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