A Moment of Jen
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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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Thursday, August 26, 2010
posted by Jen at 8/26/2010 08:21:00 AM

Here's the Huffington Post interview with me and Jodi Picoult about gender, genre, and what the Times won't cover. Enjoy! And I hope everyone finds something great to read this weekend. I'm flying to LA, locked and loaded with Laura Lippman's latest, I'D KNOW YOU ANYWHERE, and MOCKINGJAY, the third book in The Hunger Games trilogy, which I'm holding off on until we're airborn.
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Wednesday, August 25, 2010
posted by Jen at 8/25/2010 02:02:00 PM

I’m back!

I survived my book tour. I met a lot of wonderful readers, ate a lot of delicious cupcakes, have been thrilled with the way FLY AWAY HOME’s been received in the world (and BEST FRIENDS FOREVER, too, which has been having a wonderful run in paperback this summer). Thanks so much to everyone who bought a book, came to a reading, sent me a funny tweet or Facebook message and has made me feel like It’s All Worth Something.

Meanwhile! Maybe you’ve heard that Jonathan Franzen has a new book out?

Franzen, you’ll recall, is the author of the 2001 critically beloved blockbuster THE CORRECTIONS. Around my house, he’s perhaps even better known for being the Man Who Turned Down Oprah, and pissed off a great many other writers with his public hand-wringing over what her imprimatur and down-market, daytime-TV watching (largely female) audience would mean for his reputation.

Well, he’s back! On the cover of Time! In the pages of Vogue! Reviewed, glowingly, not once but twice in the New York Times! Which has also devoted a news story and an inside-the-list column to FREEDOM, even though it won’t come out ‘til next week!

Jodi Picoult, number-one bestseller of quote-unquote commercial fiction (full disclosure: she and I attended the same college and are published by the same house), has a problem with that. Last week, she tweeted about all of the attention the Times gives to its white male literary darlings, at the expense of the hundreds of thousands of other writers – some of them literary, some of them quote-unquote genre writers – who get no love at all.

If you know me, you know that I’ve long taken issue with who the Times chooses to endorse and how its coverage unfolds and why, for example, formerly hot women who write memoirs get consigned to the Style section where totally un-hot men who write about their addictions get respectful full-length reviews.

I’ve been tweeting up a storm under the hashtag #franzenfreude, and have, it seems, stirred up a bit of a tempest. What can I say? “Bachelor Pad” is boring, my other programs don’t start for another few weeks, and I can’t talk about my work-in-progress or any of the other exciting developments going on. So I’ve turned a bemused (but not too bitter) eye toward the Franzen frenzy, which has quickly become the hash-tag heard ‘round the reading world.

The Guardian’s blogged about the contretemps. So has Laura Lippman, weighing in with some smart things to say about which writers get covered, and how.

NPR got in on the story. So did The Forward.

Of course, not everyone was pleased at a potential disruption of the status quo, or uppity bestselling lady writers even noticing that the status quo could maybe use some disrupting.

Lorin Stein, of Sidwell Friends, Yale, Johns Hopkins, Farrar Straus Giroux and The Paris Review, took to The Atlantic's blog to accuse Jodi Picoult and I of "false populism." (Want to buy a made-to-measure shirt to wear the next time YOU accuse someone of false populism? Mr. Stein told New York Magazine that he gets his here).

The New York Times crib sheet made note of the "Franzenfreude movement" (sic) and suggested that interested parties could meet "in front of Jennifer's TV during Oprah." Because, you know, silly ladies, with their Oprah. Except the New York Times does not know where I live! So suck it, New York Times!

Meanwhile, the Sun-Sentinel’s Chauncey Mabe said we're suffering from Jodi and I of ressentiment, which I believe is French for PMS. The Washington Post’s Ron Charles’ review of FREEDOM led off with an uncredited rewording of one of my tweets. Which means that I am now being taken seriously by a big-deal big-city book critic! Or not.

It’s all very exciting…and a little frustrating. Ten years into my publishing career, ten years of pointing out the same problems, and very little has changed. Boy books -- spy novels, thrillers, satire, sci-fi -- write one of those, and maybe you'll at least get mentioned in a Sunday round-up in the Times. Write chick-lit/beach-books/insert-your-own-perjorative, and it's off to the back of the bus, with nothing. Except, of course, your big, giant check (one of Mr. Mabe's readers suggested that Jodi and I should go off and cry into our mink hankies, and I know I should have been offended, but instead I thought, 'Does someone really make those?')

Anyhow. FREEDOM drops next Tuesday. Jason Pinter interviewed me for a piece on Franzen, gender and genre, and I’ll post our entire Q and A tomorrow, including some Super Sad Bookscan statistics about what the Times' love and affection will actually do for the sales of a much-hyped literary novel, and why it actually could help literary writers if critics would actually take quote-unquote beach books a little more seriously.

Stay tuned. And do come join the fun on Twitter, where I am, as ever, right here.
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