Thursday, August 26, 2010

Jonathan Franzen and Other Darlings in the Hot Seat

One of our bloggers couldn't make it this morning so I'm pinch hitting. I wrote the essay below a few months ago but it relates to what's been going on in the Internet lately. First Jodi Picoult chides the NYT for heaping praise on male literary darlings. (Like Jonathan Franzen, for instance) Then Jennifer Weiner joins the cause. Love to hear what you think about all this.

Wake Up and Smell the Evanovich

By Karin Gillespie

Every year Publishers Weekly puts out a list of the years’ bestselling adult novels. The list is interesting for several reasons. First off, it actually lists the number of copies sold. Unlike film studios, publishers are often coy about numbers of copies sold. (even to their authors). So it’s fascinating to see the actual numbers in black and white.

Another interesting point: Bestselling authors, who regularly make the Times list, have wide differences in their sales records. Janet Evanovich’s Fearless Fourteen sold 1,058, 427 copies in 2008, making her the sixth bestselling author on the list (John Grisham is number one.) In contrast, John Updike sold 101,000 copies of Widows of Eastwick.

Genre fiction dominates the list. Americans love their thrillers, mysteries and love stories. But, and no surprise here, they don’t buy a whole lot literary fiction. Salman Rushdie, Andres Dubus, Gerald Brooks and Jhumpa Lahiri made appearances (all sold less than 300,000 copies) but that was about it.

Which brings me to the point of this essay: Publishers Marketplace keeps an archive of book reviews from newspapers across the country. Guess how many reviews there were of Fearless Fourteen, a novel that sold over a million copies?


In contrast, Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie sold 105,512. It garnered a whopping 21 reviews.

I can already hear the outrage. Janet Evanovich is no Salman Rushdie. Maybe she isn’t. But over a million people in this country laid down money for her book. Not so much for Salman.

People have been lamenting the loss of book review sections in newspaper recently. Is it possible that these sections have dug their own graves by being too pretentious, and consistently ignoring the tastes of the average reader?

Imagine if entertainment editors ran their sections the way book editors do:

Yes, dear readers, we refuse to review the latest blockbuster action flick or romantic comedy because we’ve decided they’re too trite and commercial. Instead we’ll be devoting all of our space to a few obscure yet important indie films.

Way to kill that section.
Book reviewers might defend their choice of books, by saying, “Our readers are sophisticated. They don’t care about the latest Janet Evanovich.”

Good point. I’m not saying book review sections should ignore literary books in favor of popular books. I’m saying the reviewers are shooting themselves in the foot by refusing to give any ink to novels that people actually read.

If they reviewed popular novels, maybe, instead of turning off their core readership, they’d actually gain more readers. And isn’t that what every editor is looking for? More readers?

I’m not trying to make an argument about the merits of literary fiction versus popular fiction. I like them both. But I don’t enjoy reading most book review sections because they’re too heavily weighted towards obscure literary novels. If I, a voracious reader of both literary and mainstream fictions, don’t relate to most book review sections, I’m wondering how many people do.

And while I’m on the soapbox, studies show more women than men read novels. (Big shocker, right?) Yet, women’s novels get short shrift in review sections. In 2008, major book reviewers deigned to review John Grisham’s The Appeal five times. Nicholas Spark’s The Lucky One also got a few mentions. Most heavy hitter women novelists did not.

So who are book reviewers trying to please exactly? THEMSELVES, of course. When it comes down to it, they did not become reviewers to critique the antics of Stephanie Plum. (Janet Evanovich’s popular protag, if you’re not in the know.) And that’s why these sections are disappearing.

If book review sections want to survive, the editors need to take into consideration what the American is actually reading, and not what they’d like them to read.


  1. LOVE this post, Karin! I was just watching a re-run of Sex and the City and it was the one where Carrie's book gets reviewed by the NYT. I started laughing-- Carrie Bradshaw's book would NEVER get reviewed in the Times!! Unless she changed her name to Shteyngart....

  2. I see this popular=must be crap (especially if popular among women) association in other forms of entertainment too. I fell in love with Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World in high school and was livid years later when I discovered that Margaret Atwood has also written this type of futuristic imagine-if literature – in a far more engaging way – than Orwell or Huxley (The Handmaid’s Tale is a must read). But is she on the curriculum? Of course not (also, I went to school in Canada and Atwood is Canadian too so you’d think that would have provided the school boards with a nudge in the right direction…wouldn’t you? No?...)
    So why the omission? Because Atwood is a woman? Because she’s readable? Popular (though Nora Roberts, she certainly is not)? Because school boards – and probably book reviewers at long-standing, venerable outfits like the New York Times – operate much like a snooty high school clique with loyalty to nothing than outdated traditions than make no sense to anyone outside the “circle”?
    I guess the thing to remember here is that Nora Roberts, Janet Evanovitch et al. are here to stay, reviews or no reviews, and the Times are hanging on by a thread.

  3. You're right, this is an outrage.

    I'm so over the likes of James Patterson (who doesn't even write "his" own books), and John Grisham. Playing for Pizza is the last Grisham book I read, and the ending was incredibly lame. My kind of books are written by the likes of Joshlyn Jackson, Sarah Strohmeyer, Judy Larsen, and a host of cozy writers, including Elizabeth Peters, Elaine Viets, and Hank Phillipi Ryan. Looking at my (bulging) bookshelves, you'd say way more female authors than male.

    By the way, I rarely read "scholarly" reviews. The ones in The New Yorker, for instance, are rarely about the type of book I prefer. Every great once in a while I'll realize that I've read one of their reviewed list, but it's only by accident.

  4. Hi Brenda,

    I remember that SITC episode and, of course, Candace Bushnell is the real Carrie and I don't think she's been reviewed there. (It also used to crack me up that she could all that money from a weekly column but that's a whole other story.)

    I didn't know that about Atwood, Nadine. Seems like she'd make great curriculum material. The Handmaids Tale is one of the MFA books I'm reading this semester and I'm looking forward to it.

    I feel the same way, Karen about certain reviews. It also irks me when I can't tell if the reviewer liked the book or not. And in the Times there are so many darn translated books. Usually two or three every Sunday.


  5. The problem, I believe, is that the people who review books are writers themselves. This makes for a unique situation. Indeed, the reviewers of movies are not professional filmmakers, the reviewers of restaurants are not professional chefs, and reviewers of music are not professional musicians. But they are ALL professional writers.

    So it's impossible to escape a certain prejudice, especially since there's such a rigid class system among writers, built on disdain more entrenched than even the oldest caste-based societies. And yes, commercial novelists are considered the very lowest class.

    Still, I love literary fiction and am as eager to read Franzen's latest as I was to read Richard Russo's. But I enjoy mainstream fiction, too, and would devour reviews of Evanovich, Picoult, Weiner, et. al. if only I could find them ...

  6. I love this. I've always thought the disconnect between what the majority of American readers actually read and what most reviewers think they *should* read a very interesting one. I live in the land of television and film. Our business is driven by sales; tickets and advertising. Yes, everyone aspires to make their Oscar piece but studios are well aware which movies actually keep the coffers full. Reviewers who review films know this too and while they do often dedicate column inches to review Oscar's darlings they are very pragmatic in their approach. There isn't an upcoming blockbuster that a reviewer fails to mention. Failing to review what the public actually wants to see puts the reviewer in peril and makes them seem out of touch. Where *is* the Siskel & Ebert of books?

  7. Okay, don't take this wrong, but I'm thinking this is all a brouhaha when it doesn't need to be. I think women readers are the smartest people out there (especially you, Karen from Ohio!), and I don't think any of us go to the NYT for book suggestions. It's word of mouth, it's blogs like this, it's even (dare I say it) articles in magazines like Oprah and People and USA Today. It's the bookshelves at Target and my local bookseller who hands me books when I walk in her store. When I meet with book clubs to talk about my book, they always ask what I'm reading and what I recommend.

    I know I'm not writing serious literature. I'm okay with that. I'm writing books that I hope readers (men and women) will connect with. Would I love a NYT review? I guess, but I'm not their target writer or reader. And I'm okay with that. Would I love having my book recommended in Good Housekeeping? Absolutely.

    To me, we need to keep talking about book everywhere . . . and this cool new blog (thank you Karin!) is a perfect place to start.

  8. I think I could have agreed a little more if you had used a slightly less prolific, popular author. I know you might not like everything by an author, but by the time you get to the 14th book in a series I don't think a reviewer's opinion is going to sway you much. And I'd say a great majority of people who would like Evanovich's stuff has read something of hers, has a friend who has, or already intends to read something by her.

    I agree completely that I'd rather read reviews of more popular books, but it'd be more helpful to me if they were authors with less than 10 books out.

  9. That's a good point, Ellen. I hadn't thought of it that way, and yes, I'll be reading the new Franzen too. Maggie, I think the Siskel and Ebert of books is USA Today. They always include some commercial fiction in their book section. They just reviewed Lauren Weisberger's latest.

    I agree with you, Judy, that serious readers will ferret out the good books for the most part. But I do have to wonder how revelant the NYT and other book reviewers are. I'd love to see them mix it up a little.


  10. Picoult and Weiner are spot-on.

    The NYT favors "Performance Writing," which is essentially writing aimed at other writers (and critics, who are often writers themselves, or failed writers).

    It's a downward spiral of critical analysis that leaves out the majority of the book-buying public and does a disservice to the industry.

  11. Good point, anon. But don't forget that Lee Child and his latest Jack Reacher book usually gets a Times nod. Don't know how many he has though.

  12. Karin, I love your post -- so timely and dead on. I think Ellen's point is an excellent one in that the reviewers in question are usually professional writers. There are a lot of undercurrents and private agendas at play, even when those writers are struggling to write a fair and evenhanded review.

    I also think there are biases in both directions. I've heard/read more criticisms of genre novels from "literary" readers than of literary books from mainstream fans, but I've been surprised by the rancor on both ends. Hard not to notice how women authors are generally ignored or disrespected across the board, though.

    p.s. Maggie, you're right! We need a Siskel & Ebert of books!!

  13. I'll be reading the new Franzen, too, but it's because we get a couple free copies. The bird photo on the front cover was taken by my husband!

  14. As a writer, I think the fact that female writers are so frequently overlooked by reviewers is horrible. As a writer of genre fiction, I think the way some people react to genre fiction is insulting and wrong. Then again, I've seen a lot of anti-literary snobbery coming from the genre fiction ranks, so it's hard to point fingers.

    As a reader ... I don't care about any of that. I don't care what any reviewer says about a book. The best review isn't going to change my mind about any author if I don't like the way she writes. I don't care if 20 Million other people think she's "the bomb." Likewise, a bad review won't make me skip a book if the premise sounds intriguing to me. I never buy a book (or even check one out of the library) based on a reviewer's opinion. Unfortunately, that attitude's not that common. Too many people form their likes and dislikes based on what someone else says is good, bad, or not worth their time. I often wonder why we're so determined to force other people like what we like and hate what we hate. But I digress.

    On the flip-side to my No Review policy, a reader has to hear about the book somehow, and one can't count on local bookstores or libraries to actually HAVE the book in stock so it can whisper to the reader as she walks past it on the shelf. So we're stuck relying on lists and reviews to make our work at least appear worthy of notice.

    And that takes me right back to being outraged and insulted. Unfortunately, that can be a huge energy drain unless you have a plan for fighting the good fight, and enough spare time to actually engage in battle.

  15. Nicely put, Jamie. And Marilyn, you're right. There is bias in both directions. It can be an energy drain, Sherry, but I think it's useful to get the issue out there.

    Weiner and Picoult are interviewed in the Huff Po:

    Thanks, Brenda for letting me know.

    That's really interesting about the bird on the cover, Karen. Kudos to your husband. That's really cool.

  16. I rather think that this:

    "Okay, don't take this wrong, but I'm thinking this is all a brouhaha when it doesn't need to be. I think women readers are the smartest people out there (especially you, Karen from Ohio!), and I don't think any of us go to the NYT for book suggestions. "

    is where all the book blogs came from in the first place. We took to the internet to find out what others thought of books we were reading and, when we couldn't find it, created it for ourselves.

  17. I went to see Alexander McCall Smith at my local library in Carlsbad, CA. I really wanted to meet him so I got there an hour early. There were 4 or 5 hundred women there ahead of me and about 3 or 4 men.

    Women are truly the powerhitters of the book buying public!

    Greg Gutierrez
    Zen and the Art of Surfing

  18. your critiqe of the snooty establishment would be more forecful if you didnt call him "Salam" Rushdie three times.

  19. Thank God for blogs, Anon. Thanks for catching that, Mike. I corrected it.
    Wow! That's a lot of women,Greg.

  20. Very nice post, Karin.

    I subscribe to the NY Times weekend edition (or rather my husband does) and I have to admit to reading (or rather skimming mostly), the entertainment/book section. The most interesting piece I've read in a long time is Jennifer Weiner's full page ad advertising her new book (which included the first couple pages of the book in print large enough to read). I guess that's one way to get in the Times.

  21. Get out of my head! I feel much better knowing I'm not the only one to skip the book reviews because scanning it makes me sleepy.

    That's not to say I never read literary fiction. I like a good handful of anything and everything (including Twilight as do so MANY of you), but I still feel guilty when a page-turning, but not necessarily thought-provoking, novel wins out. Life's sad enough, and millions of us can't be wrong! Chick Books, Take Me Away!

    I also think this means great things for authors. It's only logical that literature become the next artistic medium reinvented through user-generated content distributed online.

    I have absolute respect for literary agents, and those I've had the opportunity to communicate with have been almost without exception, professional and courteous. And they know what they're looking for! At the same, however, and I'm surely not the first to make the comparison, it's like high school. A very small portion of people rule over the majority. Statistically speaking, given that agents see hundreds of thousands of samples a year, it's inevitable that a relatively sizable number of potential best-sellers are going to slip through the crack; be they steamy bodice rippers, sleep-with-the-light-on-thrillers, or a serious works of non-fiction about places I couldn't find on map.

    I can't wait to see what happens as the e-reader continues to blow the doors off of the old industry model, providing massive opportunity for talented and inventive authors with dual skill-sets to step up to the plate and make a name for themselves in publishing, but by going straight to the consumers themselves. I also can't wait for the influx of niche market content that publishing houses just can't afford to take on, but that would still fill a void for many.

    Thanks for the post.

    Wordsmith & Wesson

  22. I don't read the NYT book review either. What really bothers me is the fact that these reviewers aren't diverse in their reading. I don't know many people who ONLY read literary fiction or even genre categories like romance or sci-fi to the exclusion of everything else. And the few people I know who do read in this manner aren't necessarily people whose tastes I respect. There's something very small-minded about reading only one type of literature. And I agree that if movie reviewers can find time to watch both the Hurt Locker and Avatar, I see no reason why a good book reviewer wouldn't be interested in doing the same. in the end, I find the NYT's take on books quite grim. It's like they approach all books the same way w/ no eye toward the joy of reading.

  23. I'm with you Ernessa and Maria. I like to look at the book review for the ads. Those are the books I'm usually interested in.

    Good points Wordsmith and Wesson.

    It's been a fun debate. Thanks for everybody's contribution.

  24. Great post, Karin! I keep feeling deja vu. Didn't you and I and several other authors go through this five years ago with This Is Chick-Lit etc? In publishing, time grinds so slowly.

  25. You bet we did, Lauren. There's uproar but nothing really changes.

  26. Came here after reading your comment at the Open Roads page--thank you for adding some real statistics to that discussion. I found the 19 versus 64 female/male authors reviewed stat you quoted to be very interesting. I think Weiner and Picoult make a valid point and one that should be addressed. Nothing stupid about what they've said. And consider me a new fan of this blog!