Franzen, Weiner, and Nuance

From Flickr User Gerard Stolk
From Flickr User Gerard Stolk

I’ve been planning my triumphant return to blogging.

Since I’m done with grad school (for now), I theoretically have time for this again.

What I planned was this confessional about how I’ve been in a shitty mood and fuck the patriarchy.

But then I got sidetracked by Jonathan Franzen and Jennifer Weiner.

My writer friend, Beth Bates, pointed out this interview by another writer friend, Susan Lerner, with Jonathan Franzen.

Here’s the interview.

Read it. It’s great.

It also blew up the internet a little. You Go, Susan.

I’ve been noticing these past six months or so as a teacher and person-who-occasionally-reads-and-writes-emails-in-a-professional-setting and a person-who-has-relationships-with-other-people-that-sometimes-include-talking-about-important-shit, that people in general do not see nuance.

Roxane Gay, in her book Bad Feminist, agrees with me. I am obsessed with that book right now. It is saving and affirming my life.

But people are even less likely to be able to see and appreciate nuance if a situation is emotionally charged in any way.

I become a dreadful adherer to the divine principles of black and white when I am upset. We all do.

And therein lies some of the danger of the immediacy of internet publishing (tweeting, blogging, rocking out an essay for Slate, etc).

Discourse between Jennifer Weiner and Jonathan Franzen could be so interesting, complex, and helpful.

But because they both have the platform and freedom to reply in the heat of the moment, and because they are both super brainy people with big opinions, and because they genuinely rub each other wrong, they do a lot of name calling.

Jennifer Weiner’s not the only woman lobbying for equal representation for women in publishing.

Here’s a lovely piece by Meg Wolitzer, and another, from 1988, by Francine Prose that  could’ve been written last week. And let’s not forget VIDA in all its myriad glory.

Franzen is not the only grumpy white guy who is well respected in the world of letters.

You can find your own links for that–those dudes got enough of my time during my education.

It seems Jennifer Weiner is not the only thing Jonathan Franzen is grumpy about. He is irritated with social media. And lord knows what else.

But Jennifer Weiner is plenty grumpy about Jonathan Franzen, too. Read her rebuttal to the recent shit storm.

While punchy and entertaining, her remarks are defensive. She ignores the nuance. She sort of takes what JF said about her out of context. She writes as if he just randomly decided to say something else inflammatory about her.

That’s not really what happened. He was asked, specifically, about women writers and Jennifer Weiner. My girl Susan even mentioned VIDA.

Was he kind? No. Did he “slam” her? No. I don’t think so.

Something else he didn’t do? Slam all women writers.

I think he asked an important question, “Do we want Jennifer Weiner to be the spokesperson for equal representation of women’s writing?” to which I would add the following questions:

  • Why aren’t there many male spokespeople on this topic?
  • How is it not clear that crime novels and romance novels and other commercial novels have the same value as each other, and if some are reviewable, well damnit, so are they all?
  • Why does Jonathan Franzen get to ignore the fact that there are other spokeswomen on this topic, some of whom I’m sure he’s actually read? Some of whom probably also have a fraught relationship with Twitter!

These are important questions, all of them, and even though he’s a blowhard some of the time, Jonathan Franzen would be interested discuss. So would Jennifer Weiner.

Jonathan Franzen actually said *this is an important issue.* And the problem with the idea of Jennifer Weiner being perceived as The Spokesperson is that a) she is not, and b) she is not the only kind of woman writer. There are lots of us.

The bigger problem, as I see it, is that Jonathan Franzen (and many other white male writers) are able to live in a world of total ignorance of this conversation.

They just don’t know how many of us women writers are speaking out–on twitter, on our blogs, as teachers at universities, as public figures, sharing the VIDA count link every year, getting together with our lady writer friends and guzzling wine and talking talking talking about this very shit.

They don’t know because they don’t have to, because the stakes are very very low for them.

But who wants to pay attention to a conversation full of name calling, especially if they are on the long end of the privilege stick?

I like Jennifer Weiner. I heard her speak, shook her hand. She is funny and warm. I would have coffee with her without thinking twice. I bought one of her books for my mom for Xmas. New.

But these two are publicly quibbling over a VERY IMPORTANT ISSUE, that I doubt, when the rubber hits the road, they differ on much at all.

Imagine if these two leveraged the breadth variety of their audiences to raise awareness and !Action! on this issue? Weiner’s already made strides.

I think that Franzen must be ignoring information that is certainly at his disposal, since he claims “[Jennifer Weiner makes] no case for why formulaic fiction ought to be reviewed in the New York Times.

The thing people have seized about that statement is, “Jennifer Weiner makes no case.” (she does, it’s in her rebuttal)

I haven’t read anything that notes how Franzen’s got the wrong stick here. Nuance, anyone?

NY Times Book Review lets you search all reviews since 1981. I typed in Stephen King , got numerous hits of reviews both by him and of his books on the first page. Then I typed in the less-famous-and-way-less-notoriously-tight-with-the-intellectual-lefties, John Grisham, and the same.

Just for funzies, I typed in Anne Rice and got two articles. One from 2014, a year after Times Books’s controversial hiring of a female Editor Pamela Paul, and another, on the second page of results, from 2008. (I also found the review of Weiner’s most recent).

But Franzen says something else, too, in that interview. Something surprising. Something I think Jennifer Weiner would have to wholeheartedly agree with. He says what people read doesn’t have to be emotionally complex, that adults reading YA Fiction aren’t doing anything wrong, even though other Grumpy White Dudes think so.

I think Franzen would have to agree that fiction on par with Jodi Picoult, Jennifer Weiner, and Stephen King, is the same kind of delicious, ready escapism.

And some other day I will write about the problem that almost everyone mentioned in this little blog post is white.

So let’s all unbunch our panties, boxers, or dingleberries, shall we, and have an actual conversation. Let’s ask honest questions and discuss them after taking a break to scream, privately, into our pillows, about how much of an arrogant prick the question asker is, or what an entitled c-word.

Wanna?

Do Literary Authors Need a Social Media Support Group?

from flickr.com user pedrosimoses7

Whenever I am not sure where to take my blog post for the day, I spend a few minutes with Twitter before getting out of bed.

This is one of the many things on my smartphone that make my job as a writer better, easier, or more efficient.  This morning, my friend and former teacher Cathy Day tweeted about her female #amnoveling students being pissed about some things that were pointed out by a particular op-ed by Meg Wolitzer about women literary fiction writers, and differences between the ways books by men and women are publicized.

So of course, I Googled that shit right up.

And of course, it’s not shit at all.

It’s a beautiful essay.  It’s a thing I love about the New York Times (And the L.A. Times), the writing is just gorgeous.  There seems to be a pervasive notion among the newspaper set that the writing does not have to be good, it has to be fast.  But it’s nice about the digital age: the writing can be.  The web gives us our poorly-written, instantaneous news, and in the print media we can slow down a bit.  Thanks, New York Times (and L.A. Times) for understanding that.

And as I read the beautiful piece that talks about literary fiction like it’s something people talk about, I got sad, because it’s true that in the literary fiction world, it does seem like people are talking about it.  But even Jonathan Franzen’s popularity is nothing next to, say, Neil Gaiman’s or Stephen King’s or Norah Roberts’s or J.K. Rowling’s.

I was talking to Sari Wilson at The Wildcat Comic Con about how Literary Fiction is sort of atomized or ghettoized, and that there are all kinds of irritating preconceptions about it that are moshing around in the mass market.  Sari Wilson, though also an educational writer and collaborator with her partner Josh Neufeld, who is a graphic novel artist and author, is a literary writer herself.

So I offer that the unceremonious labeling of literary fiction by women as “women’s fiction” is probably the action of someone who’s noticed this odd ghetto and wondered, from a book-sales (not academic) standpoint, what could be done about it.

Enter the clumsy semantic.

And Wolitzer observes, rightly, that it’s problematic.  But she also acknowledges that women are the biggest consumers of fiction (all types), and that “as readers they are attentive and passionate.”  My friends who write romances experience this generosity. Plus, they are superstars.  Everyone in their world knows them.

But you know what about commercial fiction writers?  Something HUGE that’s different from literary writers?  They give back (to their fans).  I’m not talking about giving readings at colleges and signing books or answering questions after, showing up at AWP (though the commercial fiction writers I know do that, too, only with a different conference).  I’m talking about blogs–they do blog tours about their books, blog about their processes, their offices, their characters–they are active on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, etc.

I’ve linked to this piece from Justine Musk a million times, but she really says it eloquently.  She says that the world of publishing and marketing and authorship has changed, and that fans want to be able to connect with authors, online, immediately, without having to go somewhere or be a student.  Even readers of literary fiction.

It’s true that commercial fiction authors don’t often have mountains of undergraduate papers about killing the first buck to read, but they do often have other careers, children, partners, homes.  And oh yeah: book deals.  They’ve promised a publisher they can write four of them.  In eighteen months.

Of course, writing literary fiction is totally different from writing commercial fiction in terms of time.  Language does not make itself beautiful, and conflicts do not complicate or render themselves, and characters do not deepen without major intervention.   Probably the average literary fiction novel is about two to five years in gestation.

What’s the deal?

The thing that defines what you think about the literary fiction world is where you sit in relation to it.  If you are within it, there is nothing more important, even though the reading audience of literary fiction is much smaller than that of mainstream (or commercial or genre or whatever you will call it) fiction.  I can’t find any hard numbers on this, but go to a book store, and compare the number of genre labeled shelves with the contemporary fiction shelf and you’ll see how it just can’t not be true.

But if you’re outside of lit fic, there’s nothing less important.  It’s like this fuzzy blurb of hoity toity on the periphery of culture that the Amazon Bestseller list ignores, that the New York Times has a special bestseller list for, and that’s slowly getting smaller or getting absconded with by other genres.

For example, I read “Some Zombie Contingency Plans” by Kelly Link in an anthology of Zombie stories, fully expecting the poor writerly discipline I’ve grown accustomed to in commercial fiction, and was pleasantly surprised.  I can see it anthologized like “Trauma Plate,” by Adam Johnson, because it’s doing a similar sort of cultural commentary thing.  It’s asking why we value what we do, and when stuff is important, and maybe it’s even indicting the way we handle the mentally ill.

I wonder how many other little anecdotal literary stories and novels have been absorbed by the mainstream, that nobody in the literary world even knows about.  In my experience, the literary world is incredibly insular.  It, like its mainstream counterpart, posseses a great number of biases and misconceptions toward the mainstream literary world.

So we have a genre which is itself other, within which women’s fiction is acknowledged to be equal but is still other, and we wonder why people look poorly upon the academy which–as my friend Carolyn points out in the comments of my post about MFA vs. PhD–does within itself that which it proclaims to abhor.

I’m still concerned about literary fiction and I still think that something needs to be done to make it more visible to more people.  But what I’m starting to think, as I read and study this topic is that–while marketing and publicity efforts would surely help, literary fiction authors need to help themselves.

Like Cathy Day and probably a small number of other literary authors have done, they need to figure out Twitter and Facebook and Blogging and build themselves a platform.  I suspect that if they build it, their fans will find it.  And that will happen without additional effort.

But somebody needs to figure out how to put it in terms that are adequately academic such that they take notice and actually do it.  Jane Friedman’s blog is going a long way toward this end, but I don’t know if a blog is the medium that can get through to enough literary authors.

Maybe that’s the scholarly thing I’ll do for my MFA:  Social Media for Very Brainy People Who’ve Written Beautiful Books and Are Perfectionists And Who Think Social Media Will Ruin Their Lives (and It Might, but More People Will Read Their Books).