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.