers. When it was her turn at the podium Hazzard said: “I don’t think giving us a reading list of those who are most read at this moment is much of a satisfaction.”

    And watching Milla Jovovich delimb (“de-limn”?) zombies in her snug, self-designed khaki shorts is like watching a sunset: explanation spoils the effect.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      August 25, 2010 8:19 am

      Ariel, I could not agree more on all counts, but especially Milla Jovovovich.

  9. August 25, 2010 5:28 am

    Years ago, in an American Lit seminar with Irving Howe (who could be avuncular or terrifying), the room was stunned when he demanded that our papers be written in lapidary prose.

    I piped up, “Will semi-precious do?”

  10. Katy Munger permalink
    August 25, 2010 8:08 am

    Excellent post, BUT, even when I am disagreeing with other writers and think they are being whiny and ungrateful wretches, I would never use the term “chick lit”. I’s a demeaning term, it’s *meant* to be demeaning, and I for one think writers have enough problems in this world without tearing each other down, too. It’s the literary equivalent of an ethnic slur. And it only perpetuates the maddening marketing mindset that has taken over the world of books. Take the pledge! Join me in refusing to use these stupid cutesy sub-genre labels.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      August 25, 2010 8:27 am

      Thanks for the kind word, but I cannot get on board with the pledge against “chick lit.” It is absurd to compare a marketing term to a “racial slur.” Not to climb on too high a horse, but it strikes me as a comparison that demeans (to use your word) those who have actually suffered at the blunt end of racist, sexist, or homophobic language. And those who most object to it are also those who have most benefited from it, either writers finding readers or readers finding the kind of books they like. Twenty years ago I listened with amusement as science fiction writers, fans and scholars all sniffily said much the same thing about the term “sci-fi.” Why, I wondered, would they object to the niftiest genre term available. Since then, of course, “sci-fi” has triumphed, thanks largely to the Sci Fi Channel (er, pardon me, “Syfy”). Thank God.

      • August 25, 2010 8:46 am

        However chick lit originated as a label and whatever the intent of the first people to use it, it’s become a marketing tool for editors, authors and agents, and significant for book sellers and reviewers. It may still sting, but I think it’s been “reclaimed,” especially since books in this genre sell so consistently well.
        If I had a book that fit the genre, I would happily accept the label for every aspect of the book’s progress into the world. Right now, I have to be stuck with Lev Lit. Which is sometimes backlit, sometimes not.

      • August 25, 2010 1:46 pm

        Well, Lev, many blacks have “reclaimed” the N-word and many gays have reclaimed the F-word. It doesn’t make their origins any less bigoted. I often encounter men (like Chauncey here) who deny the sexism behind the chick-lit label, but I have yet to hear from a woman who doesn’t think it is sexist. Makes me think the average guy doesn’t even know what sexism looks like…

  11. August 25, 2010 8:10 am

    Katy, “sub-genre” always make me think of that great Sigourney Weaver line in “Ghostbusters”:

    “Take me now, sub-creature!”

    • Katy Munger permalink
      August 25, 2010 12:28 pm

      I love it when you talk dirty, Lev.

  12. PJ Parrish permalink
    August 25, 2010 11:10 am

    “Chick lit” is one of those phrases that can expand or contract based on its source. From one person’s mouth — or pen — it can be inclusive and friendly. From another’s it is quite clearly a slur from an intellectual bully.

    It’s like when I hear “girl” from one of my female buds, well, that’s a dog-whistle good thing. But when that old toad with the ear-hairs sitting at the counter at the Floridian this morning called the waitress “girl” I wanted to smash my grapefruit in his face.

  13. PJ Parrish permalink
    August 25, 2010 11:16 am

    And while we’re at it, if “chick lit” is acceptable in good company, does that mean it’s okay to label Thomas McGuane, Jim Harrison, James Dickey, Norman Mailer et al “dick lit”?

    (((gumble gumble))

    • August 25, 2010 11:24 am

      Try using it and see if it catches on.

    • Katy Munger permalink
      August 25, 2010 12:31 pm

      Hey, if Dick Lit catches on, I’m going to have to insist the female counterpart be re-named Clit Lit.

      (Of course, if the men were really smart, they’d call it Big Dick Lit and then other men would flock to buy those books in droves and pay double the list price for them.)

      • August 25, 2010 1:33 pm

        It would be too shaming, they’d just say they want that “big book.”
        :-)

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      August 25, 2010 9:13 pm

      No, I think you can call that “chick lit,” too. Not only is work by these manly writers mainly read by women, it is also, underneath the gruntin’ and sweatin’ and spittin’ and grace under pressure, more romantic than anything Barbara Carltand would allow.

  14. August 25, 2010 12:35 pm

    I’d written three books before the term ‘chick-lit’ emerged. Since then, that’s the genre people want to put them in. I don’t mind (people just love categorising things) except when a reviewer/interviewer/jounalist actually asks me how I feel about it. The question is always put in a patronising yet sympathetic way and was once followed with a query about whether I wouldn’t rather write a ‘real’ book……

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      August 25, 2010 10:25 pm

      I can’t apologize for every boorish journalist you may have run into, but I would if I could. At this point, though, if I were a novelist I’d be grateful that any reporters wanted to talk to me. Enjoy it. It won’t last much longer. Literary culture is on its death bed.

  15. August 25, 2010 1:10 pm

    I don’t agree or disagree with this post. I will say, however, just because a reviewer and an author have been formerly engaged in a kerfluffle doesn’t invalidate the possibility that gender politics are at play. It may well be that the reviewer in question was motivated by a fear of having upset patriarchal forces before (having been called out as the stupidest person, etc.) and wished to mend fences.

    I’m not sure it does much good to delve too deeply into the personal motivations of individual reviewers, but we would be foolish to discount the idea of sexism in the industry on the basis of this example.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      August 25, 2010 10:29 pm

      It’s hard for me to imagine that Michiko Kakutani is afraid of anything. I think she genuinely disliked Franzen’s memoir, and genuinely likes his new novel. “Patriarchal forces” did not stop her from savaging such male literary powerhouses as Martin Amis, Yann Martel or Ian McEwan earlier this summer.
      I think there’s a real danger in crying sexism in every instances, just as it’s not wise for African Americans to cry racism when it’s not clearly a factor. Racism and sexism are potent charges. Calling on them out of habit, convenience or laziness blunts their power.

  16. Olivia P. permalink
    August 25, 2010 1:14 pm

    I feel there are two different issues here: a woman who writes about love, relationships and sex is immediately labeled a “chick-lit author,” while a man who writes about the same issues (Hornby and Tropper, for example) is called -guess what?- “author.” It’s a sexist and misogynist label, traits that are too common in the publishing industry and, for that matter, in our culture.

    The problem is not only that the label implies that these authors (who happen to be women) have nothing interesting to say to men, but also that lumps together wonderful writers (such as Isabel Wolff) with hacks (such as Jennifer Weiner). The Times does commit the sin of lumping them together, and ignoring many of the talented. That’s something they ought to correct.

    As for Weiner, she ought to accept that she’s not going to be taken seriously – not because she has ovaries, but because she’s just not a good writer. I don’t see Danielle Steel or Nicholas Sparks getting all worked up about the Times not reviewing them, and why should they? They are probably too busy counting money.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      August 25, 2010 10:35 pm

      Weelll — I think there are plenty of women writers who write, at least in part, about relationships but who are not labled “chick lit.” Louise Erdrich, for example. Amy Tan. Anne Tyler. If I had more time, I’d think of some younger ones, too. On the other hand, I’ve always thought male romance writers, from Robert James Waller right up to Nicholas Sparks, have gotten more attention than they deserve on the talking dog theory. That is, it’s amazing they can do it at all.

  17. Liz permalink
    August 25, 2010 1:27 pm

    I can never understand why writers of bestselling popular fiction complain about not being reviewed by The New York Times. They get the benefits of success without the merciless slaying that Kakutani would treat them to.

    I think, however, that Weiner’s and Picoult’s gripes resonate because women writers–and to some extent, women readers–still feel like the second sex of fiction. Nick Hornby is read as fiction for everyone and reviewed in newspapers and appears on Fresh Air. Jennifer Weiner, whose books are no more sappy or middlebrow than Hornby’s, is assumed to have an audience of women only. And perhaps as a result, she does.

    So while I don’t think the gripes of popular women writers will earn them the respect of literary critics, I do get a certain “you go, girl” pleasure out of following the argument. I went to a girl’s high school that only featured two works of fiction by women (out of perhaps thirty) on the English syllabus. For years I listened to Norman Mailer make the rounds of talk shows and rank himself at the top of his list of the most important writers of his generation…a list that never included a woman’s name. (Never heard a host or critic hoot in his face, either.) I shrugged off the statistics that women read books by both sexes while men favor works by men. Then one day I turned to my husband and asked if he had ever read a novel written by a woman. “No, never,” he said. And he seemed puzzled that I would even ask the question.

    • August 25, 2010 1:31 pm

      As an English major in the 1970s, I can tell you that I read just as many women writers as men, and the same went for my graduate work, whether it was a novel class or poetry. I don’t think I was an exception.

      • Liz permalink
        August 25, 2010 2:03 pm

        I agree, my school was exceptionally backward. And so was I. I didn’t wonder at this lopsidedness for years.

      • Carolina permalink
        August 25, 2010 2:16 pm

        But what about now? I don’t think Liz is talking about the authors that one has to read for school, but the ones men chose to read. There, the preference (prejudice?) is clear – and it starts early, as Joanne Rowling learned before publishing a little book called Harry Potter:

        “Joanne Rowling was re-christened JK Rowling. Christopher Little had discovered that boys were unlikely to read a book written by a girl and so pushed for Bloomsbury to use the ambiguous initials in order to attract both sexes.”

        (Excerpt from: http://news.scotsman.com/jkrowlingharrypotter/The-JK-Rowling-story.2436228.jp)

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      August 25, 2010 10:38 pm

      Liz: Then you missed the episode of The Dick Cavett Show in which Cavett asked Mailer if he needed another chair for his ego. And your husband notwithstanding, the problem with men is not that they don’t read novels by women. It’s that they don’t read novels.

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        August 25, 2010 10:40 pm

        And I am not saying there is no sexism in contemporary publishing, only that it’s not the primary factor in this particular hullabaloo.

  18. August 25, 2010 1:55 pm

    P.S. to Carolina:

    Was the origin of “chick lit” offensive? No argument there. I don’t define books as chick lit myself, but if a book of mine could be marketed as chick lit, I would embrace the label wholeheartedly–it targets the audience, it focuses book sellers, it makes a huge difference in sales and publicity.

  19. August 25, 2010 2:18 pm

    Jodi Picoult doesn’t write chick lit. Not all commercial fiction written by women (or “ladies,” as you say) is chick lit.

    Or did you mislabel it that purposely, to be facetious? If so: OOH, BURN!!! YOU CALLED HER WRITING CHICK LIT! YEAH, BRO!!!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      August 25, 2010 10:43 pm

      Shhh! You’ll give my game away! Let me say, in a whisper, that there’s nothing wrong with chick lit. Any genre that gives people pleasure is okay with me, even if it’s not to my taste. Besides, it’s a catchy if not to say sexy term that doubtless helps sell books. Instead of bristling at the chick lit label, why not wear it proudly, for petra’s sake?

  20. August 25, 2010 9:02 pm

    Chauncey, what have you done?!!!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      August 25, 2010 9:38 pm

      Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!

  21. August 26, 2010 1:31 pm

    Why not change the term from “chick lit” to “chic lit?” That way it reflects the genre without offending.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      August 26, 2010 4:33 pm

      Wellll. I’d prefer its practitioners embrace the term “chick lit” and wear it proudly.

  22. August 26, 2010 6:44 pm

    I disagree that that the authors are inaccurately crying sexism. I went to Publishers Marketplace which tracks all the major newspaper book reviews each week. For the week of August 16-22, there were 64 reviews. Nineteen were books written by women. I track these reviews regularly and there’s nothing atypical about those statistics. Considering that women purchase seventy percent of books,there’s a clear bias at work here.
    For more stats:http://girlfriendbooks.blogspot.com/2010/08/jonathan-franzen-and-other-darlings-in.html

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 17, 2010 2:11 pm

      Women purchase seventy percent of books, true. They also dominate publishing and are well represented among reviewers and editors of book reviews. Three of the five judges for this year’s Man Booker Prize are women — and yet four of the six finalists are by men.

      So who exactly is the cause of this problem…?

  23. August 29, 2010 7:14 pm

    I agree with everything in this column, which may be an indication of why we’ve been friends for 25 years. As for “chick lit,” when did we get so dewy-eyed? Just as Picoult and company knew what road they were traveling when they latched onto those best-selling formulas that garner them fame, fortune, and movie contracts, writers of “chick lit” know that they are writing smart, sexy, contemporary fiction aimed at (mostly young) women. Although it is not what I write, I don’t think I’d bristle at the label if I did write it, and if I wanted to avoid the label, then I’d write something else. (Believe me, it’s worse when they can’t find a category for you.) Women probably do get less attention from reviewers as Karen points out and that is a problem, but as my publisher recently noted it usually doesn’t mean that much when it comes to sales . . .

  24. August 29, 2010 9:46 pm

    If Karen’s stats are correct and women reviewed so much less than men, then that’s a strong indication that sexism is at play.
    If a woman’s excellent novel about family angst is labeled “chick lit” or “women’s fiction” and due to that label is dismissed without a review, or, worse yet, given a bad review, and a man’s excellent novel about family angst is labeled “literary” and glowingly reviewed everywhere, then that’s sexism at play.
    I don’t think this is about bestseller status, since Weiner, Picoult, and Franzen have all attained that in their careers. This is about power, status and review space.
    If we recognize that women are reviewed less, as Pat states, then why not ask those who do the reviews to balance it out a bit? How else will that problem be solved? I’m new to this industry, and I’m a genre writer, but seems an easy fix to me. Sprinkle a few in here and there and call it a day.

Trackbacks

  1. The whole Jodi Picoult, Jennifer Weiner, NYT Franzenparty thing « Pew Pew Crash Crash
  2. Resentment and Missing the Point « Everyday Curiosities
  3. Most readers are women, yet female writers still dominated by men. « Open Page
  4. ‘Hogwarts would be an absolute hive of sodomy’ — Lev Grossman. « Open Page
  5. What the hell is “domestic fiction”? « Conspiring to Destroy the Family

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