A Moment of Jen
THE NEXT BEST THING — In Stores July 3rd!

Saturday, August 28, 2010
posted by Jen at 8/28/2010 12:40:00 PM

I came up from the beach to find my mother glaring at me. In the same tone she uses to ask if I’ve left my flatiron plugged in and turned on again, she inquired, “Did you start a movement?”


She waved her Times at me accusingly “It says right here you started a movement. And the New York Times doesn’t lie.”

Well! I thought that what I started was a hashtag on Twitter, to take bemused note of the way the literary establishment overcovers its darling du jour.

I know I did an interview with Jason Pinter over on the Huffington Post. Now, it seems, #franzenfreude has become a movement, to which the Times has already devoted a pair of stories. Which means I’ve been mentioned twice in the Times! Legitimacy at last!

Ahem. Of course, the irony here is that stories about overcoverage still count as coverage. Four days before FREEDOM’s even available and the Times has already devoted two reviews, two news stories and two TBR columns to the opus.

That’s six stories four days before the book goes on sale…and everyone’s weighing in on whether it’s too much or not enough or if it matters at all, and who’s got a right to say so.

There was the Tweeter who sneered that my “desperate tweets” were the only way I’d ever be mentioned in the same sentences as an author of Franzen’s caliber (psst…it’s totally working!)

There was the affronted literary lady who says that if critics cover popular writers – you know, the ones who “churn out” books like butter and sell them in spots like Target -- then the less predictable, more refined authors won’t sell any of their books.

But wait – Chauncey Mabe of the Sun-Sentinel says book reviews aren’t even supposed to sell books! Literary fiction has never sold – yet book reviews must cover literary fiction as opposed to commercial fiction because it’s more important – "it just is.” (The fact that Mabe made his case on the Facebook page of Laura Lippman – a commecial writer – is either an act of astonishing bravery or of breathtaking cluelessness. I bet you can guess which way I’d vote).

I don’t want to talk about #franzenfreude forever – Jenny Crusie’s got a new book out next week, and I'm dying to talk about that -- but there are a few points I hope won’t get lost in the shuffle.

1. This isn’t about Franzen, or FREEDOM. I haven’t read the book, so I've got nothing to say about it (yet), and as for the author, he’s managed to keep his mouth shut – so far – about whether he’s conflicted, as he was in ’01, about ending up with a vast, middlebrow and female readership, so at present, I got no quarrel with him or with his book. My quarrel is with the coverage. As I said on Twitter, if was Jonathan Safran Foer on the cover of Time, I’d have gone with #schadensafranfoer. I work with what they give me

2. This isn’t just about the Times not covering my books (although, of course, that was the quote of mine today’s Times cherry-picked from the Huffington Post – because it’s so much easier to dismiss two disgruntled bestselling chicks whining than it is to look at your institutional practices and admit that maybe there’s something rotten in Denmark).

It’s about the way the Times overcovers its boy of the moment, denigrates or ignores entire genres, and their readers, and the way these actions taint the coverage women writers manage to receive.

Yesterday, I did an interview with NPR (it should air on “All Things Consider” on Monday) in which the question came up – doesn’t the Times cover some literary women?

Indeed, there are women who do manage to make it past the gatekeepers and get the double review and the profile. However, as Tina Jordan points out over on Entertainment Weekly, a literary lady's profile is likely to end up in the girly ghetto of the Style section, where much will be made of her looks or her last name…and, no matter how much the Times might praise a Maile Meloy or a Lorrie Moore, that Great American Novelist slot still seems to be exclusively reserved for men.

Why is it that a lady’s memoir of being formerly hot will only make the Style pages, where a man’s memoir of being formerly high will be featured in Style, and reviewed twice? Why am I reading about Mona Simpson’s sleeveless dress and strawberry-blonde hair instead of her writing? Why is it that, ultimately, a woman’s very good novel about a family is seen as a very good novel about a family (probably her family), while a man's very good novel is a Great American Novel?

3. This isn’t about commercial writers trying to snatch bread out of the mouths of some deserving literary writer’s children. This is about asking the Times to play fair. If the paper covers the big-boy heavy hitters – if Stephen King and John Grisham can count on a review – than Jodi Picoult and Nora Roberts should be treated the same way. If the paper’s going to do the occasional round-up of science fiction, it wouldn’t kill them to do the occasional round-up of romance.

Instead of asking which books and which authors deserve the Times' coverage, maybe we should think about what kind of book review section readers deserve.

There are critics who seem to feel that reviews are there to cover literature and literature only, no matter how few people read the books they cover. There are writers who think that because commercial books find their audience without the benefit of being reviewed, it's okay for big papers to ignore those books.

So what should a book review do? Should it be a mirror, reflecting back popular tastes? Is it a stern uncle waving a scolding finger, dragging us away from Harry Potter by the ear and insisting that we read Philip Roth instead, or a nanny telling us we have to eat our spinach before we're allowed dessert? Is it possible to be some combination?

I think book reviews are there to start a lively conversation, to get readers excited about books, to get the right book into the right reader’s hands (or to steer readers away from something they wouldn’t like).

A great book review section should have something for every reader, whether it’s the fourteen-year-old who stood in line for MOCKINGJAY, the Oprah-watching housewife who can’t wait to get her hands on FREEDOM, the guy (yes, they’re out there) who loved Jodi Picoult’s THE TENTH CIRCLE, and the guy who picked up Steig Larsson after not reading a novel since college and needs to know where to go next.

A great book review section should have something for the new mom who loves Elizabeth Berg and Susan Isaacs and Sophie Kinsella, and my mom, who reads J.M. Coetzee and Amos Oz and David Ebershoff. It should speak to my friend who loves Margot Livesy and my friend who reads Chelsea Handler.

Disdaining romance while reviewing mysteries and thrillers; speaking about quote-unquote chick lit from a position of monumental ignorance while heaping praise on men who write about relationships and romance; maintaining the sexist double standard that puts Mary Gaitskill and Caitlin Macy in the Style section and puts Charles Bock or Jonathan Safran Foer in the magazine…all of these are symptoms of a disease that’s rotting the relationship between readers and reviewers.

Better book review policies would mean more recognition and, ultimately, more readers for all kinds of writers – highbrow, commercial, young adult, thrillers, mysteries, romance.

I hope that, as we approach Freedom drop-day, critics and writers and readers can move the discussion toward what we talk about when we talk about books…and how we can all improve that conversation.
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