Amid drama about the impending dissolution of the chains and Seth Godin’s news that he’s self-publishing, I’ve been happily following the literary establishment’s gushing over Jonathan Franzen’s new novel Freedom, and in turn, the complaints about what the gushing over Freedom says about literature, publishing, and the state of reading.
At first the bad news about the good reviews, brought up by Jodi Picoult, was that it proved the NYT only likes white dudes from Brooklyn. The Atlantic jumped into the fray with two pieces–Chris Jackson’s more even-handed lamentation that, probably, we don’t read as much fiction by women for myriad reasons, despite a wealth of it being available.
Now Lorin Stein has semi-slammed the publishing industry for not being able to get more serious authors into the Franzen stratosphere. Stein, who used to work for FSG (and PW) and is now an editor at The Paris Review, wrote: “Just how great does a novel have to be, just how many great novels does a contemporary author have to write, before we admit that the lameness of the publishing business has failed to snuff the spark of greatness, or turn serious readers off?”
That question has already caused something of a backlash on Twitter. Jason Pinter (who used to be an editor, then wrote full-time, and is now agent-ing) tweeted: “My issues with Lorin Stein’s article in The Atlantic–no issues w/ standing up for literary fiction, just his dismissal of everything else.” Pinter (@jasonpinter) then followed with six ways in which he disagreed with Stein. (Pinter’s #4 is: ‘Nobody is asking for ‘mass market novels’ to be celebrated, only that critics seem to almost willfully ignore most popular fiction.’)
I’m inclined to agree with Pinter.
To me, the questions raised by the kerfuffle over Franzen’s reviews gets at something I’ve long watched with relish, covering this business. Within the industry there’s a feeling that anything that gets anyone reading is good, yet, filled as publishing is with people who love books, people who think books are important, people who think they’re not simply churning out popular entertainment but also high culture, there’s an intense jealousy about what becomes popular. Lots of great, important books are published frequently, yet precious few of the people who write them get the opportunity to turn down Oprah or grace the cover of Time Magazine. Is that bullshit? Maybe. Is it life? Yes.
The deeper question is about the supposed “serious reader” that Stein is talking about. I’ve long thought about this question. I grew up in a household with two teachers: my father taught high school English and my mother taught middle school art. My father would often talk about his theories on reading, his fascination and frustration with what makes one child relish books and another indifferent. And he often referred to my mother as the “serious reader” in the household. My father (like me) reads slowly. And his tastes, like mine, veer towards “literature”–literary fiction, serious non-fiction, etc. My mother tends to read in the Oprah mold–bookclub selections, supposed “women’s fiction,” runaway bestsellers. (My mother, as it happens, adores Jodi Picoult and, I would venture, doesn’t know who Jonathan Franzen is.)
On a monetary level, my mother is, in my family, the more important consumer for the publishing industry. She buys more books. And, despite her proclivity for what some high-minded literary types might deem crap–she begged me to get her a copy of The Secret–I think she would enjoy Franzen’s new novel. And, since he’s on the cover of Time, there’s a greater chance her friends will start talking about Freedom and a greater chance she’ll want to read it. (Outside of Oprah, the biggest reason she wants to read a book is because “people are talking about it.”)
My mother doesn’t read the New York Times Book Review and, despite her daughter’s occupation, doesn’t pay much attention to the squabbles of the New York intellectual literary establishment. She does read. I would argue she reads seriously. I don’t believe the publishing industry is “lame” because it hasn’t been able to get her to read more writers like Franzen. I believe the publishing industry, at its core, is accomplishing its job by making sure there is always a book in her hand. The fact that she doesn’t read more “important” novels is, well, a much more complex issue altogether.