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Saturday, September 04, 2010

Egalitarian Bookwormism: A #Franzenfreude Manifesto

"Male genius has far outnumbered female genius in the history of literature, and it shouldn't be a crime to say so. This issue will die when women produce more and more work of indisputable genius and, until then, we need to stop championing mediocre female work out of defensiveness, stop firing spitballs at male work and stop dissolving the line between high art and pop art.”
-A young female member of the literati in response to Franzenfreude.

Ugh. This kind of thing annoys me so much. Franzenfreude has gotten me thinking a lot about why I read and why in recent years I've been so angry about the hierarchy imposed by "literary fiction" on other genres, and the way it's connected to sexism. (Male genius has outnumbered female genius? REELY? Has someone not read her feminist lit-crit or a little book about how ladies kinda need rooms of their own to get scribbling?)

I started this blog a long time ago to discuss my love of literature in a snob-free context--thus its original "unpretentious lit crit" URL. I did this because I was ashamed of my own previous closed-mindedness, the way I'd wrinkled my nose as a late-adolescent when I saw movie tie-in paperbacks on people's coffee tables. But as I, needing books to read during difficult times or long trips, started reading said paperbacks more and more I realized that popular commercial fiction brings us back to reading the way we read as kids--ravenously, emotionally, viscerally. It's a beautiful thing, and it's important and great to mix that reading with the kind that elevates your mind as you parse its complex symbols and sentences. And really, who's to say what's "better"? In our tech-heavy, politically disastrous day and age, emotional engagement may be a truer antidote to what ails us.

I just snarfed my way through 'The Hunger Games" trilogy and I'd say it was probably the most profound reading experience I've had in at least a year, besides re-reading Emma and Dubliners. It was a one-note YA series that the Slate book club is currently analyzing and denigrating at the same time, but I'm unashamed to admit how much I loved it and how sophisticated I thought its treatment of its themes was.

That's why I'm so obsessed with Jennifer Weiner's crusade. The line between high art and pop art won't be dissolved, but who cares if it is? It's meaningless. Of course some writers are more clever, smart, talented, more ambitious in their stories, in their sentences than others. A canon-lover like me would never deny that one George Eliot is worth a thousand whoevers. But you know what? Sometimes "literary" writers have more exciting plots than their pop counterparts, and sometimes pop writers make you think about contemporary society more than their literary counterparts. Sometimes genre writers use the conventions of their form like a sonnet and make magic that's utterly original--while a lot of the lit-fic I review for Publishers Weekly feels like it was cranked out in a factory (not that it isn't usually good, but there's a sameness to it). It's pure insecurity on the part of the literati to police their borders so assiduously--why not just get good writing to speak for itself?

Yes, there's a good thought. Let's ask a bunch of questions beginning with "why". Why can't we admit that Bronte heroes get us hot under the collar and we enjoy the fart jokes in Joyce and Shakespeare even as we respect their genius? Why do so many adults who read Harry Potter have to qualify that love with some sort of snipe at Rowling's prose style? Why don't we celebrate writers who are keeping our dying written medium alive by connecting deeply with thousands of readers? After all, they're the ones who allow cutting-edge literary experimentation to happen by bringing in profits. And why do these discussions about high art and low art always smack of sexism? Franzen gets more respect than his literary female equivalents who write in similarly highbrow manners. For-profit churners-out like James Patterson get grudging respect and NYTimes Magazine cover stories. Would they do that for Danielle Steele? Me thinks not. And yet there's nooo connection between the two phenomena.

But all this consternation has made me glad that I found VCFA, where writers of speculative, realistic, literary genre and in-between fiction all learn to do the same thing together: engage the reader, stay in scene, write compellingly from the sentence through the plot arc. And I'm glad, although I neglect it often, that I have this blog--and I have you, dear readers, who share my taste and my opinions. So thank you!

And now I'm off to immerse myself in an epic, stream-of-consciousness novel in translation about the Holocaust, a review of which was due yesterday. Happy labor day and may the Egalitarian Bookworm spirit be with you.

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  1. I love this post! It speaks to so much of what I've been thinking about this whole fracas. I love my classics and my lit-fic, but I can't deny that there are times when I want something a bit "poppy." Different books engage me in different ways--but that doesn't make any of them any less engaging.

    I posted a bit of a ramble focusing on the gender angle last week, when I really intended to write about the uselessness of the literary/commercial divide, which I may end up taking on tomorrow, although I don't know that I could add much to what you've said so well!

    I do think that it's perhaps a shame that Picoult/Weiner chose Franzen-mania as their target, not because I think Franzen is great, but because their gender-based argument would be stronger if they focused on writers more like themselves, which Wiener eventually got to in the Slate interview. For the same reason, I was glad to see Lionel Shriver weighing in.

  2. Thanks for this pitch-perfect capture of the issue. I'm tired of the issue devolving into a "oh, but Franzen is so much better than Picoult/Weiner"--as though that has anything to to with their original point.

    Apples to apples, oranges to oranges, women have to claw harder, just as do any non-White writers, to get review space and respect, and then there are the battles of what's truly 'worthy.' I am older, far older, than the young female literati and I don't have an MFA, but I read widely, I've recently published a novel, and I do this all with a clear memory of my job search being limited to the "females" section of the NYT.

    Women bring different experience to their narrative, not mediocrity.

  3. What a wonderful post! I followed the link from Shelf Love and am thrilled to have found your blog.

    I'm about to embark on a project of reading of all those Dead White Men that I never read when I was in school--so I've been thinking a lot about the links between debates about the canon and debates about gender and the reception of contemporary fiction. Your post give me some more to ponder.

  4. Anonymous11:24 AM

    "Male genius has outnumbered female genius? REELY? Has someone not read her feminist lit-crit or a little book about how ladies kinda need rooms of their own to get scribbling?"

    Sarah, the "Sorry, there are just more male geniuses" comment annoys me too, but there are definitely chicken/egg aspects to the issue that could lead the casual observer to conclude that it's true.

    The first is the bit that you hinted at: the "rooms of their own" concept is important, but if historically the *lack* of those spaces have kept women out of literary circles, the instances of "publicly visible genius" would definitely be tougher to find. It might be fair to say that the percentages of male and female genius writers are balanced -- perhaps even more genius female writers, given the hurdles for success that are necessary in the literary fiction world. Not nitpicking at your analysis, just reflecting on the complexity of the situation.

    The second issue -- and this is the elephant in the living room -- is what "Genius" means. If the definition of the word boils down to "serious topics that men write about" (and that's definitely how it's used by some), it's nothing more than a tautology. If someone only considers stereotypical "men's narratives" to be genius, it's no shock that there are more instances of "male genius."

  5. Of course that's true--the history books are more full of male geniuses, and as you say that's for two distinct reasons. The first is what constitutes genius has traditionally been determined by men, while the second is that women have been barred or discouraged from pursuing their genius. I completely agree with your nuanced analysis--my objection to the quote above it is lack of said analysis. It's really obnoxious--like saying there are more good writers of any ethnic or social background than another without considering the underlying context.

  6. great post. i have mixed feelings on this whole uproar (I'm drawn to it, but can't believe that I'm thinking about it at all). I don't see a lot of credit in the idea of reviewing books that are written for the bestseller list rather than as hopefuls for the future's canon...but even though i can't help drawing a distinction between 'commercial' and 'literary' fiction, as you point out, it's often genre writers turning out more exciting & valuable work than the mfa grads

  7. Nadia7:37 PM

    Hi, I think that all of this stuff really interests feminists and people fascinated by the literary/genre/commercial divides. The first thing that comes to mind is something I mentioned in an email to the author of this blog. The idea of wrongly blurring the lines between pop art and high art is interesting in today’s context. The lines are quite bold. Many commentators have noted that it’s very difficult for serious fiction to sell well today on a level that it hasn’t been in the past. There’s the notion of the great and popular nineteenth century novelist. Beyond that, The Grapes of Wrath was one of the top 10 sellers after it came out, being #1 in 1939. Ernest Hemingway had books that were among the year’s best sellers when he was alive, like For Whom the Bell Tolls. The Razor’s Edge was in the top 10. Lolita was #3 the year of its release. In contrast, consider these lists of the best novels of the decade and the best selling of the past fifteen years. Two books on the “best” list showed up towards at the lower rungs.
    While one could never conflate merit or critical esteem with commercial success, the differences are especially stark today.
    I have several doubts about the idea that we would focus on books that are going to make their way into canons as opposed to those designed to top sales charts and bring in the big bucks.
    Firstly, the fate of any particular work of art isn’t set in stone the moment people can access it. I was reading an interview with David Mitchell in The Paris Review. Mitchell wrote one of the books with the strongest support in the polls in the millions link, and Dave Eggers deemed that novel a modern classic in the New York Times Book Review . The interviewer asked him about being read two centuries from now, and he said that every writer hopes for that but seemed to think of it as a distant possibility. He mentioned that few nineteenth century critics would have predicted 21st century readerships for Little Women, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Alice in Wonderland, although they would have seen that for Anna Karenina or Lawrence Sterne’s stuff.
    Likewise, Emily Dickenson wasn’t known in her lifetime. Emily Bronte got weaker reviews than her sister when was alive, but today critics tend to like her work as well as if not better than Charlotte’s. Frankenstein didn’t get extraordinary reviews when it came out, but today it’s a pioneering work that embodies principles of romanticism. Critics’ darling Ian McEwan said of it: “Frankenstein is the great anti-rational novel. It’s such a marvelous novel. It’s very hard to write a novel as fine as that in praise of rationality.”
    Moreover, the experiences that people get out of reading those books still matter to them. Some have pointed out that critics exist hold to hold work accountable and inform consumers. They also entertain. These principles needn’t go to the way side for commercial fiction. Even though Twilight is a fun, escapist young adult series, readers still have certain expectations. Critics can inform them of whether the novels will rise to those expectations. Consider these reviews of Breaking Dawn.,,20217628,00.html
    All of them can inform readers of whether to look at these books and what to make of them for those with differing reactions. They also have wonderful entertaining phrases, and I found them fun to read. I know fellowette liked the first three but found BD disappointing as I did, and I think the EW and WP do a good job laying out why, and I enjoy seeing that.

  8. Anonymous10:15 AM

    The over abundance of male genius idea reminds me of a scene from "Persuasion" in which Captain Harville tells Anne Elliot that the poems and history books tell us again and again of the fickleness of a woman's heart. She then reminds him that all of those books that he is referring to were written by men.

    Just because it is easy to overlook the female contribution to literature - pop or high art- doesn't mean we should.

  9. Nadia7:52 PM

    I wanted to mention two articles by Meghan O'Rourke:
    I think the kind of novel freedom helped propel Franzen to his position.
    And on women's estimation: