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Fiona Snyckers

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Franzen Frenzy Gets Foolisher

So the century is precisely ten years old and already it has a greatest novel?

Jonathan Franzen’s ‘Freedom’ has yet to be released, but on the strength of a few pre-publication review copies doing the rounds, the literary establishment has declared it to be the novel of the century. Time magazine even put Franzen on its cover. Our own Kevin Bloom wrote about him in the Daily Maverick, wondering aloud whether literature was about to make a comeback (where did it go?).

All of which leads us to one inescapable conclusion: when men write about families and relationships, it’s called high art – when women write about the same thing, it’s called chick-lit.

If this sounds like sour grapes, well, perhaps I just lack the fine discernment that characterised the Pulitzer Prize committee in 1930 when they declared ‘Laughing Boy’ by Oliver La Farge to be the novel of the year. ‘Oliver La Who?’ do I hear you ask? You mean you’ve never heard of him? Well, he must be good because in 1930 he was up against such competition as Faulkner’s ‘The Sound and the Fury’ and Hemingway’s ‘A Farewell to Arms’. He beat them both … and now he is out of print and completely unheard of.

If you think this is an isolated case, you should check out this website. Random samples: The Great Gatsby losing out to ‘Arrowsmith’ by Sinclair Lewis in 1926. ‘Catch-22’ losing out to ‘The Edge of Sadness’ by Edwin O’Connor in 1962. (Edwin O’Who?). There are plenty of others.

The point is that great modern classics aren’t easy to call in the year they come out. Sometimes not even in the century they come out. We need the perspective of time and distance to judge the real impact a novel has. Much of that impact has to do with whether a book stays in print, which it only tends to do when people buy it, which they only tend to do when they enjoy it. People are funny that way.

You wouldn’t be far wrong in saying that the literary canon is made up of fan favourites that gradually got adopted by the literary establishment. From Shakespeare, to Austen, to the Brontes, to Dickens, and many points in between, we see smash-hit plays and novels being retrospectively gathered into the bosom of the establishment and granted a recognition they lacked in their own time.

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.

We have no way of knowing whether a novel like ‘Freedom’ will stand the test of time. When future scholars pick over the bones of the early 21st Century dysfunctional family, will they turn to ‘In Her Shoes’ by Jennifer Weiner – New York Times bestseller, made into a Hollywood movie – or Franzen’s ‘Freedom’ – a tome that runs just shy of 600 pages, and that some reviewers have described as hard going? You have no way of knowing the answer to that question, and nor do I. All we know is that it would probably surprise us.

You’d think book reviewers would know this by now, wouldn’t you, so why the near-hysterical adulation for a book very few people have read? I’m not the first person to ask this question.

Bestselling novelists Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner have been making some scathing references on Twitter lately about the tendency of the literary establishment to fawn at the feet of its white, male literary darlings. Their iconoclasm has ruffled more than a few male feathers, causing Weiner, rather mischievously, to create the hashtags #Franzenfreude and #grumpyoldmen to describe the resultant furore.

One encouraging sign is that her concerns are not being dismissed with a smile and a pat on the head this time. The question that I started this blog with is receiving some serious attention in publications such as The Huffington Post. One can only hope this attention will lead to a modification of popular opinion.

‘When men write about families and relationships it’s called high art – but when women write about the same thing, it’s called chick-lit’. FINALLY, it’s being said out loud. The terms ‘high art’ and ‘chick-lit’ are both well overdue for a reboot. One can only hope they’ll get it.

 

Recent comments:

  • Mervyn
    Mervyn
    August 27th, 2010 @09:28 #
     
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    One small correction, Fiona. The hype is not all pre-publication - Freedom has been out in the US for a few weeks. The UK edition (which is the one that gets sold into the SA market) is only being published in October which means it releases in SA in November. Your second paragraph reminded me of something Jeanette Winterson said in Hay recently - when men insert themselves or a likeness of themselves into fiction, it's called metafiction. When women do the same, it's called autobiography or memoir.

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  • <a href="http://www.jassymackenzie.com" rel="nofollow">Jassy</a>
    Jassy
    August 27th, 2010 @09:36 #
     
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    That is so true! Brilliant post, Fiona - and I was also wondering what on earth all the hype was surrounding something that sounds like a family saga. Maybe you should change your name to Frank Franzen - it has a nice ring to it!

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    August 27th, 2010 @09:42 #
     
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    Brilliant post, Fiona. It sums up a whole lot of nonsense in one stroke. I have never understood the particularly American fetish for the sweeping, masculinist family drama. They are - in all my experience - long, tedious, bombastic, over-inflated, humourless, pandering to the critics rather than the readers, conservatively modernist and realist, and self-important. While they may nod to the 21st century in narrative form, their ideas of how fiction works and what it says are all stuck in the barracks and bars of the 1950s. Frankly, the American testo-epicists give fiction written by men a bad name.

    When I was alerted to Freedom the other night, my first question was "How long is it?"

    No thanks.

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  • <a href="http://rustumkozain.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Rustum Kozain</a>
    Rustum Kozain
    August 27th, 2010 @09:53 #
     
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    Not directly related, but another shot at the literary establishment, with class as its gunpowder: http://tinhousebooks.com/blog/?p=1100

    (I think this is originally via @BookSA)

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  • <a href="http://ingridandersen.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Ingrid Andersen</a>
    Ingrid Andersen
    August 27th, 2010 @10:49 #
     
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    Well said, Fi. Byatt has spoken recently along the same lines.
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/aug/20/as-byatt-intellectual-women-strange

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  • <a href="http://www.modjajibooks.co.za" rel="nofollow">Colleen</a>
    Colleen
    August 27th, 2010 @11:11 #
     
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    I've been following this 'debate' on Twitter too ... and agree re the way Franzen is being hyped. I haven't read Freedom, but I did love The Corrections. However, there are many other equally wonderful books written by women, like Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres just to name one, and just sticking to US authors for a moment.

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  • <a href="http://fionasnyckers.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    Fiona
    August 27th, 2010 @11:33 #
     
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    Thanks for the comment, Mervyn! Are you quite sure that 'Freedom' is already out, though? All the information I can find online suggests that the release date is August 31. Amazon is taking pre-orders now but will only ship on that date.

    Apparently Obama took 'Freedom' on holiday with him, but it was also a pre-publication copy.

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  • <a href="http://www.amillionmilesfromnormal.blogspot.com" rel="nofollow">Paige</a>
    Paige
    August 27th, 2010 @11:53 #
     
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    "The terms ‘high art’ and ‘chick-lit’ are both well overdue for a reboot."

    - totally, it's really time.

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  • <a href="http://kathrynwhite.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kathryn</a>
    Kathryn
    August 27th, 2010 @12:17 #
     
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    I read the reviews - thought, oh well, i will see what i think. but when i read the Times excerpt i was absolutely flabbergasted - the prose is so incredibly beautiful and the books that stand with us are usually a new language, and that deserves to be lauded.

    also, i think a very good example of where pop.fiction and writing combine really well is the Millenium trilogy. To write such cut and dry descriptions like that, so that you are completely breathless is just as much an art as the deep stuff - and as far as iv seen/read/heard most ppl are nice about Larson - from teh snobs right thru to the airport readers.

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  • Mervyn
    Mervyn
    August 27th, 2010 @12:25 #
     
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    Fiona, it is out. I checked last weekend and saw that the American wholesaler from whom we order had stock and ordered a couple of hardbacks from themwhile we wait for the UK edition to become available. They've already been invoiced and shipped so they should be here in about a week.
    Which is of course entirely unrelated to the substance of your post with which I agree entirely.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    August 27th, 2010 @14:34 #
     
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    Louis, you get the Label award of the year for the utterly brilliant "testo-epicists". Trademark it quick, 'cos I'm going to be stealing it.

    Since the CTBF, I've been wondering whether at least in SA (sorry, you've heard this before, but I intend to be a dripping tap on this one) "chick-lit" should be reclassified under the umbrella term "rom-kom". Other suggestions welcome, but what I am looking for is the romantic equivalent of the "krimi" label, something that applies across the board to novels that are commercial and entertaining, in broad "chick-lit"/romantic territory, and often demonstrating considerable literary merit. This label would at least get us out of what I have taken to calling the "oestrogen ghetto".

    I digress -- great post Fifi, and you get no argument from me. I am also fascinated by the Byatt piece, not so much for the great debate about prizes for women's lit (I'm in favour), but for what she says about Possession... that paragraph about how the publisher wanted to cut out the poetry has me wondering about my usual scalpel approach to editing. Plus the point she makes about being astonished when a "niche novel for academics" was a success supports Fifi's argument here. I suppose it proves you should write what you like and know. But write it well. The jury is still out on whether JF has done either. His publicist deserves a medal, though.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    August 27th, 2010 @14:45 #
     
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    PS: Click on the Huffington Post link (read the links as well). Riveting, some really good snacks for thought.

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  • <a href="http://fionasnyckers.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    Fiona
    August 28th, 2010 @15:36 #
     
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    As the world counts down to Tuesday, August 31, when Franzen's novel will hit the shelves in America, the New Yorker has put up the first two chapters on their website.

    I read them this morning and really enjoyed them, despite being initially slightly prejudiced against him.

    HOWEVER, it needs to be said that this is precisely the kind of domestic, quotidian fiction that women have been writing for the last fifty years and more to far less literary acclaim. I'm thinking of Barbara Trapido, Anita Brookner, Fay Weldon, and many, many others. No one has ever accused one of these women of writing the 'novel of the century'.

    Their stuff is every bit as good as Franzen's (and frequently better), but it gets sidelined under the label 'women's fiction'. Makes me mad enough to spit tacks.

    Read the excerpt here - http://nyr.kr/9kK7km

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    August 28th, 2010 @16:22 #
     
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    ha ha - "accused"

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    August 29th, 2010 @00:17 #
     
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    Tried to read the much-hyped chapters, got simultaneously bored and frustrated. Does this ever need editing! No, seriously folks -- I'm not talking about line-editing, but the desperate need for precis. The writing is nice (Anne Tyler crossed with Anita Shreve if either of those writers smoked some mellow weed and got reeeeeeeally long-winded), but you get the sense that the author, editor and publisher all colluded in the lovely fantasy that EVERY word JF produced was infinitely precious.

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  • <a href="http://fionasnyckers.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    Fiona
    August 29th, 2010 @09:19 #
     
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    By popular request, I am copypasting from my Facebook page a discussion that was prompted by this blog:

    Richard de Nooy:

    Intriguing piece. Why did you allow your publisher to brand and market your book as chick-lit?

    Fiona Snyckers:

    Because it is chick-lit, Richard. Single girl looking for love, infatuated with shoes, brand names and pink drinks. It's fun and frothy, and I'm happy to cop to the chick-lit label. I also happen to think it's pretty good, not being one who believes that 'good' and 'entertaining' are mutually exclusive terms in literature ;)

    Louis Greenberg:

    Brilliant post, Fiona. It sums up a whole lot of nonsense in one stroke. I have never understood the particularly American fetish for the sweeping, masculinist family drama. They are - in all my experience - long, tedious, bombastic, over-inflated, humourless, pandering to the critics rather than the readers, conservatively modernist and realist, and self-important. While they may nod to the 21st century in narrative form, their ideas of how fiction works and what it says are all stuck in the barracks and bars of the 1950s. Frankly, the American testo-epicists give fiction written by men a bad name.

    When I was alerted to Freedom the other night, my first question was "How long is it?"

    No thanks.

    Richard de Nooy:

    All this raises the question of intent, which I believe lies at the heart of the assessment of literary value. Was the author's prime intention to sell as many books as possible (by appealling to a popular market) or to recount a story that... he/she had tell, without considering whether it might appeal to an audience?

    And surely there are plenty of women authors who have won literary awards. I'm not saying the playing field is level, but it's not as if women are condemned to writing chick-lit and romance.

    Fiona Snyckers:

    Louis, won't you do me a favour and post this excellent comment under my blog on Book SA? It needs to be read by a wider audience than just my FB friends. (Unless you're hoping Franzen might give you a job some day...)

    Fiona Snyckers:

    @ Richard - what about Dickens who pandered shamelessly to his reading market and churned out the longest possible novels because he was paid per serial instalment? I find his stuff enlessly readable today. I think it has more to do with history's judgement than the author's intention.

    Louis Greenberg:

    Are you suggesting a dichotomy between popular (selling) fiction and "stories that writers have to tell" (literary) fiction, Richard? It sounds naive to me. Popular fiction often tells stories that people should hear in a much more direct ...and affecting way than "literary" fiction and *that's* why they sell. Besides, any writer who has made a single cent on their writing is beyond the pure question of story-for-story's sake... (art, literature, all that bullshit... writers have the self-reflexivity to know it's nonsense). I suggest Franzen, on setting out, could choose to write for the money or for the critical kudos... He's the sort of writer who writes for critical fame. He'll never be as rich, or as read, as Grisham, but his story is not some straigt-from-the-pantheon expression. He's not a priest. Popular writers get closer to priestliness because they link *emotionally* rather than intellectually with their congregants.

    Fiona Snyckers:

    You know what Franzen is most famous for? Refusing to go on Oprah to talk about his last novel 'The Commitments'. The only author who has ever done so, I believe. Fair enough, and it's his own choice, but it doesn't make me think any better of him.

    Richard de Nooy:

    I think the discussion is getting blurred by using Franzen as an example. I'm not saying the distinction is right or wrong or useful. I'm just saying I do see a clear distinction between works of literary fiction and works of popular fiction. And I prefer the former in much same way as I prefer Louis Greenberg weighing in with serious analysis of this topic, over Louis Greenberg pitching in with a "Good on you, Fiona. Kick Franzen and the literary establishment in the arse."

    Ingrid Andersen:

    I'm really enjoying this - these issues are often not discussed - the dichotomies between popular and 'literary' - an "us and them" attitude, often quite elitist. This links in beautifully with the Byatt interview on the same subject.

    Ingrid Andersen:

    The Byatt link: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/aug/20/as-byatt-intellectual-women-strange

    Louis Greenberg:

    I don't know, Richard (despite your professional efforts to win me over). I think the distinction is thoroughly useless. It's like trying to divide fruit into two groups. There are many flavours. I started off reading popular fiction like Christie and Rendell and Poe, then got all high-minded and read DeLillo and Auster etc., but they are the low-brow of the high-brow - (ie kinda readable and tell a story still). I could never manage Joyce or much Nabokov, let alone Calvino or Dostoyevsky or Kafka or Sarte (actually scrap all the Europeans). But I loved Barthelme for style over story. Kinda got Bellow. Roth just irrtates me. Loved Chabon's epic Kavalier & Clay, because it was fantastical. Like Murakami and early Mitchell and David Maine. Always loved Dickens. The domestic novels that have most affected me have all been by women: Mary Karr, Audrey Niffenegger, Maggie O'Farrell, Joy Nicholson. Now I'm coming back to the out-of-the-box genre writers: Dan Simmons, Stephen King, Joe Hill...

    Basically I'm somewhere in the middle. I love fiction that's cleverr but not too clever, laden with ideas but prioritising feeling and story. My favourite "literature" errs on the side of populism, and my favourite genre is very clever but will never win the Booker. And it doesn't matter. Point is, they're neither literary or mainstream, or they're both.

    Richard de Nooy:

    I too enjoy all kinds of fruit, but I think the metaphor should be taken one step further. What has been done with that fruit? How has it been served? Yes, I like a simple apple or banana, but I like them even more if they have been thoughtfully and creatively processed and served in an original manner. And I think this distinction is clear beyond the scope of my personal preferences.

    Fiona Snyckers:

    Agreed, Richard. But the adjectives thoughtful, creative and original can equally be applied to literature that sells well. One century's popular fiction becomes the next century's literary fiction (eg. Austen et al). Literature that self-consciously removes itself from the popular realm runs the risk of writing itself out of the history books. If no one enjoys the book, no one buys the book - the book goes out of print - the book is lost to posterity.

    Richard de Nooy:

    Absolutely! I would love my books to sell well, but I make no conscious effort to write them in a manner that would make them more marketable.

    Lauri Kubuitsile:

    I like Jennifer Weiner's comment that she'll cry into her royalty cheque. HA!

    I think Richard is missing a bit of the point here. When women write about certian subjects it is immediatly pushed to the side and ignored as fluff while men can ...write about the SAME thing and it is held up as art. What's up with that???

    I find the whole popular vs literary discussion quite artificial and, yes, elitist. As Fiona rightly points out good books stand the test of time and in most cases those fell firmly into the popular fiction genre of their time. I just do not get writing a book, "because you must" knowing full well that few will take the time to read it. What really is the point except to get a few high brow critics on their own power trip to give it a nod? Writing should be an engagement between the writer and the reader, if the reader cannot make any headway because the writer cared nothing about giving them a space to break in then really I just find the whole excercise indulgent and selfish.

    Louis Greenberg:

    True that, Lauri - the same thing. That's the point.

    I try not to draw any universalising conclusions or create any schemes that work beyond my personal experience, Richard. It's all I have on which to base my arguments - I can't presume to ...understand the preferences of another. It's a deliberate aversion to taking sides or elevating one thing over another which usually ends up in me arguing wrong, just regaling you with annoying polemic. All I can tell anyone is my opinion and I can't squeeze anyone else's opinion into my scheme.

    Louis Greenberg:

    PS, Are you *sure* about that, Richard? "no conscious effort to write them in a manner that would make them more marketable"? You have *absolutely* no sense of your publishers, previous criticism, your readership (to whom the book will ultimately be marketed) when you write? It *just* flows straight from the Platonic cave in your mind to your page, unmediated by the real world?

    Richard de Nooy:

    I merely saw the point from a completely different angle, Lauri. I'm not suggesting there isn't anything suspect or elitist about the literary establishment, I'm merely saying I see a clear distinction between the intent of authors and their publishers.
    Personally, I write the kind of books I would like to read, which saves me the trouble of having to choose a reader a want to engage with.

    Fiona Snyckers:

    I do that too.

    Richard de Nooy:

    Absolutely, Louis. See the last para of my comment above. Perhaps I'm just fortunate that the stuff I come up with in that cave has appealled to publishers and readers. The only effort I have made is to write what I write as well as I can, according to my own standards.

    Louis Greenberg:

    You are an angel, Richard. One of the pantheon. A better man, and all that.

    For my own part, I am always chattered to by voices in my head when I write, previous critics particulalrly. For a while I wanted nothing more than for the critics ...to give me 5-star reviews, not all this luke-warm semi-approval. But now I have made the liberating discovery that if I forget the critics and concentrate on having fun while I write and trying to appeal to as many readers as my writing is capable of appealing to with a scientific mixture of 83.72% entertainment and 16.28% secret herbs and spices, it all seems a lot more worthwhile. Readers, publishers - yes, dare I say it, sales - the possibility of making a living - are ever-present in my study.
    (Now that I say this, I think we've had this self-same debate years ago... not so?)

    Louis Greenberg:

    But as Lauri rightly says, this is a side-show to the main point. But there's no reason not to go off-point.

    Richard de Nooy:

    The debate does indeed sound familiar. Perhaps I'm also fortunate in that I am something a literary barbarian (hence the cave), who hasn't taken the trouble to immerse himself in the classics, let alone dabble in the scientific underpinnings of their classicism. (Ooh, that sounds lovely, so it's probably wrong.)

    Richard de Nooy:

    Come to think of it, my new book confirms my devil-may-care approach. If I had allowed myself to be guided by what sells, I probably wouldn't have written a novel set largely in the Amsterdam gay scene. On the bright side, when it hits Exclusives, they won't know whether to put it in the African Fiction or Gay & Lesbian section. Perhaps it'll be in both.

    Ingrid Andersen:

    ‎@Richard - No, they'll put it in DIY.
    I hope you're cross-posting all of this to BOOKSA - it's too good to get lost in the ephemeral space of FB. @Louis - maybe you have had this debate before, but the fact that it has resurfaced means that... it is worth debating because it is not easily resolved. There are no empirical measurables here ... except for Louis' percentiles, of course. And you know what they say about lies, damned lies and statistics. I *do* have to admit some concern as to the secret herbs.

    Richard de Nooy:

    Sadly, I haven't cross-posted on Book SA. The comments would look strange as a monologue. Perhaps Fiona can copy-paste the entire exchange. Or I'll re-hash the whole thing as a single comment that will sully my name forever.

    Zukiswa Wanner:

    Great post Fifi...what we should be learning from this is that, we need to hire Franzen's publicist:-)

    Fiona Snyckers:

    Damn right, Zuks. He (or she) is a freakin' genius.

    Helen Moffett:

    Wd also love to see this entire fascinating debate cc-ed across to Book SA. Extremely well-articulated, thanks esp to Richard and Louis, and to Fifi for setting it in motion.

    I want to go back to the gender point, esp having now started rea...ding the opening chapter. Which, to me, reads like a very long-winded US version of Joanna Trollope. Who was dismissively termed as a "Aga saga" biddy by the critics (and who I suspect also cries into her royalty cheques). What we still haven't dealt with (in the 21st century nogal) is the mindset that embraces male creative output as "universal" (regardless of topic), whereas female art gets shuffled into the oestrogen ghetto (my phrase of the week). I'm delighted that men are writing about intimate and domestic stuff, but why do they get an extra round of applause when they do so?

    It reminds me of being on an international listserve/discussion group re sexual violence a few years back. The idea was to share educational strategies, but I was intrigued at how many men used the space to share their personal histories of sexual abuse -- something not one of the women did, altho almost all of us were survivors of either domestic or sexual violence. I pointed this out at the time, and some interesting discussion ensued, but what intrigued me was that men's stories were received differently as *narrative* -- as if there was something innately tragic and heroic and accompanied by a swelling soundtrack in their stories. The women's histories were respected and accepted, but treated differently, as something both a tad banal and as markers of being biologically female.See more

    Zukiswa Wanner:

    Or to quote myself Helen, 'how come women are referred to as chic-lit but no man is ever dick-lit'?

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  • <a href="http://rustumkozain.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Rustum Kozain</a>
    Rustum Kozain
    August 29th, 2010 @10:44 #
     
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    Celine Dion or Joni Mitchell?
    Michael Jackson or Prince?
    The Bee Gees or Bob Dylan?

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    August 29th, 2010 @12:36 #
     
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    AIEEEE! I wrote another essay. It suffered sudden comment death. Maybe I'll try again later, but lunch calls...

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  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    August 29th, 2010 @14:33 #
     
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    Helen, that seems to be a recurring problem, so can I suggest that, before you click the "submit" button on a thread, you highlight (ctrl+A) and copy (ctrl+C) your comment, so that, if it doesn't make it through, you can simply paste (ctrl+V) and try again - ?

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  • <a href="http://sarahlotz.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sarah Lotz</a>
    Sarah Lotz
    August 29th, 2010 @16:38 #
     
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    Sorry to pop in so late to this discussion (like a stoned dinner party guest), but isn't there such a thing as Lad Lit in the UK? I think Tony Parsons and Mike Gayle do a lot of this type of stuff (men writing about relationships in a semi-humourous fashion - possibly Nick Hornby also qualifies). Jim Crace is always taking the piss out of this sub-genre in his digested reads:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/aug/25/tony-parsons-starting-over-digested-read

    Not really relevant to the meat of the discussion, of course, but just sayin.

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  • <a href="http://rustumkozain.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Rustum Kozain</a>
    Rustum Kozain
    August 29th, 2010 @17:55 #
     
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    Hah hah. Thanks for that link, Sarah.

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  • <a href="http://fionasnyckers.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    Fiona
    August 29th, 2010 @18:26 #
     
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    After three Tony Parsons novels, I swore never again. This is hilarious. Thanks, Sarah.

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    August 29th, 2010 @18:29 #
     
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    Good point, Sarah, and Zukiswa, booksellers have referred to it as dick-lit for years. There's Nick Hornby and Toby Litt on the upper end, and Scott Mebus in the middle, Tony Parsons. You could feasibly add Dan Rhodes and Douglas Coupland to the class.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    August 29th, 2010 @19:35 #
     
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    I am getting rather fond of John Crace.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    August 30th, 2010 @00:37 #
     
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    Er, you have to click on the Guardian link in Sarah's comment to see why I am developing tender feelings for Mr Crace. Mind you, I wouldn't like to be reviewed by him.

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  • Maire
    Maire
    August 30th, 2010 @10:23 #
     
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    If one were to classify the male version of the genre correctly, in keeping with barnyard appellations, surely the male version of chick lit should be cock lit?

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    August 30th, 2010 @10:41 #
     
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    Nice one, Maire. Could it also be described as drakish?

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  • <a href="http://www.amillionmilesfromnormal.blogspot.com" rel="nofollow">Paige</a>
    Paige
    August 30th, 2010 @10:48 #
     
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    He he he, Maire, I like to think of it as 'dick lit'.

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  • Maire
    Maire
    August 30th, 2010 @10:51 #
     
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    Only with a silent d, Louis.

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  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    August 30th, 2010 @14:04 #
     
  • <a href="http://rustumkozain.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Rustum Kozain</a>
    Rustum Kozain
    August 30th, 2010 @14:22 #
     
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    "There's sometimes more pain in a pop song than in all of Cambodia" - Derek Walcott, "Summer Elegies, II"

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  • <a href="http://fionasnyckers.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    Fiona
    August 30th, 2010 @14:30 #
     
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    Ah, this is an unmissable post from Kevin Bloom. I read it with great pleasure. I made the point myself at the CTBF this year that the term chick-lit is a double-edged sword. It guarantees you an audience and a certain reliability of sales, while at the same time condemning you to the oestrogen ghetto (thanks Helen). The same goes for "women's fiction".

    For the rest of Kevin's carefully constructed argument, see Ben's link above.

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    August 30th, 2010 @14:30 #
     
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    Nice to have a South African literary debate - about literature. Good thing Fiona was dressed for the fight as she always is. So few of us are actually prepared to *defend* our views in public. If this sort of thing carries on, we will have to start arguing proper.

    "One part qualititative, two parts feminist" - sis, man, Kevin.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    August 30th, 2010 @15:47 #
     
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    Yippee, a real debate by writers who can not only write well, but argue intelligently *rubs hands, rolls up sleeves*

    Kevin's piece is mostly fair, although like Louis, I find the comment implying that "feminist" and "qualitative" are mutually exclusive labels rather nauseating. Likewise, terming Fifi's post "polemic". I can quote chapter and verse demonstrating that when men argue strongly and cogently for a point, they're being "robust", but when women (and other majority minorities) do the same, of course it's polemic.

    Now then. On part 1, and this is why the debate about high art is so interesting, so subjective, so spectacularly open to interpretation: based only on those opening two chapters, I disagree profoundly with Kevin's high, high praise of the writing. The writing IS good, but it seems to lack precisely what Kevin identifies as a hallmark of high/literary art/writing: evidence that the text has been laboured over, as in Dylan's Thomas "Art and Craft". I commented above that it seems as if "author, editor and publisher all colluded in the lovely fantasy that EVERY word JF produced was infinitely precious". Those chapters are beautiful, but lavishly, hopelessly overwritten. Not one sentence I read came close to (off the top of my head) the writing in Cormac McCarthy's The Road, or Anne Michaels's Fugitive Pieces, or great swathes of A.S. Byatt, patches of David Mitchell or (closer to home) Ivan Vladislavic's Portrait With Keys, or the exquisite work seen in Henrietta Rose-Innes's Homing.

    Now this is just opinion, but ifl my opinion has no weight, it means my education and entire professional career has been a terrible waste of time. The fact that I was puzzling over the Emperor's attractive, well-cut chinos when I was expecting finely-wrought, hand-woven brocade prompts the question: are we being swayed by the hype?

    Now to the essay I wrote the other day that suffered comment death: yes, you read correctly, I am indeed implying that both Ivan V and Henrietta R-I are possibly better writers than the guy who's got his pic on the cover of Time. If you are gasping at this temerity, let me mention the elephant in the room here: in SA, there is far less of a gender gap in critical reception of local writing simply because in global terms, we're all already packed into an infinitely teeny ghetto, way out beyond the margins -- African writing. Even the continent's Nobel Laureates (with the possible exception of Naguib Mahfouz) are critically received as exotic/worthy/issue-driven first, writers second. Critics have shaped our expectations to suggest that any truly "universal" novel has to come from North America or the UK. And I think that's why I've been so bothered by this entire Franzen frenzy. This may not seem pertinent to Fifi and Kevin's debate, but I feel the issue of cultural imperialism (sorry folks, can't find another term that won't take 200 words to explain) colours the entire testes v. ovaries, high v. low writing debate.

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  • <a href="http://www.amillionmilesfromnormal.blogspot.com" rel="nofollow">Paige</a>
    Paige
    August 30th, 2010 @15:50 #
     
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    Ah, I see I unintentionally echoed Zukiswa Wanner.
    Apologies, I somehow missed that earlier comment.
    I'll try keep up.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    August 30th, 2010 @16:12 #
     
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    To add to my point about the orphan status of writing outside the West: the most exquisitely crafted book I have read this year is Pakistani writer Daniyal Mueenuddin's In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, which has won numerous awards (it even got a NY Times review -- http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/06/arts/06iht-idbriefs7C.19988280.html). I just compared opening chapters (yes I know apples oranges) purely on writing craft. Frantzen wasn't even in the same room. This is not to bash JF -- 1000s of good writers wouldn't be in the same room as Mueenuddin. But they're not receiving hysterical adulation.

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    August 30th, 2010 @16:16 #
     
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    Disambiguation, Helen - my "sis, man, Kevin" wasn't a nauseated sis, it was a lol sis.
    But great point about the other, other, Other level of prejudice and marginalisation going on here.

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  • <a href="http://fionasnyckers.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    Fiona
    August 30th, 2010 @16:40 #
     
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    Helen, I wasn't at all inclined to take offence at Kevin's description of my argument as "one part qualitative and two parts feminist". My post did indeed consist of three threads - the first dealing with the distinction between 'high art' and 'popular fiction' (that's the qualitative part), and the second two dealing with the literary establishment's tendency to elevate male writing on the one hand and ghettoise chick-lit on the other (those are the feminist parts).

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  • <a href="http://fionasnyckers.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    Fiona
    August 30th, 2010 @16:45 #
     
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    I really can't emphasise enough how much I enjoyed the first two chapters of 'Freedom'. There were parts that I agree could have done with trimming, but by and large I can certainly declare myself a fan. When the book comes out, I'll buy it. In fact, I'm looking forward to it.

    However, I truly believe that anyone who has been raised on a diet of Joanna Trollope, Barbara Trapido, Anita Shreve, Fay Weldon, Bernice Rubens, and many, many others would not be blown away by the 'incandescent brilliance' of Freedom. They would merely recognise it as more of the same. Another great example of domestic fiction by an Anglo-American writer.

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  • <a href="http://rustumkozain.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Rustum Kozain</a>
    Rustum Kozain
    August 30th, 2010 @17:09 #
     
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    I baulk at arguments about and around the high/popular conundrum because, on the one hand, they fudge out 'cross-overs' that problematise the opposition, and, on the other, they tend to recoil from value judgements even as the argument is about literary value. Then, 'literary value' is its own minefield - are we talking about stylistic elements? We can't be talking about thematic elements (family saga, domestic drama) because themes are not exclusive.

    I share Helen's reading of the Frantzen chapters. I'm a little underwhelmed that this is trumpeted as amazing writing (I haven't read The Corrections [yet], and, before I read the present excerpts, I was planning on spending a hard-earned voucher on Freedom - I now have doubts), but focussing now on whether or not the Frantzen chapters qualify as 'high art' is, again, a shift in the argument.

    I also take the arguments about the label 'chick-lit'; I've never been a fan of bio-genre labels - black, women, whatever. But surely there's a difference between Fay Weldon and Kathy Lette? So if I want to make an argument about women writers writing about certain themes against [establismentarian] male writers on those same themes, I'm not sure 'chick-lit' is a fruitful term to use. And what happened to 'romance' as a label? (I read some Catherine Cookson when I was a teenager, and enjoyed it) Perhaps that's the argument: Frantzen wrote a romance and is being highly lauded while women romance writers are ignored.

    And where would one put George Eliot?

    My interest in the high art vs popular art opposition comes from that old Marxist progenitor of what has deteriorated into 'Cultural Studies'. Coming from roots in working class adult education, the Birmingham School (of Cultural Studies) people basically said: a folk song (or pop song) could have as much depth of feeling as a Shakespeare sonnet. Its pedagogical import was that it was better to use an old folk song for educational purposes because people (uneducated working class adults) would know the folk song and therefore relate to it more easily (REM for pedagogical purposes) than to a Shakepseare sonnet. But that was not to diss the Shakespeare sonnet; and it was not to suggest that the working class adults, looking for education, could not go on to read and understand the Shakespeare sonnet. It was to say that there are other forms of expression, ignored by the establishment, that can say as much as the sonnet. The 'as much as' is the important thing. The Simpsons can tell us as much about being human as a Shakespeare play can; but can a contemporary Disney cartoon do the same? To some people a Disney cartoon can deliver 'life lessons', but here is where we ask what kind of life lessons and how does it do it?

    So, I'd much rather read Kathy Lette than Dan Brown, but I'd prefer Frantzen over both. And George Eliot over Frantzen. ;-P

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    August 30th, 2010 @21:39 #
     
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    @ Fifi and feminism: Aha, I see. And yes, I think one reason why I was underwhelmed by those chapters was the sense of "but this kinda writing has been around for ages" -- it's what I'm used to, after reading the writers you mention, to which I'd like to add personal favourites Mary Wesley, Elizabeth Buchan, Sally Beaumont, Byatt and esp Elizabeth Jane Howard, whose multi-volumed Cazalet Chronicles (about the impact of WWII on an English family) is the best family saga to come out the UK since Galsworthy's The Forsythe Saga, although Byatt's Virgin in the Garden series is stiff competition. Crossing the pond, I have a taste honed by Anne Tyler, Anita Shreve, Cynthia Voight, Margaret Atwood and that pearl among writers, Carol Shields ("Unless" and "Mary Swann" are among my favourite books -- in fact "Unless" makes a passionate contribution to this very debate).

    So this is what we're used to reading, hence the surprise at the paeans rising like incense when one more excellent writer tackles these topics in this style.

    But Rustum, you have the clincher: in the final analysis, Middlemarch trumps all. My life would be poorer without any of the above authors -- but not as poor as it would be without Jane Austen.

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  • <a href="http://imago.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sophy</a>
    Sophy
    August 31st, 2010 @11:47 #
     
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    I would be hesitant to ascribe the division between "chick-lit" and "high art" to gender. While there may be no exact male chick-lit equivalent, what about female writers writing about families and relationships whose works are considered high art - Zadie Smith, Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood? If Franzen was female would his work really be called chick-lit?

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  • <a href="http://lisalazarus.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Lisa</a>
    Lisa
    August 31st, 2010 @12:30 #
     
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    Agreed, Sophy. Marilyn Robinson is another example in the 'high art category', who writes about family / relationships.

    Also, I don't think Franzen's entire book can be judged on the basis of two chapters. Interestingly, and I haven't read the entire article, because I don't want to know about the plot, Slate begins its review of Freedom like this: "A person who read only the first chapter of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom might be tempted to dismiss it as a pretty callow piece of writing...The reader of just that first chapter, however, would be wrong..."

    Here's the link to the article: http://www.slate.com/id/2265316/

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  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    August 31st, 2010 @13:57 #
     
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    Check it! Jonathan Franzen likes chick lit:

    http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2010-08-30/jonathan-franzen-recommends-4-overlooked-books/

    Ok, that was a wild misstatement. But he does recommend a novel by a woman, and says:

    "I don’t understand why people didn’t carry [her] around New York City on their shoulders after this book was published."

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    August 31st, 2010 @14:05 #
     
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    Generous of Franzen -- reading these made me like the guy :)

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  • <a href="http://rustumkozain.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Rustum Kozain</a>
    Rustum Kozain
    August 31st, 2010 @14:29 #
     
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    Just read that Slate piece that Lisa linked in. Good review, but I think I'll give Freedom a skip and look to maybe a Mahfouz or something else meaty to spend my voucher on.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    August 31st, 2010 @14:57 #
     
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    Loved this comment in the Slate review: "What passes for freedom in America, Franzen seems to be implying, is a refusal to accept limits." This is indeed what might become the epitaph for our planet: see this fascinating link (which is weirdly in sync) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qOP2V_np2c0

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  • brett
    brett
    August 31st, 2010 @15:00 #
     
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    I must admit I was swayed by the publicity, in particular Time's cover piece on Franzen/Freedom. So much so I pre-ordered it on Amazon and this morning it arrived on my (South African) Kindle. Judgement (on my decision and the giddy canonising of the text) surely will follow.

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  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    September 15th, 2010 @12:11 #
     
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    A new article in Slate on the genderisation of the concept of the literary masterpiece:

    http://www.slate.com/id/2267184/

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    September 15th, 2010 @13:17 #
     
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    Who is Meghan O'Rourke, and how does she know what I'm thinking? I remember reading Joanna Russ's 80s' book How to Suppress Women's Writing -- and being electrified by it -- many many moons ago. There's something chilling about reading the identical argument TWENTY-FIVE years later.

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  • <a href="http://www.darlingtonrichards.com/" rel="nofollow">moi</a>
    moi
    September 16th, 2010 @12:49 #
     
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    I find this bit in O'Rourke's piece very apposite to some recent tales of failed attempts to elicit conversation from the redoubtable Alice Walker ...

    "... the way male desire shapes female ambition and sense of selfhood; the way authority is always located in male attention—betrayed a telling assumption about the smallness, the unimportance of women's experience. Ironically, his very dismissal only underscored the significance of the issues... "

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  • <a href="http://rustumkozain.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Rustum Kozain</a>
    Rustum Kozain
    September 20th, 2010 @14:54 #
     
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    "Smaller Than Life: Jonathan Franzen’s juvenile prose creates a world in which nothing important can happen." By BR Myers:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/print/2010/10/smaller-than-life/8212/

    Here's an old essay by Myers on the 'growing pretentiousness of American literary prose' (He takes on Proulx, McCarthy, De Lillo and Auster): http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2001/07/a-reader-apos-s-manifesto/2270/

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