Who Is Jodi Picoult Again? (A Question About What We Cover)

Hard as it is to post even once a day, I have the utmost of respect for an author who can get published on a yearly basis, even if her novels seem like the sort of stuff I’d never read. I’d give her even more respect for insulting Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom by first calling out The New York Times’ double-review of it, or by the way in which she says Freedom is bad because it’s not The Corrections, if she didn’t try to justify all of this by saying that “genre commercial fiction,” preferably by a woman, and even more preferably by a woman of color (box tick, box tick, box tick), is what The New York Times ought to have run in place of its second piece on Freedom. Here’s the backlash to her backlash though: I’m not sure why we should bother to review genre commercial fiction at all, assuming that we’re talking about the same thing. To me, genre commercial fiction brings long-running, generally critic-proof authors to mind, like John Grisham (whom Picoult mentions, but apparently doesn’t believe is labeled as formulaic), and while you might want to review the first outings of authors into these fields, I don’t know that it’s necessary to review more than one Tom Clancy novel (assuming he even wrote it). I understand that I might be stepping on some people’s toes here, but let’s face it: pulp romance novels and two-hundred book spy sagas are genre commercial fiction, too, but I don’t see anybody advocating for major literary presences to cover them, at least not on an individual basis. If 50 Shades of Grey manages to sell a million copies without being reviewed then fine, I understand the need to cover it from a cultural standpoint, especially in an era when book sales are way down; but do we need to be chomping at the bit or demanding reviews of the latest Hush, Hush book? Can’t fan sites, blogs, or genre magazines cover those? Don’t they already have as many or more subscribers as “popular” literary magazines anyway?

I guess what I’m really getting at is this: to merit words/presence in a cultural institution, the work should either be culturally relevant from a critical perspective — how does this fit in to the existing body of work; more importantly, how does it change it? — or catch a critic by surprise, to the point where they’re really juiced up enough to write about it. (We should always be getting something out of a review; nothing’s worse than a piece that’s been clearly assigned by an editor and then written to a template.) Unless you’re trying to convince people to read a previously undervalued work or you’re angry enough to try and talk people out of their latest Amazon splurge (an option to be exercised only something’s been drastically over-hyped), your review won’t have any passion, won’t have any real value. It’ll be preaching to a deaf choir. To get back to Picoult’s point, the reason Freedom merits two reviews from The New York Times is because they strongly feel you should read it and find that it needs to be contextualized, you know, for the people who just heard about it through Oprah’s Book Club. (I’d argue, too, that when you don’t write a book every year but instead spend your time writing essays and criticism of other authors, your newest release is bound to get more attention. Unless you think R. L. Stine and Matt Christopher are the great unsung heroes of our literary history.) Nobody’s writing a new essay about Nathaniel Hawthorne for the hell of it; they’re doing it because they find relevance in his work today (or because they’ve got to pay off their Masters in English somehow), because there’s depth. Jodi, are you really saying that you expect the only reason people won’t be writing about your books twenty, fifty years from now is because you were a woman? 

I’m drawn to one other off-topic comment that Jodi Picoult makes in this admittedly condensed/edited NYT Magazine interview, in which she calls out E. L. James, noting that she finds it “pretty reprehensible that someone who began a story cycle with someone else’s created characters would go on to make gobs of money off those characters simply by slapping new names on them.” First of all, having never read Fifty Shades of Grey, I was unaware that anybody in that profound trilogy was a vampire. Second, I’m fairly sure that it’s the explicit erotica (and our ability to secretly indulge it in public via a Kindle) that makes the series such a selling point, not the writing. And third and most importantly, that’s my goddamn point. The fact that E. L. James was writing Twilight fan fiction and wound up with something completely different is pretty demonstrative of just how empty and unsubstantial Twilight is (a book, incidentally, that I’m sure is itself based on nothing). This, coming from someone who herself admits wants to become more like Janet Evanovich? THIS is the genre you’d insist The New York Times cover as opposed to novels that might actually win a literary prize that isn’t found at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box?

I’ll take your word for it when you say that you’re not a chick-lit writer and I’ll laugh as you insult fellow genre authors like Nicholas Sparks. But if you’re going to tactlessly and factlessly blame it all on An Institution Of Male Critics who judge Women differently than Men (and not just genres differently, since I’m sure Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, Zadie Smith, etc. are routinely condescended to and ignored by major literary publications and never reviewed more than once), then I can tell you that your future interviews are just one more thing of yours that I won’t be reading. Go have a drink with Theresa Rebeck and leave me an angry voice mail about how I’m oppressive and sexist if you think I wouldn’t have written this exact same essay about James Patterson or Dan Brown. I’m done.

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