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What Matters, What’s Remembered, What We Care About

Bear with me. People have opinions about Jonathan Franzen. These opinions are rarely mild. There’s something about his personality and the way he negotiates his public image that invites discussion. I thought I had an opinion about Jonathan Franzen but the more I think about it, the more I realize he is  not part of my literary vocabulary. If I never read another book of his again, my life would not come to an end. I loved The Corrections. That seems like a contradiction. I thought The Corrections was a great story, meandering and sweeping and engaging. But I’ve only read it once. I loved it but have never felt compelled to pick the book up again so maybe I don’t love The Corrections. Maybe I just really like it. I am excited to read Franzen’s forthcoming novel, Freedom, which I will be enjoying with The Rumpus Book Club. On Facebook, I think, I saw someone (Kyle Minor?) observe that people seem to enjoy taking down successful, ambitious people in reference to a lot of the recent commentary in various outlets about the VQR “situation.” I do not necessarily disagree. Successful, ambitious people are easy targets because we see them plainly and we have opinions about what they do and how we would do what they do and whether or not they deserve to those things they do and the privileges they enjoy because of how well or the public perception of how well they do the things they do.

Freedom received a glowing review in the New York Times. I did not read the review. I suppose I should but I don’t care enough. I know I’m going to read the book, regardless of what the Times has to say about it. Jodi Picoult had an opinion about that glowing review. Jodi Picoult writes books, often dealing with contemporary themes. I have read The Pact. It was engaging, if not a bit predictable. I’ve also read My Sister’s Keeper which was about as good as the movie, enjoyable but not life altering. Is her writing talent relevant here? Perhaps.

The older I get the more accepting yet less tolerant and patient I become.  I love popular culture. I enjoy blockbuster movies that are formulaic advertisements for beautiful people where meaningful dialogue is discouraged and the plot is generally forwarded through the murder of key characters or large explosions. I enjoy trash television and reality television and mass market paperbacks. I’m excited that Tyra Banks is “writing” a book. I don’t think entertainment for the masses is the harbinger of doom for our culture and the sophisticates among us. I don’t know why we always treat popular culture and artistic or literary endeavors as binaries, as an either versus an or, as if to choose one, we must forsake the other.

I love the word sophisticate.

Sometimes, I get tired of opinions. Sometimes, I do not care what you think. I do not care what I think. I do not care what Michiko Kakutani thinks. I do not care what Jodi Picoult thinks.

Jonathan Franzen received a rave review in The New York Times. That is a big deal. Most writers dream of such a thing. You can judge it and and say you wouldn’t care and that’s fine. I would get a copy of a New York Times review tattooed on my face. I care. Please don’t hold me to that.  Jodi Picoult cares. She is a novelist with eighteen books to her name. Her books have been made into movies that have debuted in theaters across the country and on Lifetime, that latter accolade which only improves her standing in my heart. Picoult’s books aren’t quite “chick lit” but they aren’t considered literary fiction. You can buy her book while checking out in a grocery store. We should all be so lucky. Upon reading the Franzen review, Picoult took to Twitter. That’s what we do these days. We purge our righteous anger in 140 characters or less. Sometimes all we need is that small, contained (or is it constrained?) medium to vent our frustration. She wrote, “NYT raved about Franzen’s new book. Is anyone shocked? Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren’t white male literary darlings.” People picked up on this random, fairly innocuous statement and it quickly became a Statement and then Picoult said other things and Jennifer Weiner (whose books I rather enjoy) said some things and soon this became about race, gender and the white men taking over the world. People reacted. There was a defense of literary fiction, as if one were needed. There was some statistical analysis demonstrating that over the past two years, white men have been practically discriminated against in the New York Times Best Book category. Poor guys. These things snowball. They become completely removed from what they began as. (Lincoln Michel has a good discussion of the kerfuffle here.)

I don’t know that Jodi Picoult was railing against white male literary darlings as much as she was expressing disappointment. I think Jodi Picoult dared to show that she cares very much about whether or not her books will be not only reviewed but critically adored by the New York Times. Disaffection is all the rage. We are not supposed to care because accolades are not important. It is the writing that is important. It is the craft that is important. And yet, accolades are not important until they are. They matter to me. If I had written as many commercially successful books as Picoult with nary a positive mention in the NYT, I’d be pretty pissed off. When her books have been reviewed by the Times, those reviews have rarely been… kind. That said, I cannot say those reviews have been wrong. Of course, Picoult can always console herself by regularly appearing on the Times bestseller list. Financial acclaim has its own rewards that critical acclaim will never pay.

I don’t know what literary fiction is but I do. I read a Tom Clancy novel and I know I am not reading great literature. I know his 527th book reveling in the glory of American military might will not leave its mark. That book will not be remembered. Not every book that is remembered is literary nor is every literary book remembered but I’m sure there is some kind of correlation between longevity and that literary quality that gets a book reviewed by The New York Times. I think Jodi Picoult is like most writers in that she wants to be remembered. She wants to feel like she writes books that matter.  I think she believes the stories she tells about middle class families and the painful dramas in their lives are as important as the books Franzen or any of the elite literati write about middle class families and the painful dramas in their lives. I do not know what makes a book important. I do know I enjoyed The Corrections more than either of the Picoult books I have read even though I have never revisited the book. I imagine it’s hard to write a book that matters when you’re churning out one or two six hundred page novels a year. At the same time, Picoult is laughing all the way to the bank. On a balance sheet, I’m certain a publisher would point to Picoult’s books as books that matter even though in the grand scheme of things, I have to wonder why any of this matters.

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128 Comments

  1. Guest

      You might be right… Who knows?
      Anyway, I gotta run get in the carpool line.

      Roxane,
      I enjoyed the article. One of the best pieces I’ve read since Picoult sent those tweets.

  2. Roxane Gay

      Thanks, Mandy!

  3. Mandy

      I understand your point. Just as I understood it after I clicked on the links in your original comment before I wrote my reply.
      I disagree, but I am kind of sorry I implied you might be an a-hole.

  4. Josh

      Mandy, what I mean is that using “literary fiction” as a non-ironic (or non-pejorative) descriptor seems utterly useless, since it primarily serves to broadcast one’s anxieties about the cultural status of one’s reading material, or maybe to suggest that one imagines oneself writing for an audience of graduate students and/or (fingers crossed!) book clubs. It is a term for agents and bookstores to decide how to market a book. It is the sort of term beloved of such organizations as AWP, because then its members — which I have been in the past, and probably will be again in the future — can congratulate themselves on the cultural significance of their works, especially if said works — like mine — possess little commercial potential. (And as Serious Writers we all imagine ourselves producing culturally significant work, yes?) It is a conservative term that seeks to grant certain sanctioned works exclusivity. It is also, c. 2010, a wildly floating signifier. Anyway, all peace.

  5. John Minichillo

      jeez dude,

      I think ‘literary’ is a bit more useful and lasting than all that. I mean go about it however you want, but
      I think the point is that literary exists outside the market. Writers of literary works are proud of the term. It’s the market and the marketeers who are skitish about it. Yes, literary writers would love to make a dollar and reach a broad audience but it’s not the primary motivating factor. Unfortunately, you can’t say that about the gatekeepers and the multinationals who bought all the presses, and who only want a return on investment.

  6. Guest

      I understand your point. Just as I understood it after I clicked on the links in your original comment before I wrote my reply.
      I disagree, but I am kind of sorry I implied you might be an a-hole.

  7. Charles Dodd White

      Good analogy, Lincoln. I agree. The Picoult reaction seems silly.

  8. Charles Dodd White

      I also can’t help but be reminded of the time Nicholas Sparks dismissed Cormac McCarthy as a hack. It seems the vitriol originates from the more commercially successful writers in these cases.

  9. Charles Dodd White

      Good analogy, Lincoln. I agree. The Picoult reaction seems silly.

  10. Charles Dodd White

      I also can’t help but be reminded of the time Nicholas Sparks dismissed Cormac McCarthy as a hack. It seems the vitriol originates from the more commercially successful writers in these cases.

  11. Lisa Solod

      I wrote about this “feud” in the Huffington Post when it just started…… Roxanne is dead on with this little essay, though. I loved it. Just loved it. And I, too, would have a rave review of my novel tattooed somewhere on my body…..:)

  12. Lisa Solod
  13. Lisa Solod

      I wrote about this “feud” in the Huffington Post when it just started…… Roxanne is dead on with this little essay, though. I loved it. Just loved it. And I, too, would have a rave review of my novel tattooed somewhere on my body…..:)

  14. Lisa Solod
  15. Sara H

      I don’t know why we always treat popular culture and artistic or literary endeavors as binaries, as an either versus an or, as if to choose one, we must forsake the other.

      Amen, lady. Amen.

      Great article.

  16. mike young

      Main Street is good

  17. Sara H

      I don’t know why we always treat popular culture and artistic or literary endeavors as binaries, as an either versus an or, as if to choose one, we must forsake the other.

      Amen, lady. Amen.

      Great article.

  18. Mike Young

      Main Street is good

  19. Peter Jurmu

      Late entry.

      Franzen received a glowing review in the NYT, but Ron Charles’s review in the Washington Post seems fairer (to Franzen and to readers) and more astute (to me). He ultimately recommends the book–“In dialogue that conveys each palpitation of the heart, every wince of the conscience, and especially in those elegantly extended phrases of narration, Franzen conveys his psychological acuity in a fugue of erudition, pathos and irony that is simply fantastic”–but spends about 40% of the review wondering why in the world Franzen would deviate from being “America’s best answer to Martin Amis” to “bully us into accepting [his themes] with knife-to-the-throat insistence.”

      We’ve read this story before in “The Corrections,” back when it was witty, when its satire of contemporary family, business and politics sounded brash and fresh, when its revival of social realism was so boisterous that it ripped the hinges off the doors of American literature. The most anticipated, heralded novel of this year gives us a similarly toxic stew of domestic life, but Franzen’s wit has mostly boiled away, leaving a bitter sludge of dysfunction.

      Maybe Franzen disdained Kakutani’s “rave” in the Times because he prefers a serious review from an engaged reader who wants to rave, but can’t bring himself to.

  20. Peter Jurmu
  21. Peter Jurmu

      Late entry.

      Franzen received a glowing review in the NYT, but Ron Charles’s review in the Washington Post seems fairer (to Franzen and to readers) and more astute (to me). He ultimately recommends the book–“In dialogue that conveys each palpitation of the heart, every wince of the conscience, and especially in those elegantly extended phrases of narration, Franzen conveys his psychological acuity in a fugue of erudition, pathos and irony that is simply fantastic”–but spends about 40% of the review wondering why in the world Franzen would deviate from being “America’s best answer to Martin Amis” to “bully us into accepting [his themes] with knife-to-the-throat insistence.”

      We’ve read this story before in “The Corrections,” back when it was witty, when its satire of contemporary family, business and politics sounded brash and fresh, when its revival of social realism was so boisterous that it ripped the hinges off the doors of American literature. The most anticipated, heralded novel of this year gives us a similarly toxic stew of domestic life, but Franzen’s wit has mostly boiled away, leaving a bitter sludge of dysfunction.

      Maybe Franzen disdained Kakutani’s “rave” in the Times because he prefers a serious review from an engaged reader who wants to rave, but can’t bring himself to.

  22. Peter Jurmu
  23. Lev Raphael
  24. Lev Raphael
  25. deadgod

      Peter, I haven’t read Freedom, so I can’t tell if one of its reviews is more or less ‘fair and astute’ than some other. Charles’s review reveals his mixed feelings – “brilliant, maddening novel” – , which evidence of weighing sometimes indicates a “serious” discussion. But, to me, it’s not such a trustworthily “astute” review.

      One small example of analytic bad faith on Charles’s part is his misuse of the term “satire”. The Corrections is not a “satire”. All satires are – or try to be – comical about stupidity and moral weakness, but everything that puts failure in a painfully humorous way is not satirical. In The Corrections, the mess of the three grown children is not garish or exaggerated; albeit in often gorgeous prose, the narrative is as naturalistic – maybe literal is a better word – as, say, that of Light Years is. To me, anyway, there was nothing fantastic or garish about the portrayals in that novel, which caricaturing is essential to satire. I think Charles was simply saying that the excruciation in the book was funny, and turned lazily to “satire” to say so.

      Charles also uses “satire” to characterize a subplot in Freedom: “the worn-out satire of Republicans and the Iraq war”. Maybe this subplot is ‘satirical’ – but has the Legacy Misunderburnishment Tour already succeeded at a Reagan-Legacy level of mass delusion?? Anything could be handled in a “worn-out” way, but it sounds like Charles is already tired of hearing about the neo-cons and their Stupid War – an critical agenda that would make a review of a book hostile to “Halliburtonesque” misadventure difficult (for me!) to take seriously.

      Charles turns to reviewspeak boilerplate (“sprawling epic”) and whining snark (the motif of “freedom” invites a “frat house drinking game”) – again, lazy ostentation.

      This sentence stopped me dead: “But how many readers, even the long-suffering readers of literary fiction, will settle for linguistic brilliance as sufficient compensation for what is sometimes a misanthropic slog?” Well, anyone who enjoyed reading Beckett’s novels, or Blood Meridian, will more than “settle for” a “misanthropic slog” + “linguistic brilliance”, right? And if such a “slog” is the writer’s ambition, why ask “how many readers”? – except to be part of the populism that Franzen “disdains”? On Franzen’s terms, that rhetorical question sounds like a recommendation – but not a “serious” one!

      One thing reviewers due that slays me when I notice it is when critics batter the work in front of them by comparing it to a previous ‘masterpiece’ of that artist: ‘L’Avventura sucks.’ ‘Blow-up sucks, which is a shame, because L’Avventura was a master-work.’ ‘The Passenger sucks, which is a surprise after the greatness of Blow-up.’ – with that critic nowhere acknowledging evolution or re-thinking in their taste. I think: none of those reactions was really to the movie the critic was talking about; they’re all memos put out by Career Management. Charles’s review of Freedom stinks of this kind of calculation, to me.

      Peter, have you yet read Freedom? If so, what did you think of it?

  26. Peter Jurmu

      Of course Charles does all that. Did you watch the video he posted? He even wishes he could be a Times critic and fake pouts, which places him alongside Kakutani as…that. But you misunderstood me, or I understated my point: between the two reviews, he managed to write the saner one (“fairer and more astute [than hers]”–I haven’t read the Tanenhaus one beyond the first paragraph and don’t care) without stepping away from the mainstream critics and readers Franzen’s always courted, whether he pretends to despise them or really does. (I disregarded Charles’s past-work nostalgia for The Corrections since I don’t share it.) That sort seems more desirable, under the circumstances, than a rave, which by now Franzen’s obligated to disdain as long as he can do so safely. I haven’t read Freedom and don’t have anything to say about it.

  27. deadgod

      Peter, I haven’t read Freedom, so I can’t tell if one of its reviews is more or less ‘fair and astute’ than some other. Charles’s review reveals his mixed feelings – “brilliant, maddening novel” – , which evidence of weighing sometimes indicates a “serious” discussion. But, to me, it’s not such a trustworthily “astute” review.

      One small example of analytic bad faith on Charles’s part is his misuse of the term “satire”. The Corrections is not a “satire”. All satires are – or try to be – comical about stupidity and moral weakness, but everything that puts failure in a painfully humorous way is not satirical. In The Corrections, the mess of the three grown children is not garish or exaggerated; albeit in often gorgeous prose, the narrative is as naturalistic – maybe literal is a better word – as, say, that of Light Years is. To me, anyway, there was nothing fantastic or garish about the portrayals in that novel, which caricaturing is essential to satire. I think Charles was simply saying that the excruciation in the book was funny, and turned lazily to “satire” to say so.

      Charles also uses “satire” to characterize a subplot in Freedom: “the worn-out satire of Republicans and the Iraq war”. Maybe this subplot is ‘satirical’ – but has the Legacy Misunderburnishment Tour already succeeded at a Reagan-Legacy level of mass delusion?? Anything could be handled in a “worn-out” way, but it sounds like Charles is already tired of hearing about the neo-cons and their Stupid War – an critical agenda that would make a review of a book hostile to “Halliburtonesque” misadventure difficult (for me!) to take seriously.

      Charles turns to reviewspeak boilerplate (“sprawling epic”) and whining snark (the motif of “freedom” invites a “frat house drinking game”) – again, lazy ostentation.

      This sentence stopped me dead: “But how many readers, even the long-suffering readers of literary fiction, will settle for linguistic brilliance as sufficient compensation for what is sometimes a misanthropic slog?” Well, anyone who enjoyed reading Beckett’s novels, or Blood Meridian, will more than “settle for” a “misanthropic slog” + “linguistic brilliance”, right? And if such a “slog” is the writer’s ambition, why ask “how many readers”? – except to be part of the populism that Franzen “disdains”? On Franzen’s terms, that rhetorical question sounds like a recommendation – but not a “serious” one!

      One thing reviewers due that slays me when I notice it is when critics batter the work in front of them by comparing it to a previous ‘masterpiece’ of that artist: ‘L’Avventura sucks.’ ‘Blow-up sucks, which is a shame, because L’Avventura was a master-work.’ ‘The Passenger sucks, which is a surprise after the greatness of Blow-up.’ – with that critic nowhere acknowledging evolution or re-thinking in their taste. I think: none of those reactions was really to the movie the critic was talking about; they’re all memos put out by Career Management. Charles’s review of Freedom stinks of this kind of calculation, to me.

      Peter, have you yet read Freedom? If so, what did you think of it?

  28. Peter Jurmu

      Of course Charles does all that. Did you watch the video he posted? He even wishes he could be a Times critic and fake pouts, which places him alongside Kakutani as…that. But you misunderstood me, or I understated my point: between the two reviews, he managed to write the saner one (“fairer and more astute [than hers]”–I haven’t read the Tanenhaus one beyond the first paragraph and don’t care) without stepping away from the mainstream critics and readers Franzen’s always courted, whether he pretends to despise them or really does. (I disregarded Charles’s past-work nostalgia for The Corrections since I don’t share it.) That sort seems more desirable, under the circumstances, than a rave, which by now Franzen’s obligated to disdain as long as he can do so safely. I haven’t read Freedom and don’t have anything to say about it.