The Jodi Picoult flap

I came across a strange post from Lev Raphael, over at Huffingtonpost.com. He tried to correct something Jodi Picoult wrote in her dismissal of the New York Time book critics. Over Twitter and interviews, Picoult pointed out her feeling that the NYT critics are biased in whom they select for discussion. The most recent literary author deemed fit to print is Jonathan Franzen. [Picoult had also previously discussed this point with Jason Pinter and Jennifer Weiner at the Huffington Post .]

The controversy, such as it is, reflects the hardline stances and lack of nuance in media. It is a controversy made of nothing more than opinions that every side here is entitled to. Picoult admitted she never did a count of how often white, male writers from Brooklyn were reviewed and acclaimed. She was simply being snide. The NYT can publish on whomever they wish. And kibbitzers like Raphael and I can add our own bits.

The one tossaway line I wanted to focus on is Picoult’s line that book reviews ought to focus on popular literature, even more so than literary fiction.

The specific thing I wanted to write about is Raphael’s response to this statement. He noted that Jane Austen, for example, was not popular in her time. Readers gravitated to her and parted with money from their pocketbooks only after her death. Basically, Raphael was correcting the idea that Austen was “popular” during her life time.

I think Raphael misread this statement. Picoult wrote

… the books that have persevered in our culture and in our memories and our hearts were not the literary fiction of the day, but the popular fiction of the day. Think about Jane Austen. Think about Charles Dickens. Think about Shakespeare. They were popular authors. They were writing for the masses.

Picoult’s point is much simpler. The authors did not separate the idea of worthy, meaty big-L literature from writing something that was a smooth read, snappy, and contained plot. That is, there was no distinction made between novels targeted for the critics and for the masses. I have felt that this idea is missing in modern literature. I had always assumed that what we call the classics (and generally I place the fracturing of a consensus canon to post-Hemingway literature) grew organically from fiction of  the times. That is, critics could only select on what was published, and frankly, our forebears were extremely focused on what sells.  This seemed a happy middle ground, where the novels were written to appeal to the masses. Critics rode shotgun over this process, trying to cultivate some sense of sophistication in how readers were to receive and understand literature.

As B.R. Myers has noted, though, there has been a change in attitude among modern writers, codified by the elevation of the serious, difficult fiction above works that are written for the masses. Nevermind who decides this to begin with. I find it disjointed that we now look askance at books that are entertaining, as if somehow it cheapens the linguistic fireworks and ideas that might be contained (and Franzen makes the same point.)

To be clear, I am not writing that authors – both modern and past –  never gave a thought to their legacy. Of course they did, but above all, they wrote books that people (eventually) wanted to read. Everything else follows from that. There was no separation of purpose: they wrote for the sale, and if they had ego and pride, they wrote to last.

Even when Jonathan Franzen first made headlines with The Corrections, I found the discussion rather pretentious. Apparently, everyone was focused on how he was one of the first to capture a slice of society, in all its messy complexity. My first reaction was, did Wharton, Thackeray and Tolstoy not accomplish something similar? Upon reading it, after rolling my eyes at the requisite number of disjointed paragraphs and awkward phrasing, I thought the best thing about The Corrections was that Franzen wrote about a family of assholes, but that each person was an asshole in his or her own way. I thought Franzen’s technical mastery was in his characters*, since writing in distinct voices is hard.

*For an example of a less successful instance, see Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red (and just to be fair, the distinct voices may have suffered from translation, so I’ll spread the blame here to include Erdag Goknar, the translator.) My Turkish friend did feel the same way, although I need to ask if she read it in Turkish or the English translation. So Goknar may yet be taken off the hook!

The worse thing to happen to any field, let alone literature, is that things must be “difficult” to be worthwhile (and Franzen agrees!) The idea that modern physics is a mind-trip was mistakenly interpreted to mean presentation rather than the ideas being explained. Somehow, this type of thinking infected critics and writers alike. So we get difficult prose (something Myers expounded upon), obfuscating stories with barely a plot, poor character development, and less than imaginative ideas.

Using scientific papers, published in academic journal, is a poor method to show how difficult ideas can be conveyed simply. These papers  are short, and many scientists are poor in compressing complex information in a easily read manner. I would suggest anyone examine the books of Howard HughesRobert Sapolsky, Dave Berri, Brian Greene, Daniel Dennett, and Jared Diamond for examples of how complex ideas and details can be presented in a straight-forward way.  It bears repeating: the difficult reading in science has nothing to do with the writing but in the ideas themselves. Obfuscation is the enemy. To properly convey nuance and technically complex experiments, one needs to be extremely concise and clear so that others can focus on the data and conclusions.

To my mind, modern authors deemed to be of the literary type do the exact opposite. They dress up simple plots (boy meets girl, girl protects self, man-as-boy-then-grows up) in “difficult” language that a satirist would sooner write in that style than to write a mockery. There are only so many plots. What I would focus on is good writing and that kernel of observation that separates one book from another. I wish I were an editor or a book critic; as it stands, I read about 5 books every 2 weeks. Even reading so few books, I have a sense of what passes for good writing (Robert Bolano + translator: good; Don DeLillo: not so good). I can honestly say that although, there are books  I found “difficult” to get through, it wasn’t due to my lack of comprehension or inability to grasp metaphors. No,  I have read their language and found it wanting. So much so that I sometimes question the intellect of the writer.

Part of this disconnect I have with modern literature may stem from my wanting to write like Wharton and Thackeray. Modern authors like Mark Helpern also appeal to me. I much prefer to read a novel and not notice the language until the epiphany in the middle of the book, when I ask myself, how exactly did the author write this? Prose can be complex and difficult, but I have no problem following the authors’ thoughts. Of course, one can fail spectacularly in writing in this style: the writing would become so one dimensional that it leaves little room to the imagination. At this point, the novel would pass into the realm of an essay.

I admit that I am probably being a curmudgeon by my attitudes against modern writers and their scattershot writing style, hoping that words dropped onto a page somehow stick. Impressionism works as a visual art  form, not so much for prose (a point discussed in Myers’s book.)

I’ll just end by saying that, at its most basic, I object (and I echo Picoult here) to the divide that modern critics and so-called literary writers created in viewing mainstream books as a distinct creature from literary fiction. I much prefer to be surprised and awed by the writing in an entertaining book than to be disappointed by a “literary” novel that neither entertained nor stunned me with its language.

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2 comments
  1. Jodi Picoult was clearly drawing a distinction between literary fiction and popular fiction in Austen’s period. She very clearly says “of the day.” If that’s not what she meant, she shouldn’t have said it. You might want to link to the blog itself to let readers see the whole argument.

    Cheers,
    Lev Raphael

    • Thanks for letting me know I forgot to link her original interview with Jason Pinter. On reviewing it, I think my interpretation stands. She discussed at length how modern writers get sorted into tiers, and in some cases so called literary authors and commercially-oriented authors write about the same things. A woman would be labeled a chick lit author; the male might be thought of as providing insight into modern society.

      However valid her criticism (and this wasn’t the point of my post), one theme Picoult harped on is that there are tiers at all. Which led to her saying that Austen and contemporaries wrote to an audience, not for critics. The distinction she was trying to make was that those authors didn’t have two streams for publication, they simply wrote. That is why I think she chose the wrong words, and I interpreted her “of the time” comment as her keeping the parallelism in her sentence. And yes, she should have been explicit in stating that both the readership and critical audiences were of different composition and mettle than that of today.

      Whether these authors were actually popular, in the sense of having commercial and public success is besides the point (which, admittedly, is something I said, not Picoult.) The authors wrote stories first, and acclaim came later or not at all. Picoult also wrote, in that same passage, that Shakespeare, Austen, and Dickens were not writing Literature, but “for the masses.” This is in contrast to the modern idea of sorting books as worthwhile, rather than letting it grow organically, over time. But I suppose I am pissing into the wind, arguing that we should let opinions play out rather than conferring “classics” status for certain books, now.

      At any rate, I can’t believe I forgot to link the Pinter interview. I think Picoult comes across as much more thoughtful than on her Twitter posts. There are important themes that Picoult touched on, the most important of which is that commercially successful literature, or genre literature, can’t be taken seriously. I agree with her insofar as I think one cannot separate the effectiveness and usage of language to convey ideas from its aesthetics and beauty.

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