Do We Want Writer Wars?
About when I turned ten I began crafting my library checkouts, hoping I’d look smart. I’d balance my Nancy Drew with a biography of Abraham Lincoln so the librarian thought well of me. (It seems my self-esteem problem enacted early.) Jodi Picoult, following the NYT doubled coverage of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, recently weighed in on the Times overwhelming coverage of white male authors. Men telling domestic stories are writing art, while women covering similar ground are crafting women’s fiction. Jennifer Weiner agreed and twitterized the issue with the hashtag #franzenfreude. Weiner’s directness started a new frenzy, and the issue veered from Picoult’s premise to the age-old battle of literary fiction being weighed against commercial fiction, often with writers feeding on their own. Many writers and reviewers deny the claim that newspapers ignore women and non-white writers and unfairly categorize mainstream novels (a topic well examined by Roxanne MtJoy and Michelle Dean) asserting that they’re simply reviewing superior fiction, which quickly devolves into a fight of literary fiction versus commercial work, and becomes a construct of healthy peas and carrots books versus sinful bad-for-you ice cream reads. Michelle Dean writes far better than I could on the danger of, as eloquently put by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's, "The Danger of A Single Story,” noting, “the silencing and devaluing of those voices has consequences, particularly when it tends to happen disproportionately to certain populations. Some responded to #franzenfreude by trashing Weiner and Picoult’s writing and their success and lauding Franzen as though the issue was Franzen’s writing. (Neither Weiner nor Picoult wrote negative words about Franzen’s work.) Facebook friends, commenting on articles I’d put up regarding the issue, used it as an opportunity to denigrate Picoult and Weiner, and, by implication, commercial writers—to the point that I deleted my posts. I have little courage for online fights. I have no dog in the #Franzenfreude fight. I subscribe to the NYT, Wall Street Journal and Boston Globe. Sean, my overworked mail carrier, delivers Newsweek, People, Time, Entertainment, and Oprah, along with Poets & Writers, Glimmer Street, Nimrod and more to my house The Boston Globe reviewed my book twice, the New York Times provided a terrific mention, and other papers including the Miami Herald, Denver Post and LA Times were kind. The media have treated me well. I’ve been categorized as everything from commercial to women’s, to literary fiction. I’ve read Franzen, Picoult, and Weiner. Authors on my TBR pile include Gail Caldwell, Lori L. Tharp, Lola Shoneyin, Michelle Hoover, Julie Klam, Jonathan Papernick, Susanna Daniel, Karen Palmer, Melissa Senate, Sarah Pekkenan, Bernice L. McFadden, Chuck Hogan, Abraham Verghese, Carleen Brice, Freddie Wilkinson, Nick Reding, Brady Udall, and Fredrick Riken. (They’re getting along on my nightstand quite well.) It saddens me seeing writers buy into a class war. Lit looks down on commercial, who look down on genre, who eschew whatever’s lower on the literary food chain. Some argue that commercial books find their audience, only literature needs reviewing—but how does that answer the male/white tipping of review scales? It seems a specious and power-retaining argument. Independent films survive even as reviewers include commercial films in their wheelhouse. In a time when black writers are shunted to an African-American section, when men are deemed artists and women crafters, when science fiction and thrillers are better covered than woman-identified historical fiction, and romance is relegated to the deepest closet of shame reads, then the commercial-lit divide becomes nastily entwined within a gender and racial writing divide. Coloring this is the character versus plot battle, well described by author Chris Abouzied in his post, “The Decomposition of Language.” Since I started reading at age four I’ve never been without books and I pray to have a TBR stack until the moment I die. On that heap I want it all: pounding plots, the wow of discovery, the comfort of recognition, and astounding characters. If I’m lucky, some will have all of the above. Whichever one I’m holding, I don’t want to be judged or lauded for it and I don’t want to shelve my books by race, class, or gender. Tayari Jones, writing to fellow authors about the stratification of literature, said it very well: ‘other writers do not deserve your scorn.’ In the spirit of writer/reader heal thyself; I’m going to work on remembering those words. There’s room for all in the big tent of reading.

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  • Zetta Brown

    Shakespeare and Dickens wrote for the masses and are highly regarded for it by writers of literature and commercial works. Shakespeare needed BIS--Butts in Seats, and Dickens needed people to "tune in each week" for the next installment of his work. I find it very ironic that not even the Mystery Writers of America would accept Edgar Allan Poe (whom they name their prestigious award after) into their group because he was self published, and self published authors do not rate among their "approved publisher" criteria.

    It's a hypocritical mess, IMO, but we're all guilty of it--at least sometimes--when we wonder how/why "anyone could read/write such a thing." But in the end, we're all better at just writing what we'd like to read and hope others feel the same to read it. There's no need to add a stigma to it.