I’ll Weep Into My Royalty Statement
There has been some controversy in the literary world recently concerning the accusations of sexism and the differentiation of serious literature from popular literature. The elitist literary establishment would have us all believe that the only quality writers are white males with MFAs. Their books, by necessity, sell few copies, because the discerning public is a small portion of the public. That’s the theory, anyway.
What prompted the outrage is all the attention paid recently to two books that received heavy coverage in The New York Times. The Times has devoted unusual space to effusive reviews of two books, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen and Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart. Jennifer Weiner, a “chick lit” author that I admire, tweeted, “In summation: NYT sexist, unfair, loves Gary Shteyngart, hates chick lit, ignores romance. And now, to go weep into my royalty statement.”
Weiner’s theory is that when women write about love and family and relationships, then it’s called “chick lit,” and when a man writes about the same things it’s Literary Fiction, destined for a shelf in the classics section. It’s a pretty fair criticism. The literature that’s supposed to be taken seriously, according to the critics, is more often than not, written by men. And hardly anyone reads it.
The funny thing is that this is the opposite of how a “classic” of literature is born. The classics we think of nowadays are not the products of critical darlings but are the books that were preserved by virtue of their popularity. Charles Dickens was a popular writer. Ditto Edgar Allen Poe and Henry David Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Their books sold well, but no one accuses them of mediocrity just because more people enjoy reading their books. Just because a book is popular doesn’t necessarily mean that it automatically lacks any artistic merit.
Jennifer Weiner and another writer I admire, Jodi Picoult, who tends to write family dramas, came together for an interview on The Huffington Post to discuss the controversy of the allegation of sexism, along with how the literary world works in general. If you’re interested, then you should check out the conversation. They make some good observations.
I haven’t read either Freedom or Super Sad True Love Story, and both Franzen and Shteyngart are just trying to market their books as any writer would. Maybe they truly are that brilliant. Maybe both these guys would agree with Weiner and Picoult that sexism continues to reign in literary circles. I am providing a link to both the HuffPost article with Weiner and Picoult, as well as a link to a YouTube video that Shteyngart made as a “book trailer” to promote his latest novel. It’s pretty funny.
One thing I do know: In my opinion, not every critic’s darling is actually a good writer. It’s kind of like the emperor’s clothes. One foggy old white man says some other well-educated white man is a great writer, and everyone follows suit. For example, I don’t really enjoy Saul Bellow, John Updike, or William S. Burroughs. I respect that other people really, really get them. But they do not appeal to me at all. Burroughs, in particular, is abstract and unrelatable. I suspect that you have to actually be stoned on heroin while reading him to appreciate him fully. I’d much rather read Jennifer Weiner.