There has always been a segment of the population that does not like it when intelligent artistic work gets praise. These people cry foul when an Academy Award goes to a well-crafted film with limited distribution instead of the latest Hollywood blockbuster, they moan when magazines cover innovative indie musicians instead of the most recent Nickelback CD, and you better believe they can’t stand it when that elitist literary fiction gets awards and coverage that should be reserved for books that people are “actually reading.”
Somehow it isn’t enough that we are inundated with mass culture work—that the subways are plastered with ads for the latest formulaic thriller or romance, that Hollywood blockbuster trailers play non-stop on TV, that corporate record labels get their artists constant rotation on the radio—or that such work, as its fans and creators are always quick to point out, makes the most money 99% of the time. We also need Michael Bay winning Oscars, Twilight getting the Pulitzer, Justin Bieber and Katy Perry reviewed in favor of Big Boi or Animal Collective, and probably McDonald’s being reviewed by NYT food critics instead of whatever new Keith McNally restaurant has opened. After all, McDonald’s is where people are “actually eating.”
Okay, maybe I’m being overly snarky. But this impulse has always seemed silly to me. It is not the job of critics or awards to simply reaffirm the bestseller, boxoffice, and Billboard lists. Quite the contrary, isn’t it their job to seek out the work that isn’t getting the attention it deserves? Isn’t it a public service, really, to highlight work that doesn’t have the marketing behind it?
The most recent recent literary version of this backlash is occurring over Jonathan Franzen’s new novel Freedom. Lorin Stein, the new editor of The Paris Review, discusses it over at The Atlantic. One part of this backlash that stood out to me was the Twitterstorm caused by commercial authors Jodi Picoult. She first tweeted:
NYT raved about Franzen’s new book. Is anyone shocked? Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren’t white male literary darlings.
Later she bashed the NYT’s coverage of Jonathan Lethem and told The NYTPicker that your odds are much greater of getting a good review in the NYT if you are white and male and live in Brooklyn. (The Picker points out that Lethem’s last book was panned in the Times and Franzen lives in Manhattan.) Later still, Picoult and another commerical author, Jennifer Weiner (who takes a swipe at Gary Shteyngart’s book sales and then assures us sarcastically that she was “going to weep into my royalty check“), were interviewed by The Huffington Post about the “controversy.”
Issues of sexism in the literary world are complex, and I would not dismiss them out of hand. They certainly exist. However, it is disappointing that neither author actually took the time to quickly Google recent NYT reviews to see if the coverage was really as lopsided as they claim. Shouldn’t you bother to do a little research if you are going to make these kinds of claims? When confronted with counter-evidence in various venues, Picoult took the weak way out by declaring her statement on the statistical bias of the NYT was merely her “opinion.”
As far as who gets positive reviews, one NYTPicker commentator points out:
The 10 authors who were given “Best Book” by the NYTimes the last two years are: Steven Millhauser, Toni Morrison, Joseph O’Neill, Roberto Bolano, Jhumpa Lahiri, Maile Meloy, Jonathan Lethem, Lorrie Moore, Jeannette Walls, and Kate Walbert. That’s 6 women (4 white, 1 african-american, 1 indian-american), 3 white guys, and 1 latino author
However, it quickly became clear that the the real issue was not sexism or racism (both of these authors are white), but that literary writing gets more coverage than commercial fiction in venues like the New York Times. Picoult: “The NYT has long made it clear that they value literary fiction and disdain commercial fiction – and they disparage it regardless of race or gender of the author.”
Now, again, I do think there are issues of sexism in publishing and I do think there is truth to the idea that awful macho fiction is more likely to be reviewed than awful “chick-lit” fiction (TFT writer Anya Yurchyshyn discussed some of this rencently). They do have a point there. However, the claim I wanted to focus on is the following one made by Picoult in The Huffington Post:
Why do you feel that it is important that commercial fiction receive critical attention?
Picoult: Because historically 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.
This argument is made frequently whenever some debate descends into a squabble about highbrow vs. lowbrow or literary vs. genre. Indeed, Shakespeare is almost always used. Dickens and Austen are frequently as well. The argument seems either highly disingenuous or very ignorant.
We have to begin by acknowledging that the kind of distinction between literary and commercial writing can’t really be placed on writers from past centuries. For one thing, widespread illiteracy and other factors pretty much made most writing unavailable to the masses. The schism didn’t exist in the way it does now. Even still, to suggest that Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays or Jane Austen’s novels were popular commercial fiction panned by critics and literary elites but loved by the masses who were later vindicated as they became canonical is willfully inaccurate.
Shakespeare’s company was not called Lord Chamberlain’s Men (and later the King’s Men) as some kind of ironic hipster title. They were literally the actors for the Lord Chamberlain and later King James. They entertained the courts and royalty. Shakespeare’s company was about as elite as one can get back them—some jokes for the groundings doesn’t change that. Shakespeare’s plays were performed in a theater in London (the 17th century English equivalent of Brooklyn?). His plays were not the most popular amongst the people and his kind of theater itself was closer to a literary novel back then than the more populist mass entertainment, which was something like having chained bears be torn apart by dogs. Shakespeare also had a great reputation amongst his peers and critics. His contemporary Ben Johnson said, “He was not of an age, but for all time.” It was critics and “literary elites” who published his plays and kept his work alive until they became a part of our culture.
Jane Austen is an even worse example. She was decidedly not a popular writer in her lifetime and, as Wikipedia puts it, “through the mid-nineteenth century, her novels were admired mainly by members of the literary elite.”
Dickens might be closer, as he was a popular novelist amongst those who read novels, but he was still not the 19th century equivalent of an airport novelist anymore than Mozart was the Hannah Montana of 18th century Vienna. What is most popular in an era is actually rarely what endures through the generations. We think of Faulkner or Woolf or Austen or Shakespeare as the authors of their eras and times only because all of the more popular authors have been lost to history. We don’t remember them. We remember The Great Gatsby, not the books that actually populated the bestseller lists of the 1920s. Likewise, it is unlikely that in 100 years it will be Limp Bizkit and Transformers 2 that have endured ” in our culture and in our memories and our hearts.”
Lastly, it is incorrect and a bit insulting to act like literary authors are never popular and that they never write what the masses can enjoy. Franzen’s The Corrections sold several million copies and Jonathan Lethem is famous for mixing popular genres together (detective fiction, sci-fi, westerns, etc.) in exciting ways. These two authors, who Picoult singles out, are hardly the archetypes of elitist unreadable experimental fiction, or whatever strawman she wants to evoke with her handful of sour grapes.