Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Lit Fic vs. Everybody Else

There have been skirmishes. Time lauds Franzen and does not deign to mention better selling genre authors, for example. The last bastion of all things intellectual, the BBC, does this. But the icing on the cake comes when another shot is fired across the bow by the newly minted Pulitzer winner, a woman. Yay! A chick wins! But then she slams on chick lit in general. What? It's like the girl in the office who makes fun of all the other girls and a couple of the guys for, you know, acting like a bunch of girls. Like she thinks it's her secret handshake for admittance into the boy's club.

Bad news, honey. At the end of the day, you're still a GURL. WO-MAN. One of WOMYN. Whatever. What you've accomplished is becoming the poster child/excuse for the Pulitzer committee to say, "We absolutely recognize women! See?" It does not bolster the validity of your accomplishment to disparage other successful female writers. It doesn't prove that they didn't give you that prize because you're a woman and there was some heat to throw us girls a treat. It doesn't prove that they did it because you write LITERATURE, not CHICK LIT.

Pulitzer's a big deal, dude, and mad props. You don't pull down prizes like that if you write crap. But that doesn't mean that people who will never be considered for prizes like that are writing crap.

We can talk circles until we are blue in the face about MEN vs. WOMEN in the literary community. But there are two things to consider:

  • ONE: There are more women writers and readers than men. That means, by default, that more commercial fiction is being written and consumed by women. A LOT more. It also means the the competition for these publication slots is wicked fierce.
  • TWO: Are the things women want to write and read unpalatable to Literature, with a capital L? And if women's interests are unpalatable to Literature, is it because men still decide what is Literature?

I can't speak to point one. I don't have the pedigree for it. I don't know why this is, if it should be, or if it speaks to some impending literary doom. But as for point two, I have a big, fat, WHAT?

Struggling to find your role in family and society, a life partner, children and jobs- do you want one or the other or both or neither...these things are not worthy of the "literary" title? They are ages old! Fairy tales often have widows or maidens seeking to make their way in a man's world with the deck stacked against them. Chaucer addresses such things. Jane Austen only qualifies as literary because she's been dead for, like, a gazillion years. Because let's face it, if she was writing today, the NYT would not review or recognize her silly tales of women who face societal challenges when finding their one true love.

As to fantasy, or even speculative fiction if you get down to it, there exists a rich history that includes the works of The Pearl Poet, Spencer, Mary Shelley, and the fantastical tale of Beowulf long before it could boast the likes of Tolkein and C.S. Lewis.

What really flies all over me is when people purporting to encourage reading send the subtle (or sometimes not) signal that it only counts if you're reading certain books. Here's the deal, plain and simple:

Good writing is good writing. It is NOT "pretty good for that genre." Or "a fairly talented writer wasting her ability." The talent of the writer is not devalued by the type of story he or she tells, the setting of the tale, or, heaven forbid, that there are women falling in love or having babies (or NOT!) within the story arc. 

Stories that explore LBGTQ issues, racial politics, mental illness, and poverty are important but stories that that speak to women's issues are derivative tripe? Deciding to have children or not, if you can afford them, if you can make your marriage work or if you should cut bait, miscarriages and infertility, if you regret the abortion you had when you were nineteen now that you are thirty-six and can't get pregnant...these are the real life every day dramas that many of us are living. Please don't tell us that we're being hysterical or melodramatic or that our stories aren't worth telling. 

How is it not misogynistic to only hail the fiction of women like Virginia Woolf (love her!) and Sylvia Plath (not so much)? Women only have depth if they are suicidal? Or, like Jane Smiley, tell tales of domestic abuse and rape survivorship? How is that not misogyny?

How is it not misogyny to say that the only works by women that merit critical acclaim are the ones that portray women as victims or read like a man wrote them?

Get over yourselves, lit snobs. When the years pass, the stories that still stand are the most universal, the ones that find a truth in the characters that predates our birth and will exist years after we are gone. These truths apply to women and men, people of color and mighty whitey, and people who love those of their same sex, both sexes, the opposite sex, or haven't figured it out yet. Our weaknesses and strengths pass down through generations and are recognizable in deep space, eighteenth century France, imaginary planets, and the 2011 version of New York City. Our stories are HUMAN.

Oh, and one more thing. The stories that survive to be greats? They have identifiable plot threads. Just food for thought.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Are you a misanthrope? Or just a snob?

Beware the self-identified misanthrope. If you are uncertain how to spot these people, here is a field guide:

  • Musical tastes: I loved their first album. Then they sold out.
  • Movie tastes: They don't make anything good. Unless it has subtitles. Except for Lord of the Rings. But I fell in love with Tolkein when I was 3 and first read The Hobbit.
  • Art tastes: Representational art with identifiable objects is for the uninitiated and Monet is for Hallmark cards.
  • Literary tastes: Why do you suppose only the college presses are printing anything worth reading? Nobody else puts out poetry any more.

Point of information: A misanthrope is someone who despises people. Someone who thinks they are better than everyone else is just a snob.