Fast forward to yesterday morning, when I'm in the car listening to "Radio Times" a call-in show broadcast from Philadelphia and carried by XM/Sirius. Marty Moss-Coane's guest was Jennifer Weiner, the popular novelist of such books as Good in Bed, In Her Shoes, and most recently Fly Away Home, in which a 57-year-old wife of a politician has to endure The Press Conference in which her husband confesses his infidelity and asks the electorate for whatever (forgiveness? another chance? I'll admit I haven't read this book yet). Weiner explained that she was curious about the conversation between husband and wife before The Press Conference and in the car ride home, and that was the reason she wrote the book. There are two grown daughters as well, and Weiner believes the book shows how all three women grow up in response to the politician/husband/dad's confession.
(Full disclosure: I've met Jennifer Weiner precisely once although she would have no reason to remember, and I know her husband rather better although I haven't seen him in ten years. I'm not sure if that makes me biased in one direction or another, but I thought I should mention it.)
A year ago, I wrote about the cultural divide between the perception of romance novels/writers as compared to other writers & genres. I made the point:
Let's say that Jennifer Crusie's books evolved from the classic contemporary romance novel -- where she got her start, as it happens -- and Jennifer Weiner's work evolved from smart, snappy journalism -- where she got her start, as it happens. Different paths, but their books end up pretty close together if you're visualizing the respective family trees: funny, descriptive, nice story arcs and cheery characters. I suspect you can be certain with a J.Cru book that there will be a heroine, a hero, some sex & lots of laughs; with a J.Wein book, I'd bet on a heroine, some trouble, but lots of laughs, and a life lesson or two. Not really that far apart. But look at how differently they're marketed. I've not seen Jennifer Crusie's closet pictured in Entertainment Weekly, for example. I'm just saying.
which translates to: Romance novels rank below "chick lit" or "women's fiction" in the marketing and media coverage of genre fiction.
When Marty Moss-Coane mentioned the label "chick lit," Weiner was only a little annoyed by the limitations of that pigeonhole. She did point out, though, that a novel with a 57-year-old protagonist wasn't stereotypically "chick lit." (And she's right -- that's stereotypically "women's fiction," another pigeonhole!) But then she went on to note that the New York Times has never reviewed her books, apart from a fly-over in their "Great Beach Reads" type articles. Carl Hiaasen gets reviewed in the Times, she noted. He used to be a journalist. She used to be a journalist. He writes funny books. She writes funny books. Implicit was: What's up with that?
So Jennifer Crusie doesn't get coverage in Entertainment Weekly, but Jennifer Weiner does. And Jennifer Weiner doesn't get reviewed in the Times, but Carl Hiaasen does. (To be fair to Weiner, she admits that a review in the New York Times wouldn't jack her sales up much.) And, for all we know, Hiaasen is never reviewed in the New York Review of Books, and that annoys him. There's greener grass for everyone.
There weren't a lot of callers in to the show, despite the fact that Weiner is a local Philly writer (the movie that Curtis Hanson made from In Her Shoes was filmed in Philadelphia, and Weiner was cast as "Smiling Woman in Italian Market"). But one guy -- an older man, maybe in his late 60s or 70s -- phoned in to demand of Weiner, "Why should I read your novel when there are no men in it?" Three women and the only man, he said, was "an empty envelope." (I'd have said the only male character was "a used condom," but maybe that would have been too raunchy for this show.) The caller sounded really angry, and Moss-Coane (whom I learned later yesterday is married to a psychotherapist) used her best soothing voice to defuse the guy's hostility and thus protect Weiner.
Actually Weiner seemed willing to take the guy on. She pointed out that maybe he'd like to read her books to find out how women think. Well, as you might imagine, the caller was not appeased and that's not like to be another sale for Weiner. I don't think she minds.
Here's what I think the guy was saying: When a book focuses on three women and doesn't look at the man's point-of-view, why should a man read it? (He might also have been thinking that Fly Away Home is not likely to be a book that spends a lot of time seeing the husband/politician as worthy of our attention, but he didn't say that, and it is likely not to be true. I think Weiner's a better writer than that.)
Which brings us back to Lee Child's books. Half of them are written from the first-person voice -- Reacher's voice -- and the other half are in the third-person, but still predominantly focused on what Jack Reacher is doing. All guy, all the time. And women read them. Child said that women are the majority of his readers because they have time and money to spend on books.
What do I take from all this? That women are SMARTER THAN MEN. Yup. We are. We're smart enough to read a good book regardless of whether a man or a woman wrote it, and regardless of whether it features a man or a woman or both (or two men or a woman & a shapeshifter, etc., etc.). How outrageously honest and arrogant was that caller to presume that because a book was focused on women, there would be nothing in it for him? Oh, and narcissistic. Because he only wants to read books that have guys in them, guys like him, presumably.
One of the women in the Child/Brockman workshop told Lee Child that what she -- a stay-at-home mom with pre-school kids -- most loved about Jack Reacher was his rootlessness. He has assets & resources but he has no home; he just moves around the country until he finds a place that needs his particular brand of wits and activism. For the mom, that seemed glorious -- not to shirk your responsibilities but simply not have any responsibilities that tie you down. What a wonderful reason to love a character -- and it has nothing to do with gender. Too bad our arrogant caller lacks the open mind, imagination & intelligence to think, "There may be something in this female character I can relate to, and even if there isn't, it's a great story."
Ah, but there's one last battle to report. When I went looking for Lee Child's sales figures, I found this blog post about a vodcast of a panel of genre writers talking about the divide with literary fiction. The blogger, an Australian woman, Kirstyn McDermott, has a bone to pick with Lee Child, who believes that he could write a Martin Amis-style literary novel in three weeks, and it would sell 3,000 copies like Amis's own novels sell. But Martin Amis can't write a bestseller the way Bryce Courtenay does and make pots of money. The way we know Amis can't is that if he could he would -- for the money alone.
McDermott is incensed that writers at that caliber can't all play nicely in the sandbox, but she overlooks the fact that the panel was set up specifically to look at the divide between literary and genre fiction writers. As I see it, Child was just delivering the goods the producers wanted.
My disagreement with Child's position is the assumption that Martin Amis or Ian McEwan would want to write a book that sold hundreds of thousands of copies if by doing so they were betraying their own unique style, voice & vision. Instead, I suspect Amis & McEwan simply want their books -- their literarily acclaimed books -- to sell in the six- and seven-digits... McDermott believes this as well, but still seems incensed at Child's presumption. I was, I'll admit, startled by her vehemence. And her belief that what he said in any way tells her (or us) what he's actually like as a person. (She does go there, by the way: she accused him of being "well, childish.")
Implicit in McDermott's post is the assumption that genre writers need to "sell" their books to the fans and aficionados of literary fiction. Oh, puhleeze. There are too many books for everyone to read all of them, and clearly Lee Child's books -- like Jennifer Weiner's -- are finding their audience: WOMEN.
Just think of all the books men are missing because they're too stupid to read outside some arbitrary and narrow construct. And now think how much better women authors' sales might be if their books were judged on merit and not on gender -- the way women readers judge the books they read. I'm not incensed about Lee Child's attitudes about Martin Amis -- I'm incensed at men's attitudes toward books in general.