Great American Novelist Jonathan Franzen – the best writer of our time, y’all -- did a Q and A with a Butler University MFA candidate – perhaps you’ve seen it? – where he dismisses my quest for respect and reviews for genre women’s fiction by saying, that I “rub him the wrong way,” that I’m “freeloading on the legitimate problem of gender bias,” and I’m an “unfortunate” person to be a spokesperson for fairness and equity in the World of Letters…and, oh yeah, he’s never read my books, because his friends don’t think they’re any good.
He thinks I’m hijacking a legitimate debate and making it All About Me. Except it’s not even a legitimate debate, because I’ve never written an essay about it -- an essay, of course, being the only permissible place for debate in Franzenlandia.
“She has no case, so she just tweets.”
I'm bewildered by Franzen's continued attacks. He's on the cover of Time, he's got the Times writing curtain-raisers about his new book a year before it's published, he's been Oprah-anointed not once but twice, and is the subject of an upcoming biography. He is respected -- nay, revered - in all the places that matter...and he's calling me names? Does he think that the Times devoting two paragraphs to books like mine takes away from books like his? Is he angry that I've got a bunch of Twitter followers, even though he doesn't think I should have an audience at all because I'm not on his approved list?
Anyhow. In terms of "just tweeting," it turns out I've written many essays about my case. Links below...but, before the links, I’d argue that Twitter is a lovely and appropriate medium for voices that have traditionally been shouted down, shut out or ignored by the places that court the Franzens of the world. There’s a long history – maybe Franzen doesn’t know it? – of women using the materials at hand, whatever’s available to them to make art or make a case. I’d argue that feminist Twitter, women writers advocating for their work, one hundred and forty characters at a time, is a part of that history.
So I've used Twitter, and blogs, and Facebook, which are what you've got when you don't necessarily have the New York Times. But there's a longer case to be made about why ignoring genre fiction by women while covering mysteries and thrillers and sci-fi and horror is sexist and short-sighted and bad business, and I’ve been making it for years.
There was this piece in the Guardian.
This interview in the Huffington Post.
Here is an NPR interview!
Here's a Salon Q and A, where I discuss Franzen's dealings with Oprah, and the damage it did to women writers.
A New Republic response to Franzen's latest run at me, explaining that Twitter is not just a place for self-promotion -- that, in fact, self-promotion is the last thing smart writers do there.
This blog post, back in 2010, when the Times turned itself into Franzen’s personal PR machine, running an easy dozen pieces before FREEDOM had even been published, sending a reporter to cover a cocktail party in his honor.
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?...
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.
For those who don’t feel like clicking, here is the short version of my credo, my This I Believe.
I believe that genre fiction by women deserves the same treatment and respect as genre fiction by men. If an outlet like the Times is going to review mysteries and science fiction, either because it believes that the readers of those books are important enough to acknowledge, or because it thinks those books have something to say about the world and the way we live now, then it darn well better review romance and “chick lit.”
Declining to cover the books that women read is another way of making women invisible – women writers, women readers. It silences voices, erases an audience, sends the message that women’s stories don’t matter (or matter only enough to show up in the Style section).
I believe that literary fiction by women deserves the same treatment and respect as literary fiction by men. There is no reason I can fathom for a place like Harper’s or The Atlantic or The New Yorker to run three times as many stories by men as by women, or review three times as many books by men as by women.
I believe that these two beliefs are different.
I do not believe that genre fiction is the same as literary fiction.
I don’t think that what I’m doing and what Franzen’s doing are the same thing.
I do not weep bitter tears when The Paris Review ignores my books, because The Paris Review does not review John Grisham or Dan Brown or Stephen King.
However! The New York Times does review those guys. It should review books like mine. And now it does!
As upsetting as it was to know that our Great American Novelist and his pals have such a low opinion of me, as painful as I find it to picture Franzen on a stage dismissing the work I’ve done with a snide “good for her,” it’s nothing surprising or new. The smart set’s never had much use for my books, even if it’s been happy to capitalize on the gains that writers like me, and Jodi Picoult, and every other popular writer who’s spoken out for gender equity have achieved.
Luckily, the smart set doesn’t dictate readers’ choices (luckily, there are lots of people who like my books, even if Franzen's never met them).
Nor does the smart set tell New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul how to do business. Under Paul’s leadership, the Times had gotten more diverse, more welcoming, more interesting, I’d argue, and I don’t think they’ve had to sacrifice quality to do it.
The Times’ tent has gotten bigger. There’s room for books like mine, which is all I’ve ever wanted for myself. There are more women writing reviews, more women's books being reviewed, which is exactly what I've wanted for my fellow women writers.
There is Vida, and its yearly count, putting editors on notice, forcing them to defend their abysmal ratios and, with any luck, seek to improve them, which is good news for women writers, and, I think for all readers.
The Times has changed, and the times will continue to change. All of this undoubtedly causes Franzen great dismay, and longing for a time before Twitter, where he and his friends were the ones who decided whose books mattered, whose voices merited an audience, who deserved to be part of the conversation, who got to move the bar.
Franzen can call me a freeloader and a self-promoter, whine about which way I rub him, turn up his nose at my books. It won't turn back the clock, un-invent Twitter, erase the Internet, or take back the power it's given those of us who are not Jonathan Franzen.
Women writers – even the ones whose work Franzen disdains – have a platform, and a place at the table. Our voices are being heard, and the world -- at least the tiny corner of it that cares about books, and book reviews -- is changing.
There’s no going back.