This week, there was a flare-up in the ongoing battle between Jodi Picoult & Jennifer Weiner and people who can actually write. It came from an interview Jeffery Eugenides gave in which he pretty much dismissed it out of hand. I have something to say about all this nonsense, but let’s start with what has already been pointed out in various outlets:
1. Yes, most of the major publications that review books review more men than women. This is a problem. Any author, male or female, is correct when they point out the inequity of this situation.
2. Yes, crappy male writers are sometimes criticized differently than crappy female writers. I saw it pointed out, for instance, that Stephanie Meyer and Stieg Larrson are both really crappy writers, but many people took Larrson seriously whereas no one (other than foolish teenagers) takes Meyer seriously. This kind of thing is unfortunate and anyone pointing out the inequity of this has a valid point.
However, the people waging this war (mostly, from what I’ve seen, Picoult and Weiner) are going about it the wrong way. They keep comparing themselves to Eugenides and Franzen and this is not a valid comparison. Jennifer Egan, Dana Spiotta, these are women who have a right to complain about the press Franzen and Eugenides get. These are women who have a right to say, “Hey, I deserve the coverage you’re getting. I deserve the reviews you’re getting.” Why? Because these women can actually write.
What has been lost in much of this authorial in-fighting is the conflating of commercial and literary fiction. They are not the same.
Commercial fiction is all about plot. Often, that plot is formulaic. The characters are certainly of the stock variety (the dissatisfied housewife, the the brooding genius). Its primary purpose is to distract the reader for the time it takes to read a few hundred pages, offer a tidy little ending, and then be forgotten.
Literary fiction is concerned with plot, of course, but more importantly, it is focused on character and theme. Literary fiction tries to get down to the bones of human nature. It often leaves us with messy ending where little, if anything, is resolved. Its purpose is to ask questions. Its purpose is to touch the reader deeply and to stick with the reader for days, weeks, months, or even years after the initial reading.
Which is why the comparison Weiner and Picoult keep trying to make is ridiculous. They are similar to Franzen and Eugenides only in that they both deal with the printed word. A more valid comparison would be to John Grisham or Stieg Larrson or Dan Brown (indeed, both Weiner and Picoult would have something if they were to protest the seriousness with which Dan Brown and his genre are treated as compared to their own genre). Then we could actually have a discussion about the role an author’s gender plays in the attention and acclaim given to their books. Instead, we end up with a bunch of very good writers wondering why the hell these manufacturers of pulp are making a totally irrelevant comparison.
Commercial fiction is not great art. It’s bubblegum. Bubblegum is fine, but there’s a reason we wouldn’t pay attention to someone claiming bubblegum should be given the same praise as a meal at a fine French restaurant. There are lots of important discussions to be had and much progress to be made regarding gender in publishing. However, until some of the people involved stop insisting what they do is deserving of as much time and attention as truly great art, it’s hard to imagine much of anything happening.