Msnowe's Blog

“I figure those books are for women”

Posted in Uncategorized by m.snowe on September 22, 2010

Zeus: "Shit, it's a girl."

m.snowe used to be a complete literary classics snob. She was trained in such a fashion (during undergrad) to worship Shakespeare and Milton through to Henry James, and wince at the idea that anyone worth their salt was still alive and writing–literary merit was judged by history, not current critical review. Anything vaguely modern was about as seasoned and complex as a sprinkle of Mrs. Dash by comparison to Hardy, or Lawrence.

Well, m.snowe got over that and learned to appreciate the writers we have today, or perhaps had a few years ago, anyway. Because, complete snobbery is never  a good thing. It alienates possibilities, and limits imagination. m.snowe wanted to discuss this small lesson in literary openness with eyes towards the recent Franzen kerfuffle, which is mostly an issue exploited by the press to drive up everybody’s exposure (whether it’s Franzen’s publicity people, Picoult’s, or Weiner’s, or Oprah’s for that matter–everybody wins). But there are some interesting notions of authorship and audience that seem to have unknowingly walked into this petty spit ball fight, unawares.

To do a little backtracking on the whole “Franzenfreude” debate that’s happening right now, m.snowe picked up a copy of The Corrections–she’s about 200 pages in. [Look for a review shortly on the blog. In a weird social experiment, m.snowe has picked this book for her own book club–she is interested in gauging the reactions of just the sort of people who Franzen was scared “wouldn’t get” his book.]

Then, to further backtrack, I decided to revisit the controversy behind The Corrections’ critical reception and his initial break with Oprah’s book club. m.snowe just finished listening to the 30-minute interview Franzen gave in October 2001 on NPR to Terry Gross.

Here’s a section of that interview that I’ve transcribed:

Terry Gross asks about Franzen’s The Corrections being chosen for Oprah’s book club, and how he feels about it.

JF: “So much reading in this country, I think is sustained by the fact that women read while men are off golfing or watching football on TV or playing with their flight simulator or whatever.   I continue to believe that, and now I’m actually at the point with this book where I worry, I’m sorry, ummm, I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience [chuckle] and I’ve heard more than one reader in signing lines in books stores now, ‘You know, if I hadn’t heard you, I would’ve been put off by the fact that it is an Oprah pick, I figure those books are for women, and I would never touch it,’ and those are male readers speaking. So I’m a little confused about the whole thing right now.”

Terry Gross: Asks about audience and book’s interpretations.

JF: “It is first and foremost—it’s a literary book, but a fairly accessible literary book. It’s an open question how big the audience is to which it will be accessible…there’s going to be a lot of “what was Oprah thinking?”

p.s. Franzen makes sure you know, through the course of the interview, that this is a show “which he’s never seen.”

Like Franzen–I think a lot of us, especially those of us with a touch of literary elitism in us, have a lot of objections to Oprah’s book club. M.snowe has been known to go out of her way to make sure that the book she purchases, even if it happens to be an Oprah pick, does not have that Oprah sticker on its cover. (She practices the same avoidance for books that are later made into movies and have film stills on the cover.) This is mostly because I resist the idea of being told what to read by Oprah, or feel I shouldn’t have to advertise that I lacked the personal choice and commitment to make an independent literary decision. If Oprah and I arrive at the same conclusion about the quality of the book, okay fine. At least we got there separately.

Despite understanding part of Franzen’s concerns towards the O Book Club, he expresses other sentiments in his NPR interview that concern m.snowe much more.

1) The idea that authors dictate audience. m.snowe, using her background in publishing, can tell you that sometimes the author is the absolute worst at identifying their audience of likely readers. Sure, you can write your book on certain topics, in a style and choice of presentation that you think might appeal to the target you’re aiming at. But that’s about it. Think of a book (or any piece of art) as a child, a tiny Athena Nike bursting out of your head. Sure, you created her, fostered her, give her the best education and opportunity (you’re a god!), but she can still drop out of school and smoke pot in your basement, or even worse, sell out to the evil corporate world (i.e. the Oprah show).

You don’t get to define your art with anything else except with what it is.

2) Obvious gender stereotyping in Franzen’s statement. Why are men the only ones who play golf, watch football, or play with flight simulators (no one plays with flight simulators)? I could assume that was supposed to be in jest, but still it’s degrading to the large population of men who aren’t going home after their blue-collar jobs to guzzle beer and slap around their wives (not to mention the women who do go home after their blue-collar jobs, to drink beer, watch football and beat their husbands, or heaven help us, the non-heterosexuals who might also reject such petty notions of modern masculinity/femininity!) . I suppose Franzen might think it noble to “get dudes to read,” (which is silly, plenty of dudes read) but I don’t think that was what he wanted anyway. Perhaps he just wanted all the literary dudes to read.

3) Denigrating the lady-readers.  Franzen makes it pretty clear that he’s not interested in the female demographic. He notes that men, most likely high-brow, critical male readers of literary fiction (all of them) are his clear target audience. While he acknowledges more women are likely to read his book, he equates having his book pegged by women as a good read as tantamount to sullying his brand in terms of street cred. Argue if you must about the idea that The  Times and the establishment aren’t only focused on white male writers, but notice that even the white male writers want an audience basically composed of clones of themselves, and somehow having a larger female audience makes the book less “literary.” (Insert your own musing about the fact that women read “chick lit.”)

Linda Miller, in 2001, talking about The Corrections and its Oprah controversy, and a theory on publicity for literary books:

“The sad and petty truth is that far too many book lovers don’t really want a good book to reach a large audience because that would tarnish the aura of specialness they enjoy as connoisseurs of literary merit. I’m not just talking about egghead critics here, since there are just as many people who stand ready to condemn “hip and trendy” or “too clever” books they’ve never taken the trouble to read. Behind what a friend calls the “get him! syndrome” — that reflexive impulse to take pot shots at any author enjoying “too much” attention — lies the deeply unattractive tendency for book people to act like stingy trolls sitting atop a mound of treasure they don’t want to share. If they did, it would be a lot harder to use their reading habits as a way of feeling better than other people.”

One reviewer in NYMag had the following to say about Franzen’s reaction to the media attention:

“This is the mission he’s always been on: He wants to help restore Serious Literary Fiction to some place of importance in our culture, the kind of place where a Time cover isn’t so notable. He’s just finicky about how, exactly. He wasn’t up for doing it via Oprah’s Book Club, so it’s quite likely that he’s not thrilled about being chattered about in a way we normally reserve for, say, Jon Gosselin.”

A larger question arises out of this: does anyone who really appreciates literary fiction also appreciate pop-culture gossip? Clearly, this current debate has proved that some people do. The extreme tension here is whether high and low brow can come to an understanding, or sometimes meet in the middle brow. Some people will push for a disrobing of the emperor. Others will quietly keep their books on pedestal-like shelves. (Also, it would be good if we could re-wire people to recognize that what interests men isn’t automatically more high brow than what interests women.)

To sum up: It’s no coincidence that deifying and demonizing go hand in hand. At the end of the media’s field day, this author is neither god nor monster, same for his detractors and defenders. But the  larger ideas, latent or otherwise, that are lurking behind this one specific incident, will roar again sometime soon, with some other “controversy.”

More reading: This post, entitled “Too Cool for Oprah” sums up the old controversy.

8 Responses

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  1. Matt said, on September 22, 2010 at 3:19 am

    The biggest thing I have to say about this is Dennis Johnson of MobyLives–despite having done a large part of the heavy lifting for perpetuating the Franzen-is-a-snob meme–is, was, and always has been wrong about Franzen, Oprah, and The Corrections. It was a book Johnson hated and felt got too much attention, and he seems to be bitter that Franzen got so much attention that he felt he could forgo a gigantic national endorsement that would sell a ton of books. (Though, again, I think Franzen’s actual reaction and statements were much more nuanced than merely scoffing at the Oprah Book Club.)

    Second, I think Franzen’s statements about getting male readers were more of a goal for the book that had much more to do with the challenge of getting male readers to engage in an activity that is atypical and not culturally encouraged by getting them to read a literary novel. I don’t think it’s denigrating to anyone to say that in this country, most women read novels and most men don’t, when that is what is statistically true.

    • m.snowe said, on September 22, 2010 at 4:20 am

      I agree that Franzen wasn’t merely scoffing at the Oprah book club (and I probably won’t fault him even if he had, a little bit). As for Dennis Johnson and his opinion–I honestly don’t know enough about him to argue his motives one way or the other.

      The idea that men reading novels isn’t “culturally encouraged” is kind of inaccurate. Perhaps we live in an extreme metropolitan area where “What are YOU reading?” is a common topic in social situations, but it isn’t so common in other parts of the nation.

      Obviously, I can’t dispute the fact that more women purchase more books than men do, overall (though I’d be curious to know the breakdown–what’s the percentage buying mass market, verses “high brow literary” fiction, etc.). But Franzen’s call for more male readers sounds vaguely like the recent call to arms about “boys falling behind” in school–it is done in a mock-philanthropic tone, yet the end result is the disadvantage or dismissal of every other group at the expense of the boys. If the most privileged group in town is given every opportunity to succeed (or, in this case, buy a book), and they still don’t, why should other groups be forced to go out of their way to make it easier for them, or change cultural assumptions? They have enough of their own stereotypes to break out of.

  2. Matt said, on September 22, 2010 at 4:58 am

    I think you’re right that we live in a metropolitan area that’s has different cultural priorities than the rest of the country, and I have a good deal of anecdotal evidence for this. First, whenever I talk to guys who don’t work in publishing about their reading, they are almost always reading nonfiction, assuming that they read at all. On thing I hear a lot: “Why would I want to read something made up when they’re so much great stuff that really happened?” Second, I had what I think could fairly be called a typical suburban upbringing, and I don’t remember anyone ever asking me what I was reading, but I was often asked, “Why are you reading?” Usually this was the prelude to some assignment of yard work. Finally, this. So yeah, I disagree about men being encouraged to read novels. I don’t see much evidence for it, while I’ve witnessed and experienced a lot of evidence against it.

    I agree that it sounds a bit like some sort of Kathleen Parker-ism, but if I remember the interview correctly, Franzen set up his comment saying he has a goal for each of his books and that for The Correction he wanted to expand his audience and that the obvious absence at his readings had been men. I took it very much as a statement of Franzen’s desire to reach broad audience and elevate literature within US culture and not at all as a slight to his female readers, and moreover I think the assumption that Franzen takes female readers for granted is belied by a lot of Franzen’s other comments, which show very strong feminist sympathies.

  3. m.snowe said, on September 23, 2010 at 1:57 am

    As for Kindle only advertising to women, I present this:
    or this:
    Clearly, these are targeting a certain kind of man, probably not the kind that grunts and plays rugby or hates Obama, but a man nonetheless. But yes, Kindle needs to capitalize on the lady-reading market.

    As for Franzen’s hope of a broader audience that includes men, of course that is a lofty and good goal, to hope for wide dissemination. But, that’s not exactly what he was asking for. Despite what you think of O’s book club, that would be the absolute best way to reach the most people. Period. He’s specifically focused not on overall expansion, but a targeted, male one, at the expense of women, and probably international readers. I think you’re probably right that Franzen himself is sympathetic to women, but like any artist, we don’t really know the man–we know his public persona and his work. (Also, it sounds slightly like the “elevation of literature” mentioned above is achieved through a male audience. Obviously, I might have some issues with that.)

    I’ll leave you with a favorite section of a lesser work by Austen, that I think, despite being over 200 years old, still rings true:

    “Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such
    effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in
    threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us
    not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions
    have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any
    other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has
    been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes
    are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the
    nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who
    collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and
    Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne,
    are eulogized by a thousand pens–there seems almost a general wish of
    decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and
    of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to
    recommend them. “I am no novel-reader–I seldom look into novels–Do not
    imagine that I often read novels–It is really very well for a novel.”
    Such is the common cant. “And what are you reading, Miss–?” “Oh! It is
    only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book
    with affected indifference, or momentary shame. *”It is only Cecilia, or
    Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest
    powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge
    of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the
    liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the
    best-chosen language.* Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a
    volume of the Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she
    have produced the book, and told its name; though the chances must be
    against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication,
    of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of
    taste: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement
    of improbable circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of
    conversation which no longer concern anyone living; and their language,
    too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age
    that could endure it.”

  4. Matt said, on September 23, 2010 at 5:43 am

    Regarding Exhibit A, I disagree. There may be a dude in it, but even the twee-est of twee dudes doesn’t want to think of himself as someone who lives in a child’s world of popsicle sticks and cotton balls. It’s a commercial for women that happens to feature a guy. Regarding Exhibit B, I think the message is pretty clearly, “Check out this schlubby guy who dropped have a grand on an iPad. Wouldn’t you rather be the hot chick he can’t impress?” If you’re a guy, you don’t want to be the schlubby dude, but you also aren’t going to identify with the hot chick. The frame is that the Kindle is a useful gadget for women, not some shiny toy for men.

    I think you’re basically doing the same calculus Franzen did when he chose to accept the Oprah invitation. The quote above is Franzen expressing a reservation that he had and eventually rejected in favor of reaching the largest audience possible. I don’t think that’s a definitive expression of misogyny or even disregard for female readers. It’s the sort of thing that might come to mind if, before even conceiving of being on Oprah, you’d been thinking, “Wouldn’t it be awesome if I could get even men to read this book? That’d be something else.” After all, he accepted the invitation and was then disinvited by Oprah.

  5. m.snowe said, on September 27, 2010 at 1:35 am

    But why would they bother making a commercial with an, albeit uber twee, guy, when they already have one with a girl? The argument could be made that in appealing to women in a certain way, they are also targeting men, just in a once-removed kind of way (i.e. My lady thinks this is awesome, and I’d like to impress her. Exhibit A: Old Spice dude on a horse).

    I agree that Franzen is not a misogynist–I think he wasn’t ready for the media onslaught that met him after his book was published. What he said (whether he meant it or not) struck a nerve with me, and probably others, because he seemingly expressed an opinion that somehow female readers had less cache than men. What if he had made the same remark, but used gays, or black people instead of women? Somehow it’s less bad to make a comment on gender, whereas a comment on any other group would’ve probably been a disaster.

  6. m.snowe said, on September 30, 2010 at 1:59 am

    And re: Kindle targeting women: It appears that publishers are trying to take advantage of the e-reader’s textual anonymity by capitalizing on the erotica market (both male and female):

  7. Matt said, on October 18, 2010 at 8:16 am

    The way I see it is that what he said is similar to a politician saying he’d like to attract young voters this time around. It’s not that Franzen doesn’t value the female readers but rather that he wants to appeal to a group that by and large does not read fiction. So yes, in a sense the male readers do carry more cache but for the opposite reason of what I think you’re implying: they are less serious readers.

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