Saturday, November 27, 2010

McFiction

Years ago, when McDonald's was still a recent addition to the world of dining out, the Golden Arches signs always include the tally of how many burgers the company had sold - "over three billion sold," or five billion, six, or seven. I don't remember at what point they stopped counting.

And for all the dollars those billions of burgers sold generated for the chain, never once did I hear of McDonald's complaining that serious restaurant reviewers and critics ignored its offerings in favour of the food at other smaller restaurants  - restaurants where the chefs vied for a review in the New York Times by creating complex, layered, and unique food.

But in response to the critical acclaim and coverage Jonathan Franzen's recent book Freedom received, commercial writers Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult did indeed complain that Franzen's work received more and better attention than did any work of theirs, and that the work of white males, generally, received more attention than did theirs as well.

Jason Pinter, in The Huffington Post (Aug 10/10) interviewed the two authors about the "feud" they have with Franzen, his critics, newspaper reveiwers, and the entire literary world.

Between them, Weiner and Picoult have been on the New York Times bestseller list for months at a time. Between them, they have written over two dozen novels, have generated millions of dollars, and have millions of books in print in several countries.

So why does the literary establishment ignore them?  Picoult believes that her work is like that of Jane Austen or Shakespeare because it was popular, not literary, when written.
Because historically the books that have persevered in our culture and in our memories and our hearts were not the literary fiction of the day, but the popular fiction of the day. Think about Jane Austen. Think about Charles Dickens. Think about Shakespeare. They were popular authors. They were writing for the masses. (Huff Post)
Indeed, these authors were and are popular, but the comparison only goes so far. The quickly growing capitalist, middle class bought the fiction of Austen and Dickens, fiction that was starkly apart from the literary efforts of the aristocracy that had dominated for centuries. (Shakespeare, who wrote plays, not fiction is a different case.)

Gender lines were also quite different then; Jane Austen was told, as were other serious women writers, that no literary work by women would be published because it would never measure up. This is no longer true. Doris Lessing's Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007 comes to mind - one of many examples of women writers well-regarded by the literary establishment.

Millions of readers love and buy Weiner's and Picoult's books, but from what I have read, the work of neither writer has the depth and complexity that the work of Doris Lessing has, or Austen, or Dickens, or Shakespeare, or countless others. To me, their fiction is cliched and formulaic; they work in a genre that was both expanded and refined by someone like Austen. The commercial fiction Weiner and Picoult write does neither; it takes what was done by others and repeats it endlessly with no innovation.

McDonald's doesn't complain that restaurant and food critics are not banging down the door to include it. McDonald's rakes in millions, offering its formulaic product to the millions who love it - smiling all the way to the bank. Commercial writers like Weiner and Picoult should do the same. They offer a standardized product to millions who love it and make lots of money doing so. If they want critical acclaim, they should offer the kind of fiction that commands it.

They do, though, deserve an award for generating publicity!

18 comments:

lifeshighway said...

My mother enjoys popular fiction and reads it by the boat load. I find I have no taste for it. Call me a book snob but I only have so many hours in a day and I want to read a book like I enjoy a fine painting.

Also I have noticed with popular fiction, when the book is read, the storyline and characters escape you. With my favorite books, I can still remember finely crafted sentences or characters who impact my life.

There is a place for popular fiction but I do not believe this is a gender feud.

Judie said...

I could not agree with you more! I have had these same thoughts for the last several years. Frankly, I am done reading Jodi's books. Let's hear it for the REAL women authors, like Isabel Allende and Margaret Atwood, for example. I become quickly bored with formula writers.

We go to McDonald's on the fly, but when we want a gourmet meal, we choose our restaurant carefully.

ChrisJ said...

Cheri,
I quite agree that there is a place for popular fiction, just as there is a place for much popular culture. Like potato chips, sometimes we just can't stop eating, but it's still not gourmet food.

ChrisJ said...

Judie,

I couldn't get through a Picoult novel; I was bored.

Judie said...

Chris, when you are trapped in a moving automobile on a 7000 mile trip with a man who only stops when he has to pee, you will find yourself reading the instruction manual for your car with relish. After the first couple of Jodi's novels, I must admit that I read the next with my eyes closed and didn't miss a thing.
This is a great topic!!

Ciss B said...

Publicity seems to be what it's about for many authors these days. I don't like either author and since I'm a huge fan of the mystery genre seem caught in the web of authors like Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, and the like. If I'm honest, I don't like many modern authors since the depth, and lack of real prose leaves nothing that one's imagination can develop while reading.

ChrisJ said...

Judie,

I always find a few rounds of the song "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" a good way to pass the time!

ChrisJ said...

Christi,

I also love Agatha Christie's work. She's the champ of them all.

cooper said...

I don't read Picoult. I can't gloat though — I read Stephen King. ;)

Pearl said...

to generate publicity is to generate sales so they probably have achieved the ends for the strategy they set out to do.

but perhaps they do see their own work as complex. to create resonance is not an easy mark to hit. I can't say. I haven't read them. And Austin glazed me over.

ChrisJ said...

cooper,

Stephen King is a fine writer.

ChrisJ said...

Pearl,

I think the whole "feud" with Franzen was a publicity gimmick.

Judie said...

One of my favorites is Satterfield's "The Thirteenth Tale." If you haven't read it, check it out!

ChrisJ said...

Thanks, Judie.

Judie said...

Chris, is everything o.k. with you?

ChrisJ said...

Judie,

Thanks for caring. I have had big changes in work commitments and a close friend has been very ill, so my time is limited. I have the best of intentions about doing a post, but it just isn't happening.

Anonymous said...

J'ai appris des choses interessantes grace a vous, et vous m'avez aide a resoudre un probleme, merci.

- Daniel

ChrisJ said...

Daniel,

You're welcome. Thanks for commenting,