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Freedom’s reign begins: In defence of Franzen and ‘high art’

By Kevin Bloom 30 August 2010

With one of the most anticipated books of the modern era set to hit US shelves on 31 August, the literary establishment has embroiled itself in a fight about quality and gender discrimination that encompasses some of the biggest names in the business. Instigated by a piece in The Daily Maverick, the fight recently landed on local shores. Against our better judgment, we’re throwing another punch. By KEVIN BLOOM

If the pursuit of excellence is to be considered a worthwhile way to spend a life, the concept of “quality” must necessarily exist outside the transient boundaries of the individual. This is an altogether pompous statement, its lack of irony leaves its author open to charges of tactlessness and disproportionate pride, but the statement is being made nonetheless – quality is an elitist notion, it’s exclusive and undemocratic, and anyone who argues for it (or, worse, embodies it) is going to have to stand unflinching on the pedestal while getting pelted by rotten fruit. To say, for instance, that the first two chapters of Jonathan Franzen’s new novel Freedom, which have recently been published in the New Yorker magazine, are not only incandescently brilliant but many levels above almost all English-language contemporary fiction out there, is to ask for just such a pelting. All the more so if the claim is being made, as it is right here, that this is as much an objective reality as a subjective one.

Why make the claim at all then? Why not simply keep quiet about it and wait for Freedom to be released in South Africa so that the rest of the brilliance can be savoured – as every great book should be – in silent contemplation? That would’ve been nice, ideal even, except that on Friday 27 August a blog was posted to local literary website BookSA that brought my name into a debate (one-part qualitative, two-parts feminist) I’d rather have been left out of. The post was written by Fiona Snyckers, author of the local Trinity series of novels, and her argument was that when men write about families and relationships (as Franzen does in Freedom) it’s called “high art” but when women do it it’s called “chick-lit”.

Here’s how Snyckers introduced me into her polemic: “I suspect Kevin Bloom would disagree with me. When he writes about the death of literature, and about popular culture having ‘moved on’, he clearly doesn’t mean fiction in general. We live in the age of Twilight, Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code. Fiction is more popular than it has ever been. Kevin is drawing a distinction between popular or generic fiction (low art) and literary fiction (high art). The trouble is that history tends to blur those distinctions and to elevate those that were disregarded by their peers.”

Snyckers, in assuming this about me – she assumed correctly – was drawing on an article I’d written for The Daily Maverick. The piece, entitled “Is Jonathan Franzen leading literature’s comeback?”, asked whether Time magazine could stage a revival of serious literature by placing Franzen on its cover – and the unequivocal conclusion was “no”. Snyckers nevertheless used the piece as a jumping-off point to posit three interconnected threads: modern classics (as Franzen’s Freedom is supposed to be) can’t be called in the year of their release; the publishing industry tends to “fawn at the feet of its white, male literary darlings” (like Franzen) at the expense of its female writers; the distinction between “high art” (Franzen’s Freedom) and “chick-lit” (In Her Shoes by Jennifer Weiner, say) is irrelevant and useless and is therefore in need of a reboot.

On the first thread, the tendency is to agree with Snyckers. Only reams of critical consideration and decades of popular attention can cook up a classic. This is the standard conception of the recipe for masterpiece-making and it would appear on the surface to be the apposite one. The problem of course is those countless instances when a classic is actually called in the year it comes out. Books of immediately obvious power and reach, books that instantly define a generation or a country, pepper the annals of literary history. Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace is one example, Harper Lee’s Too Kill a Mockingbird is another. Are the exceptions enough to disprove the rule? It’s impossible to say, but a passing glance at any “100 top books of the modern era” list may yield interesting results.

The second thread is more problematic, however, for here we enter the dangerous territory of gender politics, a landscape rife with landmines ready to explode under the feet of any “white, male darling” stupid enough to enter it. We’ll try to tread carefully, then, and gently open the counter-argument with the observation that the vast majority of book-buyers in the world are indeed female. The suggestion must consequently, and respectfully, be made that only a willfully self-destructive industry would choose to alienate its consumer-base, and that the publishing business might not be such an industry. Did the gurus in New York and London come up with the category “women’s fiction” (the polite term for “chick-lit) to demean their core market or did they perhaps do so to sell more books?

In the numerous comments under Snyckers’s BookSA blog, which were penned entirely by local writers, publishers, booksellers and critics, the inimitable Zukiswa Wanner (author of The Madams, Behind Every Successful Man, and Men of the South) wryly remarked on the lack of an equivalent category called “dick-lit”. Zuki should know, though, that there was once a publisher in South Africa which tried to focus on exactly that, and that had she been on hand to give advice it’s highly likely they would have appropriated the term. The publisher was Two Dogs, and one of their mooted titles before launch was Men are from Bars. While it’s unclear from their website whether that one ever made it onto retailer shelves, Two Dogs did publish Women’s Bodies: A User’s Manual and I Can Do That! Fitness For The Lazy Guy. Shortly thereafter they expanded their catalogue to appeal to women readers too.

The strategy about-face of Two Dogs points to two truths in publishing: men-only imprints are doomed to failure because not enough men buy books, and men who do buy and read books will tend to steer away from titles geared solely for males (there appears to be no sustainable intermediate male category akin to the “women’s fiction” category; men on average are either borderline illiterate or are readers, along with women, of genre fiction, literary fiction and general non-fiction).

To come back to the point: am I implying with the above that women writers are never discriminated against on the basis of their gender? Definitely not; the playing field – as writer Richard de Nooy points out under Snyckers’s blog, and as my own limited interaction with the local publishing industry has once or twice revealed – is far from even. But does this then mean that all the attention being lavished on Franzen is a direct result of his maleness? No again.

The best-selling “women’s fiction” writer Jodi Picoult, who was in fact instrumental in starting this debate – it was she who tweeted on 16 August with regards to the Franzen hype, “Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren’t white male literary darlings” – responded like so to the question put by the Huffington Post about whether she ever felt dismissed or misrepresented due to her sex: “Oh yeah, sure. But you know what? That’s your trade off. I think Jen Weiner was the one who tweeted the very comment that, ‘I’m going to weep into my royalty check’. She’s funny and honest and that’s what makes her great. There’s that unwritten schism that literary writers get all the awards and commercial writers get all the success. I don’t begrudge the label of ‘commercial writer’, because I wanted to reach as many readers as I could. I read a lot of commercial fiction and a lot of the same themes and wisdoms I find in commercial fiction are the same themes and wisdoms as what I see lauded in literary fiction.”

Themes and wisdoms are one thing, though, the execution of themes and wisdoms quite another. The core message is this: a certain type of writing is qualitatively better than writing that’s targeted at the masses. Lisa Moore’s February, for example, a title that’s just been longlisted for the Booker and easily the best novel I’ve read in 2010, is infinitely more accomplished – more nuanced, more poetic, more reflective of the human condition – than just about anything that’s ever been published under the “women’s fiction” label. It must be so, not because I’m an elitist and I only read award-winning literary fiction, but because Moore herself decided long ago that this was the type of work she wanted to be known for.

The choice to write popular fiction is a conscious one. It’s a choice to reach as many readers as possible, to entertain those legions of readers (mostly women) by telling a gripping tale, and to be rewarded for success in the endeavour by royalty checks that secure lifetime membership of the “stinking rich” club. Writers of literary fiction, on the other hand, choose consciously to labour over every sentence. They choose to edify and enlighten their handful of readers (again, mostly women) in metaphor and poetic rhythm, and their reward for success comes primarily through critical acclaim and prize money. Sometimes the rules get broken – a writer of genre fiction may win an award, a literary writer may get rich – but this is generally the way things work in the publishing industry. Starving but respected artist, rich but critically ignored entertainer: you (the writer) decide.    

Like most of the people who’re interested in this debate, I have – as indicated further up – only read the first two chapters of Franzen’s Freedom. For me, these two chapters are enough to indicate that the book may very well be a modern classic. There are other factors that inform my guess on a more objective level: the reach and power of Franzen’s 2001 novel The Corrections, which I read in full and which left me floored, and the opinions on Freedom of some of the world’s most respected critics, which are based on a complete reading of the advanced copy. Observations in the comment section of Snyckers’s blog that Franzen’s publicity machine should take the credit for the hype are, for me, meaningless – as a literary writer, you don’t get publicity like this unless you’re that good; we’re not talking here about a commercial phenomenon of the ilk of James Patterson.

To do away with the distinction in literature between “high art” and “popular fiction” would therefore be not only to undermine the chosen forms of Franzen and Moore, Patterson and Picoult, it would be to short-change the reader. It is, ultimately, about them, about what they want to buy when they enter a bookstore. All else is transparently about the insatiable ego of the writer, and yes, here I too stand accused.

Read more: First chapter of Freedom in New Yorker, Second chapter of Freedom in New Yorker, Fiona Snyckers’s BookSA blog, “Is Jonathan Franzen leading literature comeback?” in The Daily Maverick, Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner interviewed in the Huffington Post.

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