Fat Books & Thin Women


One of these things is not like the other

One of the effects of being in the Peace Corps is a steady mental decline leading me to read books that I would not have glanced at in the states, or would not have owned up to reading if I had. John Grisham, Stephen King, Jennifer Weiner, Elizabeth George, Rick Riordan, have all made a steady creep onto my bookshelf, with the effect being that my appreciation for what they do has grown immeasurably.* Because even though Stephen King did that one book in which everyone’s teeth fall out, leading me to have a nightmare that one of the other volunteers here lost all but one of her front teeth, and which led to a few unnerving incidents around these parts given the number of people missing several or a mouthful of teeth, and even though all of John Grisham’s books end with a lawyer deciding he doesn’t want to be a lawyer and driving off into the sunset, these guys are all pretty good at what they do. Which is writing books that may not make a great artistic statement, but attract and entertain readers.

Of course, Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult have brought this up recently, because of the New York Times’s penchant for reviewing white, male authors from Brooklyn, rather than books they’ve written. But to me – and this has nothing to do with Weiner and Picoult being women, or writing “chick lit” or not being from Brooklyn – it seems obvious that the Times and similar papers wouldn’t review their books. It may be an unclear line, but there is a line between commercial and literary fiction. If commercial fiction is written mainly for entertainment rather than artistic reasons, I don’t see the need to review it; book reviews do, after all, focus heavily on the artistic aspects of a work of fiction. To review a John Grisham novel seems just as strange to me as to review a Jodi Picoult one. Readers are coming to these books because they want a certain type of entertainment.** No one needs a book review to tell them that Jennifer Weiner has written another novel about a woman finding herself and/or romance, or that Stephen King has written another horror novel. We all know anyway.

The claim that the Times tends overwhelmingly to review white male authors may have merit, but it seems that no one so far has had the energy to dig up these numbers. The claim that all these young white male authors are from Brooklyn throws me off a bit, as it’s a statement that has no basis in actual fact, and rather stinks of someone looking in at the “cool” kids, forever left on the outside.*** And I get this whole sense of there being a certain literary style right now that has maybe gone too far – involving a few too many ex-hipsters, a few too many MFA degrees, and too many doubled reviews in both the Times’s Sunday Book section and the regular old Times.

When Jennifer Weiner says, “when a man writes about family and feelings, it’s literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it’s romance, or a beach book – in short, it’s something unworthy of a serious critic’s attention”, though, I want to know just what she’s talking about. Because I’m not sure I can go with this blanket statement, that all critics apply such standards to all women writers. Rather, the sense of the whole HuffPo piece seems to be “My books aren’t getting reviewed, the topics I write about aren’t taken seriously, but I am going to couch these complaints in such a manner that I can speak for all female authors.” Certain complaints, like that the Times reviews far more mysteries or horror novels than chick lit, have merit, but again – why is a paper that has so little space for book reviews reviewing books that don’t have a whole lot of artistic merit to begin with?

I’m not dismissing the value of these books, because I really, really, really do like some of them. But why do we have to apply a kind of false equality to everything in our lives, including what we read? A Jonathan Franzen novel and a Nick Hornby novel are not the same things, so why should they be treated in the same manner? In most worlds, for most authors of “literary” fiction, there isn’t going to be any commercial success; why not throw them the review pages so they can draw some slight pleasure from their royalty-free lives? And if an author is located prominently on the bestseller lists each year when her new novel comes out, why cry foul when newspapers don’t review those books? Your average reader can tell the difference between a piece of literary and commercial fiction, and it seems that all that’s left is for the authors to accept that they may not have achieved the artistic greatness they dream of, but that they are good enough at what they do that a Michiko Kakutani review, in their minds, lacks the value of one million hardback copies sold.****

* I want to say, “my appreciation has grown ten-fold!” but I think my feelings about these authors started at around zero, thus rendering such a statement meaningless. (This is not meant as a statement of my superiority or some such thing, but more to say…I can’t believe it took me so long to read The Time Traveler’s Wife or Jennifer Weiner, who has gotten an obscene amount of coverage in the Philadelphia papers my whole life as a result of, you know, being from Philadelphia. [And does that seem entirely fair? Philadelphia is always so proud of its own that our book coverage is a little odd.])

** When I read a John Grisham novel, I expect to read about a young lawyer who will become tangled up with some scurrilous crowd or have some other such adventures, and who at end will decide not to be a lawyer, thus reinforcing my plans to not attend law school.

*** Brooklynites do have this air about them, which is one reason I prefer Philadelphia, City of Brotherly Love. At least everyone there knows they are kind of lame…unless they are Brooklyn transplants seeking cheaper rent.

**** Rather than being remaindered, the fate of the books of many of those maligned white, male, Brooklyn-based authors.

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