The Living Novel

Obviously, I have too much time on my hands and should go back to work in some kind of serious way, since mainly I wander from yoga class to planting poppies to reading blogs and blogs and blogs.  This morning, while looking for a link to a book I enjoyed madly and want to recommend to you, I stumbled into a discussion of men and women, literary and commercial novels.  At the heart, a group of five young, male, literary novelists, Erica Jong, and Jennifer Weiner. 

I know, strange bedfellows. But that’s the point.

From New York Magazine. A discussion of male literary novelists, young and upcoming and celebrated:

Reviews and awards don’t translate into sales, and the incessant
touring is a grind. Wray’s arduous raft journey down the Mississippi to
promote his second novel, Canaan’s Tongue, was written up in the Times; according to BookScan, the book sold 1,300 copies in the States.

In an essay for The Huffington Post, Erica Jong wrote:

Jeffrey Eugenides had his moment, then Jonathan Franzen and Jonathan
Safran Foer. But the chair for the Serious Novelist is rarely held for
new women novelists — unless they are from India, Iran, Iraq, China or
other newsworthy countries. American women novelists are more often
bracketed as genre writers — in chick lit, romance, mystery or
historical fiction — and quickly dismissed.

Critics have trouble taking fiction by women seriously unless they
represent some distant political struggle or chic ethnicity (Arundhati
Roy, Nadine Gordimer and Kiran Desai come to mind). Of course, there
are exceptions, like Annie Proulx and Andrea Barrett. But they tend to
write about "male" subjects: ships, cowboys, accordions…..deep down, the same old prejudice prevails. War matters; love does not.
Women are destined to be undervalued as long as we write about love. To
be generous, let’s say the prejudice is unconscious. If Jane Austen
were writing today, she’d probably meet the same fate and wind up in
the chick lit section. Charlotte Brontë would be in romance, along with
her sister Emily.

To which Jennifer Weiner replied

It’s more than a little odd to see Jong hoisting
this particular banner, given that it’s her peers who’ve been the
quickest to use the term chick lit as a perjorative, to put younger
writers in their place, to dismiss their work as silly fluff and
suggest that their readers should be engaging with more meaningful
texts (said texts typically written by them, or their peers)….

Jong faults my peers’ diminished expectations. I
give them credit for healthy pragmatism. She sees a bunch of meek, weak
sisters, too cowed to make a fuss over what our books get called and
where they get shelved. I see something sly and subversive — a genre
that’s going to profit in the long run by being beneath the notice of
the critics, where women’s work always seems to land, and where it
almost always seems to flourish.

I’d take this one step further: it doesn’t matter what the critics think.  As The Long Tail author Chris Anderson says, we’ve left the age of The Expert and entered the age of filters and recommendations, which means we’re all experts.   

The young male novelists striving for the chair of Serious Novelist by writing what Orson Scott Card calls "litfic" (a term that puts it firmly alongside other genres in a way I smugly like, because literary novels are simply another genre, with particular expectations and sensibilities, neither better or worse) are one sort of expert.  I’m glad they’re writing those books.  I’m glad the outlet exists. I rather enjoy reading literary novels at times, though I prefer a novel that takes itself less seriously (just as I prefer humans and religions and presidents who don’t take themselves too seriously).  My aspirations were entirely aimed toward writing about women, their lives and ideas and issues and concerns, and I realized very early that I would never be able to write about those things in Old Boy Land, but I’m glad that the market exists for them.  It breaks my heart that any writer should work that hard on a book and on promotion and still not sell many copies.  Thank heaven that university positions and writing conferences exist to help support them.  Thank God there are so many outlets for writers these days.  A productive writer is so much finer a human being than a thwarted, nutty one.

Jong, who has written for the feminist edge for many years, exploring the life of a woman of her particular generation is an expert (and celebrated) in another world.  She has traditionally written a lot about a non-domestic life and the freedom of women to explore sexual and creative choices, and because of her generation, she still aspires for recognition from the Old Boys, even as she has disdained it.  Considering the context she was given to work with, an understandable position.  Weiner is part of a younger generation of women writers who are less concerned–maybe not at all concerned–with the opinion of the Old Boys, but would like respect from the Old Girls.   (Who have been particularly brutal about Chick Lit for reasons I never quite understand.  It’s a perfectly legitimate subject matter for a novel: the trials and tribulations of a young woman trying on hats until she finds the life path she is meant to follow.  Some of it is flawed, of course, but so is a lot of everything else.) 

But in truth, the Expert Opinions, the Old Boys and Old Girls don’t really matter anymore.  For my part, I’d like to see writers–anyone engaged in the devoted pursuit of storytelling in whatever form–stop bashing each other.  I love young, male literary lions.  I love Old Guard grizzled Boys, and the New Guard in all its forms.  Litfic, romances, chick lit, science fiction and fantasy, mysteries, women’s fiction–love them in a certain mood.  All I ask of a fellow writer is a passion for getting his or her own truth on the page in a form that most perfectly serves the work

The Expert doesn’t matter anymore. Even publishing, that venerable old guard, is falling to the democratization of an educated populace who choose what they feel is interesting, relevant and important. Relevance is key to this idea–the vast majority of readers find relevance in what the New York Review of Books says is worth reading.  It has no meaning in their lives.   We’re all the New York Times Review of books. 

In that spirit, I review novels for Bookpage, and this is one I loved this month:


Shoe1
The Shoe Queen
 


By Anna Davis

Pocket, $14

400 pages

ISBN 9781416537359

From the blurb:

1920s Paris. The ‘Crazy Years’. English society
beauty Genevieve Shelby King parties till dawn with the artists and
writers of bohemian Montparnasse. She has a rich husband, a glamorous
apartment and an enormous shoe collection. But there is something
hollow at the centre of Genevieve’s charmed life.

When
she spots a pair of unique and exquisite shoes on the feet of her arch
rival one night, her whole collection – indeed, everything she has –
seems suddenly worthless. The exclusive designer Paolo Zachari,
renowned for his fabulous shoes and his secretive life, hand-picks his
clients according to whim. And Zachari has determined to say no to
Genevieve.

As her desire for the pair of
unobtainable shoes develops into an obsession with their elusive
creator, Genevieve’s elaborately designed life comes under threat, and
she is forced to confront the emptiness at its heart.

Genevieve is not, at first, a particularly likable heroine. She’s part of that languid post-War British upper class that can be so awful. She is selfish and shallow and obsessed with shoes, using her wealthy American husband to get away from her family and to Paris, where she hopes to make her mark as a poet.  As the layers of Genevieve’s life peel away, however, the reader begins to understand that she is  a product of her times, and has been forced into situations that would be intolerable for any woman of spirit and passion–and we discover that far from being shallow (or perhaps in addition to it), she is a woman of rare spirit. A sensual and decadent novel, with one of the most refreshingly evocative backdrops I’ve had the pleasure of reading in a long time. 

So, experts, what have you read that I should read? And what do you think of this whole debate?

Last Modified on December 29, 2015
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8 thoughts on “The Living Novel

  1. You said: All I ask of a fellow writer is a passion for getting his or her own truth on the page in a form that most perfectly serves the work.

    Amen; that’s the hardest part.

    I’m enjoying some litfic (love that) myself right now: The Last Witchfinder by James Morrow. Any book that begins with “May I speak candidly, fleshling, one rational creature to another, myself a book and you a reader?” deserves a looking at, in my opinion.

    (I’m shocked to see a bargain price at Amazon for this hefty hardcover of $6.99. How is anyone making money?)

    Enjoy your summer reading!

  2. Ah, it’s hard to succeed, Therese. Not so give yourself over to the passion.

  3. I love this column Barbara! I read widely, litfic, romance, crime the classics, and all of them speak to some part of me. I particularly like Weiner’s comment about seeing “something sly and subversive — a genre that’s going to profit in the long run by being beneath the notice of the critics, where women’s work always seems to land, and where it almost always seems to flourish.” That is so true!

  4. I’m sorry; that was sloppy of me. What I meant to say is that it’s hard to get the “truth on the page in a form that most perfectly serves the work.” The passion, I agree with you, is the easy part.

  5. You wrote:

    >>Even publishing, that venerable old guard, is falling to the democratization of an educated populace who choose what they feel is interesting, relevant and important.

    I cannot agree more. I’m only in the beginnings of my writing career, but as I enter the realm of ‘published writer,’ I find myself confronted with a rapidly changing topography in publishing. It’s not just that readers are better able to choose what they want thanks to the power of the internet, but that more and more small publishers are able to enter the game. E-publishers, podcasting, and blogging have changed everything. There are so many ways for a writer to get his or her work out there these days. Publishing is changing and fast. Yet a lot of writers still look at these venues and sneer. You’re right when you say we need to stop bashing each other. There’s nothing wrong with writing in a particular genre or choosing to publisher in a particular way. In the end, it’s all about getting a good story into the hands of people who will enjoy it.

  6. Thanks Barbara for pointing out the basis of Weiner and Jong’s differences. Of course it’s age-related. So obvious I almost didn’t see it. And for a great read, I just finished The Sonnet Lover by Carol Goodman, due out June 12. It’s fabulous. I’ve never read Goodman before, but I’ve got another one of her books on order. That’s how much I like her writing.

  7. Michelle

    Thanks so much! This statement:

    Weiner is part of a younger generation of women writers who are less concerned–maybe not at all concerned–with the opinion of the Old Boys, but would like respect from the Old Girls.

    explains half my life (and angst). Wow.

    I’ll look for the book you recommend. Right now I’m in the midst of reading a lot of non-fiction books – the current book is Ben Wilson’s The making of victorian values, 1789-1837 – and it’s answering a lot of questions about the regency as a transition between Georgian and Victorian times in England. I’m finding it fascinating and fun so far.

    -Michelle

  8. It is hard, Therese. But I think one of the things I love best about writing is the challenge of it. How can any of us ever master such a complex, fluid, flexible thing?

    Michelle, I bet that particular conflict/idea is at the heart of a lot of young women writers.

    I’m off to the library to find new authors to try. Will report back if I find anything great.

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