Another “literary” brouhaha

Because my head is apparently stuck in the sand, lately, or my eyes are too red and swollen to read (it’s not from crying, folks, so no worries), I was unaware of the latest literary “brouhaha.”

Literary snobbery has been an ongoing part of the industry for as long as I have been around, and much, much longer.  And it’s just plain silly. So Dan Brown’s writing is a bit pedantic and very, very oatmeal. Not brown sugar or cinnamon oatmeal, but plain oatmeal. But there are people who LIKE plain oatmeal. And lots of people LIKE his books, read his books, and escaped into his books. Not my thing, but hey, if it works, it works.

Who am I to tell someone what they like is drivel? I have enough nasty Amazon reviews on my excellent selling WIVES AND SISTERS to know that reading IS subjective. Would I like to tell the person who wrote that my writing was “mediocer” that their spelling was worse than “mediocre,” and that you shouldn’t be able to use words you can’t spell? Yes. Do I? No.

You can’t. It’s their opinion and they get to have it. I’ve almost never seen an instance when a writer approached a reviewer, or said something about negative about a review, that didn’t backfire on them. Because Americans love them some civil rights, and the right to read and have an opinion about what they read.

I DO go after those who quite obviously have not actually READ the book, and are indicting it based on the fact it is set in the mainstream Mormon church. You don’t get to have an opinion on something you haven’t read. Although plenty of people seem to think they do.

Now, of course, this blog post is not about nasty reviews. But authors being snobbish to other authors. Hence the Egan/Weiner brouhaha.

As my friend JulieAnn summed it up as thus:

Recently, an author by the name of Jennifer
Egan
won the Pulitzer Prize
Award
for fiction. I am in the midst of reading her winning book, A
Visit from the Goon Squad,
So far it is difficult to put down; or rather,
it’s difficult to look away–like a car crash on the Interstate. It reads with a
dazzling foreboding and tension that creates in the story a cohesive ball of
energy. It spans generations and hops around in time and its completely
compelling. I think the award is well-deserved and I am very happy for
her.

During an interview (a good 20 minutes after she found out she won)
Jennifer Egan spoke these words:

“My focus is less on the need for women to trumpet their
own achievements than to shoot high and achieve a lot. What I want to see is
young, ambitious writers. And there are tons of them. Look at The
Tiger’s Wife
. There was that scandal with the Harvard student who was
found to have plagiarized. But she had plagiarized very derivative, banal stuff.
This is your big first move? These are your models?…My advice for young female
writers would be to shoot high and not cower.”

I found the advice to be
good, solid advice.

But the cats began to
hiss.

One particular cat, an
author named Jennifer Weiner
actually….tweeted.

“And there goes
my chance to be happy that a lady won the big prize. Thanks, Jenny Egan.
You’re a model of graciousness.”

Emphasis on “lady” was added by me. I was
confused. Why the arched backs? Why the snub?

Ah, apparently the books to which Egan had referred to as
banal and derivative were none other than the darlings of the “Chick Lit”
crowd: Meg
Cabot
(The
Princess Diaries
), Sophie
Kinsella
(Confessions
of a Shopaholic
) and Megan
McCafferty
(the Jessica Darling series). It all began to make sense.

You can go read JA’s blog in full, but I have some disagreement with her stance.

The writing world is filled with “literary” writers who seem to think themselves above commercial fiction authors. Give me a break. Who do they think they are? Literally. Who decides what is “literary” and what is “commercial?” Seems to be the writers themselves who does this. I recently took issue with a poet on my FB friends list who said he could spell things however he wanted to, or something like that. Uh, no. I didn’t spend the better part of thirty years learning to write, edit, and proofread, just so you can put your own take on American English and call it writing. When it comes to the point you are breaking ALL the rules of writing, then you are no longer a “writer,” but instead a performer. I am not saying you can’t do it, but you don’t get to call yourself a writer anymore. You want to be an “artist,” call yourself an “artist.” But a writer WRITES, complete with grammar that is correct and spelling that you can find in Merriam Webster.

And Jennifer Weiner and crew WRITE. I would guess that Weiner has outsold Egan, Pulitzer and all. And if you are going to argue that Egan SHOULD have outsold Weiner, tell me why? Without putting down American reading tastes, or commercial genre authors, or using other forms of literary snobbery.

What Egan said was condescending and elitist. Is it a gender issue? YES. Because she made it one. Why didn’t she go after the liars and plagiarists? She basically said it was worse to be a chicklit writer than to be a plagiarist. Oh, I see. Why on earth did Egan have to put down ANYONE else’s work? Was the interview about her work, or someone else’s work? Did she win the Pulitzer based on how many other writers she stepped on as she ascended the ladder to literary heaven?

Why go after some of the most successful names in the business? Why tell people that what they read is “drivel,” because I’m going to stand right up here and tell you that YOU HAVE NO RIGHT. And neither do I.  Jennifer Weiner is one of the most readable authors I’ve EVER run across. And there is something to be said for a book you don’t have to slog through. Sometimes your brain needs ice cream, not oatmeal. And if not ice cream, at LEAST oatmeal with cinnamon and apples.

Jonathan Franzen’s book, THE CORRECTIONS, which JA mentioned and Weiner did as well, was so overwritten that I could barely get through the first half. Then it REALLY picked up, and I must admit he is a very talented author. But the first half was a slogging, muddy mess and for Oprah to get through it to see the bright parts, well… It says something for her. Yes, I have read the entire book, and thus I can give my opinion on it.

I’m tired of the snobbery in this business.

You can stick a label on anything. But that doesn’t mean I have to fall for it. One of the most beautiful books I ever read was a “romance” novel called A PLACE TO CALL HOME, by Deborah Smith. I received it, by accident, because I am one of those morons who join the Book-of-the-Month club and then forget to send in the little return postcard that says DONT SEND ME THESE BOOKS. It came to me among drivel written by other authors, and don’t tell me I should have sent them back. Remember, I am the person who did not send back THE POSTCARD. Do you really think I’m going to send back a whole shipment of books? Yeah, that ain’t gonna happen.

At any rate, I have read this book six or seven times, and always with a blind eye to what Smith might have done wrong in the book, because I don’t care. I read it for the PLAIN AND SIMPLE pleasure of reading a beautifully written story. This is not always the case. I usually spot typos and TSTL moments, and major faux pas in craft. Not in this book. They are probably there, but I don’t see them, because this is a beautiful book and I adore it. I want to sleep with it under my pillow.

Other books I feel this way about? Barbara Kingsolver’s THE POISONWOOD BIBLE. I’m sure someone can tell me what she did wrong, but I don’t care. That one was an Oprah pick, and I loved it. THE CORRECTIONS by Jonathan Franzen, also an Oprah pick, not so much. It had nothing to do with Franzen’s literary snobbery. As I mentioned, the first half was hard to read, the second half showed his promise as an “emerging” literary voice. And I use literary in the broadest sense of the word.

I haven’t read Egan’s book, and am not entirely sure whether I want to, because I don’t like snobs.  I also don’t feel a need to align myself with the “popular group.” I got over that in high school. (Please note: I am not saying JA is doing this. She is stating her opinion, to which she has every right. This is a more general comment about literary snobbery.)

An agent once told me my writing was a mix between literary and commercial, that made it wonderful to read and impossible to sell. I take that as the highest compliment I have ever received. It did sell (WIVES AND SISTERS and SISTER WIFE). And is still selling, but it took a while.

I am proud of my writing, and I believe I still have much to learn. It seems I learn a lot with each book I write. My “learning” is not always knowledge about writing, either.

*I have learned that I should not ever write the book I am “told” I should write, because it will probably fail. The heart must be in it.

*I have learned that one can write mysteries, suspense, and genre fiction enhanced by beautifully formed prose. Examples include Dennis Lehane’s work, particularly MYSTIC RIVER; HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG, by Andre Dubus III; and the previously mentioned A PLACE TO CALL HOME.

*I have learned that nothing stops a book faster than sticking a label on it. Yet everyone wants to do this. Why?

*I have learned that I still have a lot to learn about writing.

Two of the best examples of excellent writing in today’s market come from Sandra Brown and Lisa Gardner. Both can plot like no other. The writing is smooth and seamless. The storyline strong. And that is pretty much true of every book they put out.

Are they literary? The snobs would say no. I would disagree.

There are plenty of writers that are not my cup of tea. I spoke out on the Frandsen issue, because he spoke out. Period. If you are going to write about it, prepare to be a target. I also read the book, so I am not shooting blind here.

I will not shoot at other authors I do not love, because they did not put themselves out there, so to speak. I know a bestselling author that writes pure drivel. I mean DRIVEL. I have heard rumors she hit the charts because she is rich, and her husband went out and bought scores of her books at stores, and once you hit the list, you stay there. That’s the only reason I can possibly see for her selling books, because she is, without a doubt, one of the worst writers ever to hit the New York Times list, short of Paris Hilton, who is, as we all know, not a writer, or a conveyer of good taste.

Sometimes, writers make the mistake of falling in love with their own words. This, in my opinion, is the downwind affect of literary snobbery. If you can’t look at your work and see how it can be improved, you’ve fallen into dangerous territory.

But I digress.

Back to the brouhaha. Frankly, Egan should have concentrated on talking about HER writing, and not that of others, particularly while she was taking cheap shots. Just because you can put “Pulitzer” before your name does not make your every word golden.

There is a time and place for all GENRES. And Jennifer Weiner has a right to be pissed. She has broken new ground by being a very good writer in a very nasty world. She has worked hard for her title, Queen of Chick Lit, and she has the right to speak out about those who see themselves above it.

Because, quite simply, she is an excellent writer who just happens to write in a genre. Like Smith, Lehane, Brown and Gardner.

Writers need to stop shooting themselves in the foot, and other sensitive places. Write, enjoy your writing, share what you love, and don’t take potshots at what you don’t love. And if you DO, be prepared to hear about it. Egan set herself up by making her comments. While an apology is nice, it doesn’t take back the words she spoke.

To take an old idiom from my mother, if you can’t say something nice, don’t say something at all. (P.S., this has nothing to do with reviewers, which will have to be addressed in another blog.)

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About Natalie R. Collins

Natalie has more than 30 years writing, editing, proofreading and design experience. She has written 20 books (and counting), has worked for the Sundance Film Festival, and as an investigative journalist, editor, and proofreader. She embraces her gypsy-heart and is following her new free-thinking journey through life. Follow her as she starts over and learns a bunch of life's lessons--some the hard way.
This entry was posted in JulieAnn's Posts, Things she said...., Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Another “literary” brouhaha

  1. Donna says:

    I am reading a Lisa Gardner book right now. I love her.

    I wish I could find your books through the SL County Library EReader. I look every once in awhile. Are they only available for Kindle.? I hope not.

    Like

    • Hi Donna,

      WIVES AND SISTERS and BEHIND CLOSED DOORS should be available, as they are through St. Martin’s Press. SISTER WIFE, TWISTED SISTER, and THE FOURTH WORLD are only available through Kindle and in print. My books as Natalie M. Roberts are from Penguin Putnam (Berkley Prime Crime), so I would think they should be easy to find, as well.

      Thanks for asking.

      Like

  2. JulieAnn says:

    Hmm. Well, you did tell me to shoot back. 
    So here I am, wracking my brain for anyone who refers to themselves as a “literary snob.” But I can’t think of one. I have, however, heard many accusations flung about calling various authors that moniker. Funny….I’ve never heard of any backlash when that term is tossed forth because frankly, there never is. But if someone refers to a genre writer as “banal and derivative”, an awful “tweeting” and spiteful blogging moves across the land. Why?

    I think it’s relatively simple to see. It’s a matter of class.

    Jennifer Weiner may write well and she might sell a lot of books. I think she even stated that she was going to go “cry into her royalty check.” Wow. SUPER classy.

    You’re right, Weiner has every right to be pissed about all of the perceived slights she receives on a daily basis. That IS her right. Good luck with that, Jenny. And to tell people that they read “drivel” is Egan’s right (although she never actually said that.)

    Your blog jumps around a lot and states that people get to have an opinion. Then they don’t. Then they do. Which is it? Since I’m of the opinion that we all get to have an opinion no matter what, I can say with some certainty that, based on interviews, her words, and what I’ve read about her, Jennifer Weiner is a classless harpy. If the term “literary” is so repugnant, then why all the fuss that she and others…are not?

    Reminds me of a topless dancer. She can pole dance like no one out there; she executes her spins and twirls with aplomb and at the end of the night, she gets to roll around naked in her cigarette-saturated twenty dollar bills. Successful? Well to her, perhaps she is. But when all is said and done, at the end of the day, she’s still a stripper.

    And the stripper is mad because the dancers at Juilliard’s won’t refer to her as an “artist.”

    But…but…lookie at how much money she makes! And I’ll bet she gets more people that see her in a weekend than those uptight ballerinas in a whole year!

    It’s the strangest thing. To eschew a label and yet so obviously and fervently yearn for it… it’s rather tragic.

    The problem I see it this: Jennifer Weiner and the ChickLit crowd have their collective panties in a bunch because the “snobs” don’t acknowledge them as literary. And why should they? The whole point, the whole purpose of genre fiction is to give readers what they want—what they expect. No one wants to go into a McDonald’s and be surprised, do they? And I’ll bet more people go to McDonald’s than a hole in the wall restaurant in one location that serves superb food.

    You asked if Egan should have out-sold Weiner and my answer is: who cares? I’ll bet any amount of money Egan doesn’t. See, that’s the other difference between the two. Art doesn’t always translate into commercial success and vice versa. Literary snobbery? The only crowd that seems upset is the commercial crowd. The literary voices are uniformly silent.

    Who decides what is literary? The LITERARY WORLD decides, and that, Natalie, is why Weiner and Cabot and other ChickLit writers will never win the Pulitzer. The literary world doesn’t respect them and they’re pissed. Are they popular? Sure. So is McDonald’s.

    Jennifer Egan had just won the prize and was asked a question about her advice to young women authors. She answered and she answered well: aim high and don’t cower. If you write for money, then own it, say it, and move on. Some writers write for more. Some aspire to more. And Jennifer Weiner will fade away and never enter a classroom to be dissected, deconstructed and lauded because frankly, at the end of the day, she’s just a stripper.

    As a side note: the book by Franzen I listed was Freedom, not The Corrections.

    Second note: ever heard of e.e. Cummings or Mark Twain? They had some issues with the Merriam-Webster, and so does Egan. So if you like it by the book, so to speak, I wouldn’t read her novel. It just might change a paradigm or two, and if that’s not your cup of “oatmeal” then I’d pass on it. For me, I can’t think of a higher aspiration than impacting the world in that way. But that’s me.

    Like

    • Hey JA,

      First of all, Google “literary snob.” You will find many people who are MORE than happy to call themselves a literary snob. You may not know them personally, but they are out there.

      Secondly, WHO IS the literary world? Who are “THEY?” Tell me who is deciding this, besides the Pulitzer Prize committee, because there aren’t enough of them to count, and most books, even the ones considered “literary,” never see the “Pulitzer” light of day. It’s that big “THEY” again. You know, the very vague, “Well, THEY said….” Who is THEY? There is no “literary” committee that makes these pronouncements. It’s just people who read.

      Thirdly, is thirdly a word? I’ll look it up later.

      I love Mark Twain but have always found Cummings very hard to digest. I know this is my background in editing and proofreading. I was trained by the grammar Nazi. Please do not think I am kidding. Heh. I am not.

      As for my blog jumping around, wellll, that sounds kind of like my mind right now. I had a lot to say and wasn’t sure I was getting it across. Obviously, I didn’t do a very good job.

      After reading your comment, I have this to say. I consider all your points well-stated and backed up. And I was not trying to misquote you or change your stance. For example, on the Franzen book, I brought up THE CORRECTIONS because I have read it. I have not read FREEDOM, and I don’t really like to discuss things I haven’t read. That’s not an informed opinion.

      And now I shall go digest what you wrote, and see if there is any other things i feel I need to say. Right now, I don’t.

      Thanks for responding!

      Like

  3. I like women. I have four daughters and a granddaughter. I love my mother. I’m married to a beautiful and intelligent woman, who I met when I made the mistake of claiming that her first novel was “chick-lit” — a sin which I gratefully get the opportunity to repent of on a daily basis. Also my lovely wife has now three cats. Those are my credentials that allow me to comment on the latest literary cat-fight.

    The desire for status drives human endeavor and human societies. We want and need recognition for what we do. Serotonin levels are tied to our perceived rank in the social order. This means that whatever your crowd, whatever your age, it feels good to be popular or well-regarded, thus the uncontrollable desire to add as many friends, no matter how remote, on Facebook. The one-sided attack by Weiner on Egan is all about Weiner and her need to be popular. Her problem is in the literary world of Pulitzer and Nobel, popular doesn’t mean financially successful or adored by fans, it means you must write amazing shit.

    From my male vantage point, I’m thinking something even more ancient than just status striving is going on here. I hear Weiner I think male appendage, which may be why she adopted that name, instead of ‘Jennifer Cox’ would have sounded like she was greedy and wanted more than one. This isn’t literary, this is primal sex cat fighting. Weiner writes fat-chick-lit, happy stories for the fat girl. Her topics are all about male rejection and ultimately finding male acceptance. In the end, Weiner’s characters get their weiner.

    Now if you want male acceptance and you are a female writer, you have a problem if you write fat-chick-lit, excuse me, stories where the fat girl gets the guy. These stories will not win you male acceptance, especially if it is the 13 or 14 males on the Pulitzer Board (as opposed to its 4 women). Weiner’s hissy fit is nothing more than a scorned woman of Shakespearean proportion — yes, that large.

    Oh, and a post-script for my wife: “Honey, I routinely call myself a literary snob. And that’s why I married you. Plus, I know why no one fights over being called a literary snob — it is a compliment.”

    Like

    • First of all, Kent, Weiner IS popular. Her books have been made into movies. She is routinely on the New York Times list, and she “speaks” to readers. And her name is pronounced WI-ner, not WEE-ner.

      You’re such a guy.

      Heh. That said, what is it about fat chick-lit that you find so offensive? Fat girls need love, too. Considering the average American woman is a size 14, you are dismissing a pretty big part of our population.

      Do you like popcorn? Sometimes, all you need is popcorn. Everything doesn’t have to be deep and dark and angsty.

      Like

  4. JulieAnn says:

    I know you didn’t mean to misquote me—I didn’t think anything of it, I just wanted to correct it.
    Well, I Googled “literary snob” and you’re right; there are many people who refer to themselves as such.

    However, in your blog you intimated that Jennifer Egan was one based on your assessment that she was “condescending” and her comment “elitist” (synonyms, I’m sure, for the literati.) Jonathan Franzen has been called one. So has David Foster Wallace. My point? The people flinging the term typically fling it at the writers themselves. I have yet, in all my Googling, to find an author who refers to him or herself as a literary snob. Outside of the Industry, who cares what people call themselves? Hell, I’m a beer and wine snob.

    Now, the ubiquitous “they” and the Literary World are not identical or interchangeable. The Literary World is comprised of much more than angsty bloggers crowing at their superb literary tastes. Consider the judges and committees for these awards:

    The Nobel Prize in Literature
    The Pulitzer Prize for Literature
    Aga Khan Prize for Fiction
    Ambassador Book Award
    American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medals in Belles Lettres, Criticism and Essays
    American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal in Drama
    American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal for Fiction, Novels, Short Stories
    American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal in Poetry
    American Book Awards
    Anisfield-Wolf Book Award
    Arab American Book Award
    Arthur Rense Prize
    Asian American Literary Awards
    Asian/Pacific American Awards for Literature
    Autumn House Press Poetry Prize for a full-length book manuscript
    Autumn House Press Fiction Prize for a full-length book manuscript
    Bancroft Prize
    The Best American Poetry series
    Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry
    Bollingen Prize
    The Dana Award
    Donna J. Stone National Literary Awards
    Edgar Allan Poe Award
    Edward Lewis Wallant Award
    Fabri Literary Prize
    Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction
    Frost Medal
    Goldsmith Book Prize
    Harold Morton Landon Translation Award
    Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award
    Hispanic Heritage Award for Literature
    Hopwood Award
    Hugo Award
    James Duval Phelan Award
    James Laughlin Award
    Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize
    Joseph Henry Jackson Award
    Kate Tufts Discovery Award
    Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award
    Lambda Literary Award
    Lannan Literary Awards
    Mary Tanenbaum Award for Nonfiction
    Michael Braude Award for Light Verse
    Micro Award for Flash Fiction
    National Book Award
    National Book Critics Circle Award

    That’s just to the “N’s”. Do I need to list them all? Now, include with them the editors, contributors and consumers of literary magazines such as McSweeny’s, The Paris Review, and hundreds of others. How about editors and publishers of the literary tomes themselves? Now let’s include writers who identify themselves as literary authors. Finally, the consumers and readers of literary fiction. This, Natalie, is the literary world, not a vague, anonymous, unlimited group of nameless, faceless people spanning across time. These are the people who would not publish, read, or award anything to the Jennifer Weiners in this business. (How apropos that her name corresponds phonetically with “whiner”.)

    There is no doubt that she can write. There is no doubt she is successful. That isn’t the point. The difference between literary works and, for example, chicklit, goes much deeper than whether or not people can string a coherent sentence together.

    The pivotal and central heart of the differences lies in the themes and motifs of the work. In chicklit, the themes are all very similar. Self-esteem, big thighs, shoe fetishes, “can’t a fat girl find true love?”, girlfriend relationships, dysfunctional and/or quirky parents, cheeky, sarcastic protagonists, cardboard cut-out male characters who always manage to “see the light” at the end of the book (a.k.a. finally seeing who’s really in front of him and LOVING her!) and learning to be strong in a “man’s world” at the office, in love or in life.

    While no one can disregard or ignore that these are contemporary themes, and in truth, much of the female population can relate to them, they lack the universality that spans across gender, race, culture, socio-economics and, ultimately, TIME.

    Many people want this type of book. There’s no denying this. Many people like romantic comedies. Many people want escape. Again, nothing wrong with this. For those writers (or movie makers, for that matter) who want to provide this escape, I say ‘carry on’. But don’t get pissed off when “Bridget Jones’s Diary” isn’t up for a damn Oscar. DEAL. That’s NOT why they made the movie, that’s NOT the compelling force of the movie, and it WILL NOT make a difference in the average life of the average person. It was never slated for that kind of impact. Doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun, well executed or well-acted.

    Jennifer Weiner is mad because she wants to be well-regarded in a world that esteems unique, universal and influential endeavors over entertainment. She’s having a hissy.

    Oh, and by the way, it’s erroneous to believe that literature has to be “dark and angsty”. Try HELL by Robert Olen-Butler, THE LONELY POLYGAMIST by Brady Udall, PORTONY’S COMPLAINT or NEMISIS by Philip Roth. Dark? Depressing? No. Universal, unique and influential? You bet.

    Like

  5. JulieAnn says:

    *Nemesis not Nemisis. Sorry, I obviously was not trained by the spelling and grammar Nazi.

    Like

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