As a book blogger, I have been out of commission pretty much since #franzenfreude hit the fans. I’ve read some tweets and random articles about the brouhaha while I’ve been absent, but by no means have I kept up to date with ruckus. What I’ve read a couple of weeks ago changes my perspective. In fact, it has actually made me feel like writing for the first time in a month.
When I first heard that Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner had their panties in a wad over the coverage that the New York Times had been giving Franzen’s latest novel Freedom, I recognized but did not get riled up over the way that male authors are disproportionally covered by the New York Times. I truly don’t care. I don’t now and never have read the New York Times for any reason, let alone their book reviews. They may be seen as the premier place to get a book review placed, but that has never meant a thing to me as a reader. If I were to read that paper, I feel certain that book reviews are just one of the many ways I’d find it out of touch with me.
I’ve not yet read Franzen. I knew who he was, but haven’t ever really been keen to pick up his work. I have, however, read Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner. The first few books by both authors were wonderful. In fact, in one of my first posts on my blog I mentioned how much I loved Picoult. In fact, reading her work was instrumental in overcoming my PPD and beginning my blog. Over time I lost interest in Weiner, though. Then, Picoult drove me so crazy that I swore never – ever – read another of her books. That being said, it was the buzz generated by their #franzenfreude that made me curious enough to pick up Freedom. Once I got it home, I forgot about it entirely.
Jennifer Weiner’s post from September 21st has given me a completely different perspective. No, it didn’t finally make me take up arms against the elitist, sexist NYT Book Review. I can still really not care much less. What did catch my attention were two things much more generic and widespread than that. For me, reading Weiner’s post produced two mini Come to Jesus moments. For this I thank her.
First, let me begin with Mr. Stephen King. I love him as a person. His monthly-ish columns in Entertainment Weekly are my favorite feature about that magazine. Yes, his columns alone would make purchasing that magazine worthwhile. I get a kick out of his take movies, books, pop culture and life in general. I’ve purchased several books on his recommendation. (No, I’ve not actually read them yet – but that is so true of just about anyone whom I’d trust to recommend a good read.) I read several of his novels in junior high and high school, but I’ve not read him since. I also haven’t really followed his career. I did not know that he was awarded the National Book Foundation’s medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2003. So, when I read the following excerpt from his acceptance speech, I was reading it for the first time (highlighting mine):
Tokenism is not allowed. You can’t sit back, give a self satisfied sigh and say, “Ah, that takes care of the troublesome pop lit question. In another twenty years or perhaps thirty, we’ll give this award to another writer who sells enough books to make the best seller lists.” It’s not good enough. Nor do I have any patience with or use for those who make a point of pride in saying they’ve never read anything by John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Mary Higgins Clark or any other popular writer.
What do you think? You get social or academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your own culture? Never in life, as Capt. Lucky Jack Aubrey would say….There’s a great deal of good stuff out there and not all of it is being done by writers whose work is regularly reviewed in the Sunday New York Times Book Review. I believe the time comes when you must be inclusive rather than exclusive.
That said, I accept this award on behalf of such disparate writers as Elmore Leonard, Peter Straub, Nora Lofts, Jack Ketchum, whose real name is Dallas Mayr, Jodi Picoult, Greg Iles, John Grisham, Dennis Lehane, Michael Connolly, Pete Hamill and a dozen more. I hope that the National Book Award judges, past, present and future, will read these writers and that the books will open their eyes to a whole new realm of American literature. You don’t have to vote for them, just read them.
“What do you think? You get social or academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your own culture?” That was a BB hitting me right between the eyes. I don’t know about you, but definitely have my own literary high horse. When riding him (let’s just call him Ulysses), it feels so natural for me to turn up my nose up at books, authors, or genres because they were beneath me. Yes, that’s what I said. Beneath me. Who am I to think any type of book is beneath me? Seriously. Who the f*ck am I?
I’m not as much of a literature snob as I was in grad school. In fact, once I started my career and then family, riding Ulysses started to chafe me in unmentionable areas. I wasn’t reading for the same reasons and I definitely did not have the same amount of time or energy to devote to it. A few years ago I actually thought I’d put him out to pasture permanently, but reading those words by Mr. King made me realize that I still occasionally saddle up Ulysses and take him for a wild ride. I realized that when I’ve said, “Read and let read” in the past, there’s always been a silent “Thank God I would never consider reading that sh*t!” attached. It was me hording up my “social or academic brownie points” not realizing that I’m just making myself “out of touch with your own culture.” While I’m no NYT Book Review, I’ve got more in common with them then I would care to admit.
My second Come to Jesus moment sprang from something Weiner said about the impact author Terry McMillan has had on the publishing.
McMillan’s tale of four upper-middle-class black women and their search for love was a game-changer. It became a huge word-of-mouth bestseller and eventually, a smash movie. Its success it opened doors for other authors by showing publishers that there was an enormous audience eager for stories about minorities who weren’t living in poverty, working as domestics, or coping with rape, abuse or illiteracy.
As with Franzen, I’ve never read any of Ms. McMillan’s work. I’ve never even seen the movie that followed. Unfortunately, I also realize that much of the small percentage of novels I read focusing on minorities have them living in poverty, working as domestics, or coping with rape, abuse, or illiteracy. Doesn’t that make me quite out of touch with our culture as well? I’d say so. Damn! As I read Weiner’s post, I started feeling pretty complicit in all of this. Hypocritical as well because I’ve often privately bemoaned literature for putting obese characters into infuriating stereotypical buckets. I’ll tackle that more later this week.
There’s nothing like personal epiphanies to raise excitement. Since reading that post I’ve been able to write three reviews and I feel as though I’m back in business with book blogging. Here is what I’d like to do as a start to send Ulysses to the glue factory and expand my horizons: I’m starting my own #readingfreude. To begin, I’m going to read Freedom and a similar book from the perspective of a minority and see how Freedom stacks up. That should be simple enough, shouldn’t it? Yes, except I have no idea what the second book should be. I’m starting my research now, but would love your suggestions. I’ve provided a description of Freedom at the very end of this post if it helps you get your “what would make a perfect #readingfreude match for Jennifer” juices flowing.
I would encourage anyone who loves to read to feel free to join me and start your own personal reading crusade. #readingfreude is free to all with no sarcasm implied. So, if there’s something standing in your way of complete #readingfreude or if there’s anything you’d like to try to enhance your joy of reading, why not come along? The water feels pretty warm.
I’m not the only one who was inspired by Jennifer Weiner’s post. Amy from My Friend Amy wrote a wonderful piece on the role gender plays in young readers. Check it out!
Summary of Freedom
Patty and Walter Berglund were the new pioneers of old St. Paul—the gentrifiers, the hands-on parents, the avant-garde of the Whole Foods generation. Patty was the ideal sort of neighbor, who could tell you where to recycle your batteries and how to get the local cops to actually do their job. She was an enviably perfect mother and the wife of Walter’s dreams. Together with Walter—environmental lawyer, commuter cyclist, total family man—she was doing her small part to build a better world.
But now, in the new millennium, the Berglunds have become a mystery. Why has their teenage son moved in with the aggressively Republican family next door? Why has Walter taken a job working with Big Coal? What exactly is Richard Katz—outré rocker and Walter’s college best friend and rival—still doing in the picture? Most of all, what has happened to Patty? Why has the bright star of Barrier Street become “a very different kind of neighbor,” an implacable Fury coming unhinged before the street’s attentive eyes?
In his first novel since The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen has given us an epic of contemporary love and marriage. Freedom comically and tragically captures the temptations and burdens of liberty: the thrills of teenage lust, the shaken compromises of middle age, the wages of suburban sprawl, the heavy weight of empire. In charting the mistakes and joys of Freedom’s characters as they struggle to learn how to live in an ever more confusing world, Franzen has produced an indelible and deeply moving portrait of our time.