Friday, October 8, 2010

Literary vs. Commercial Fiction (and Franzenfreude?)

Freedom: A Novel (Oprah's Book Club)
Good in Bed
Handle with Care: A NovelThe Handmaid's Tale (Everyman's Library)
I’ll admit upfront that I am a literary snob and I consider literary fiction to be a superior art form than commercial fiction. Literary fiction requires more skill, time and attention to be written correctly. Commercial fiction, although potentially more plot-driven and entertaining, does not require the same kind of skill and language precision. If the book reviewers at the New York Times prefer to review only literary fiction, I commend them. Commercial fiction already gets a lot of publicity and word-of-mouth attention because they are easier reads and much less complex than literary fiction so more people from the general population read them. Literary fiction deserves critics’ attention and it angers me to hear that some commercial fiction writers want more attention placed on them.

I might take Picoult and Weiner’s argument more seriously if it was Margaret Atwood and Zadie Smith stirring up the dust, or if they targeted writers similar to themselves like Nick Hornby or Nicholas Sparks. (However, if they had targeted Sparks or Hornby, I would still disagree with their argument because I think those two male authors are on the same plane as Picoult and Weiner and get equal publicity). Picoult and Weiner trying to take issue with Jonathan Franzen receiving awards and attention is like Britney Spears taking issue with Bob Dylan. They’re not even in the same category. Picoult asked how seriously a reader would take a critic who refused to acknowledge Katy Perry or Lady Gaga as musicians. I would answer that I’d take that critic even more seriously than others.

Maybe I’m just an anomaly, but most of the novels I read are by female literary fiction writers: Margaret Atwood, Zadie Smith, Maxine Hong Kingston, etc. I have spoken with many different writers, publishers and agents and I’ve never heard the argument that a woman couldn’t write the next great American novel or that female novelists are less valued than male novelists. And I most definitely disagree with the idea that “women end up writing less ambitious books” (O’Rourke).

O’Rourke also writes that “gender also shapes how we evaluate novels themselves.” I don’t really agree with this, but even if it is true for most readers, it shouldn’t be. A fiction writer’s background and demographics should have nothing to do with the reception of the writer’s novel or the novel’s literary merit. But I guess some writers would agree that their gender will affect their reception. JK Rowling, for example, uses her initials instead of her name because she didn’t want her gender to decrease her male readership.

I am surprised at the statistics of the 545 books reviewed between June 29, 2008 and August 27, 2010. Clearly, critics reviewed more books by men, but, as the articles point out, they don’t have the ratio between the total numbers of books published by men vs. women during that time period so I don’t know how seriously I would like to take these statistics.

With all of my experience as a creative writer, which has allowed me to interact with many other writers, editors and literary agents, I have never heard the argument that the work of female novelists is valued less than male novelists, and I have met and spoken with many feminist writers that I believe would have made it a point to mention these biases.

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