fiction files redux discussion

So Im surprised no one has posted about this

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message 1: by Matt, e-monk (new)

Matt Comito | 386 comments Mod
The latest literary dust-up in the United States concerns the outsize critical admiration of Jonathan Franzen's new novel Freedom, the follow-up to his 2001 National Book Award winner The Corrections. Freedom secured two worshipful reviews from the New York Times in one week, the Book Review's lengthy cover essay drooling with such jaw-dropped awe that it was hard to read for the saliva stains. Franzen himself appears on the cover of Time, and Freedom sits in President Obama's stack of holiday reading.

Fellow novelist Jodi Picoult ignited online fireworks last week by claiming that female writers never attract the same reverence as "white male literary darlings" like Franzen. Naturally Picoult risks the appearance of plain old envy. Though a skilful craftsman, Picoult may also lack the literary standing to make such a charge. Myself, I've yet to read Freedom, embargoed until this Wednesday, but it does sound like an excellent book, one I'm looking forward to.

Nevertheless, Picoult has a point. A female novelist would never enjoy a Franzen-scale frenzy of adulation in America, which maintains two distinct tiers in fiction. The heavy hitters – cultural icons who often produce great doorstop novels that no one ever argues are under-edited – are exclusively male. Rising literati like Rick Moody and Jonathan Franzen efficiently assume the spots left unoccupied by John Updike and Norman Mailer, like a rigged game of musical chairs. Then there's everybody else – including a raft of female writers who keep the publishing industry afloat by selling to its primary consumers: women.

Elaine Showalter did a bang-up job in the Guardian Review last spring explaining why American women are never credited with writing the Great American Novel while identifying female writers who deserve more acclaim. So in preference to singing yet more praises of the gifted Annie Proulx, I'll share an inside glimpse of how publishers are complicit in ghettoising not only women writers but women readers into this implicitly lesser cultural tier.

With merciful exceptions, my publishers constantly send prospective covers for my books that play to what "women readers" supposedly want. Take the American reissue of my fourth novel Game Control – a wicked, nasty novel about a plot to kill two billion people overnight. The main character is a man, the focal subject demography. Yet what cover do I first get sent? A winsome young lass in a floppy hat, gazing soulfully to the horizon in a windblown field – soft focus, in pastels. Dismayed, I emailed back: "Did your designers read any of this book?" When I proposed a cover photo by Peter Beard of sagging elephant carcasses – perfectly apt – the sales department was horrified. Women would be repelled by dead animals. We settled on live elephants, but it was pulling teeth to get girls off that paperback.

Or take the amicable difference of opinion I am having with my German publisher, since apparently this problem is also European. My latest novel, So Much for That, is told from two male points of view. Its subject matter – illness, mortality, and the fiscal depredations of American healthcare – is unisex, its tone furious. Yet what's on the cover? A woman, looking stricken. Male readers wouldn't be caught dead reading a book with that cover on the Strassenbahn.

The titling of that novel also came up against stereotypes of my ostensibly all-female audience. The US sales department vetoed the original title, Time is Money, for "sounding like nonfiction", though fiction appropriating and subverting nonfiction titles is commonplace (nobody mistook Alison Lurie's Foreign Affairs for an international policy journal). It took me a while to discern the real problem: Time is Money was too direct, too aggressive, too in your face; it would frighten the girls away. This suspicion was confirmed when I suggested the Germans, with no equivalent of "so much for that", simply use my original title. Uh-uh. Zeit ist Geld is "too male and harsh". I admired my publisher's candour, if not his neutral substitute: The Better Part of Life.

Publishing's notion of what "women want" is dated and condescending. In the era of Venus Williams, girliness and goo isn't the way to every woman's heart. Yet publishers presume that women only buy a book that looks soft and that appears to be all about women, even if it isn't. Yet women, unlike men, buy books by and about both sexes.

Granted, the marketing logic seems unassailable: in the US, Britain and Germany, 80% of fiction readers are women. (Which mysteriously makes women look bad: those layabout ladies have nothing better to do than loll around and read. Yet if 80% of fiction readers were men, we'd assume that men are still far more cultured and better informed, while women squander their free time on mopping the floor.) Why appeal to the meagre male 20%?

Simple: smart female authors who twig that their careers depend on writing solely for their own gender will instinctively narrow their subject matter. Meanwhile, gauzy covers with shy titles signal that the literary establishment needn't take this work seriously. Little wonder, then, that the language of extravagant regard in that New York Times Book Review write-up of Jonathan Franzen – "Like all great novels," Freedom "illuminates, through the steady radiance of its author's profound moral intelligence" – is rarely lavished on female novelists. Little wonder that admiration of Franzen's focus on "family as microcosm or micro-history" would invert to disdain should a woman choose the same subject: look, just another bint stuck in her tiny domestic world.

When my novels are packaged as exclusively for women, I'm not only cut off from a vital portion of my audience but clearly labelled as an author the literary establishment is free to dismiss. By stereotyping my work's audience as self-involved and prissy, women-only packaging also insults my readers, who could all testify that trussing up my novels as sweet, girly and soft is like stuffing a rottweiler in a dress.

message 2: by Patrick, The Special School Bus Rider (new)

Patrick (horrorshow) | 269 comments Mod
Ooo,ooo! Looks like someone needs to stock up on extra tampons. Just kidding. I do think she has a point. I have been a fan of her works ever since I bought We Need to Talk About Kevin after reading her short story in Knock.

I think Jonathan Franzen got the nod in his Corrections because it seems that (to me) he successfully wrote about a person's mortality and vulerability without having anyone actually die which is not likely in Shriver's next novel in which about billions of people is gonna hafta die for her to tell her story. Life grimly plod on even if people show their weakness in the Corrections.

But I am a bit disturbed to see that Joyce Carol Oates do not recieve the same praises that she should get when now we stand by and watch Jonathan gets ushered to the forefront of the literacy community with his first and then second novel.

I am not surprised at how the publishing industry still look at women readers as compliant and prissy when the thought of passing something bigger than a breadbox out of the body is enough to make men cringe inwardly. It is just another sign of the publishing being I don't know pussified.

message 3: by Jonathan, the skipper (new)

Jonathan | 609 comments Mod
. . . all of her points are valid . . . i've seen some great female writer friends pigeon-holed by covers in the exact way she describes . . . the cover for tatijana soli's the lotus eaters (a gritty viet nam novel) looked like a chick-lit title . . . maria semple's darkly hilarious debut got a pink bon bon on the cover or something . . . i feel damn lucky to have had the two covers i've had for my books . . . and let's just talk about how generally bad book designers are-- compared to say, the folks doing indie rock covers, etc . . . dogs, horses, elephants, lampshades . . . i feel like 80% of jacket designs suck . . .

message 4: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
Picoult didn't write We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver did.

Picoult's work doesn't do much for me but I see her point.

The mere notion that ANYONE would say Franzen has "profound moral intelligence" makes me gag.

message 5: by Patrick, The Special School Bus Rider (new)

Patrick (horrorshow) | 269 comments Mod
Shel wrote: "Picoult didn't write We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver did.

Picoult's work doesn't do much for me but I see her point.

The mere notion that ANYONE would say Franzen has "profound moral ..."

Lionel wrote the article and I was agreeing with her.

I am a fan of Picoult myself for she is a very good craftperson when it comes to writing. Every one of her novel that I read, I have liked so far.

message 6: by Ry (new)

Ry (downeyr) | 173 comments Jonathan wrote: ". . . all of her points are valid . . . i've seen some great female writer friends pigeon-holed by covers in the exact way she describes . . . the cover for tatijana soli's the lotus eaters (a grit..."

I agree, JE...most book covers these days are god-awful. In an interview with four up and coming literary agents in Poets and Writers Magazine, they talked about commandeering the album cover designers of the music industry and putting them to work on today's book covers. Some of the best covers I've seen lately are from the Vintage International copies of the works of Camus.

message 7: by Liz (new)

Liz Mourant (aeonic45) | 3 comments I enjoy a lot of the covers out there today, if we're speaking of paperback, and vintage always seems to shine. That said, I often love what an indie press can and does do! I haven't been looking at the different ways in which "men's" and "women's" literature is presented...I am gonna pay more attention. Hardcovers, btw, are a diff. story. I own more than a few with jackets that are just strange to me. Often, an author I feel needs the MOST exposure, and the MOST deserving (with accolades from other authors by the truckload) has a pathetic hardcover book jacket.

The softcover's tend to look and feel nice to me, much nicer than hardcovers in general...male or female written. That is my opinion.

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