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
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
One particular cat, an
author named Jennifer Weiner
“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”
Princess Diaries), Sophie
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.)