Dear Jodi and Jennifer

Wednesday, Sep 1st, 2010 @ 12:03 pm

I’ve been following your so-called “literary feud” with Jonathan Franzen, which was blown way out of proportion by bloggers and columnists trying to stir up conflict during these summer doldrums. It’s really not a feud at all. It was simply two bestselling women novelists making note of how much review attention is lavished on certain authors, while other authors are pointedly ignored. Franzen, as far as I can tell, is an inadvertent combatant. All he did was write a book, and based on his previous work and the fact he hasn’t produced a book in a long, long time, it’s not surprising that his novel got reviewed. So we’ll leave Franzen out of it. (Besides, he can’t help the fact he’s a white male literary figure.)

The real issue you raised is worth talking about: why is commercial fiction, especially by women novelists, so seldom reviewed in the New York Times? No one disputes that fact. The discussion, unfortunately, hasn’t been about the topic itself. Instead it’s degenerated into attacks on the worth of popular fiction, on your books (derided as “chick lit,” whatever that is), and on you both, personally. Self-important critics, waving their MFA’s, claim that they, of course, recognize “good” writing, writing that “springs off the page“, and popular fiction just ain’t good enough to make that vaunted spring. Or hop. Or even twitch. Popular novelists just “churn out” their books every year or two anyway because, as we all know, popular fiction is so easy to write and sell, and anybody can do it. You just have to sit down, write a story that hits all the predictable populist buttons such as love, marriage, family, conflict, kids, etc., and presto, it will show up in Target. The words don’t even have to spring off the page, they can just crawl. Or lie there. And then you sit back and collect your million-dollar royalty checks. So girls, be grateful that you have such an easy time of it while those hardworking literary authors must struggle to make their words spring. And even with those words springing all over the place like little fleas, the books still can’t find their audience. They don’t get into Target. They struggle in obscurity.

That, they say, is why they need the New York Times. And you don’t.

You know what, Jodi and Jennifer? They’re absolutely right. You really don’t need the New York Times. You don’t need Michiko Kakutani or Janet Maslin or three whole fricking pages in the Book Review. Because you have something far, far better: readers who actually buy your books.

Readers are the most important critics of all, because they vote with their hard-earned dollars. Every time they buy a Jodi Picoult or Jennifer Weiner book (and judging by your positions on the bestseller lists, there’s a whole ton of these people) they are expressing their approval. And they keep on expressing their approval by repeatedly buying your books. Which means you must be touching something inside them, connecting with them, entertaining them. You’re doing this without some literary expert telling them they should feel these things; your words are enough to make it happen.

I happen to love the New York Times. I love the writing, the depth of its analysis, and the sometimes quirky subject matter. The only section I don’t read is Sports. As the years go by, I’m sorry to say, I’m also starting to skip past the Book Review. Why? Because I’m not really interested in reading another “glowing” memoir about alcoholism. Or yet another novel about white middle-aged male angst. Or the latest translation of War and Peace. I find their reviews of non-fiction useful, but their fiction reviews seldom tempt me into buying the books.

I wonder if other readers share my sense that the Book Review is less and less relevant to our lives. Sure, we may read the New York Times Book Review just to brag to others that we “know all about” the latest literary masterpiece. But then we go into the bookstore and buy Sandra Brown instead. We all think the Book Review is the undisputed arbiter of good taste, and without its approval, our books are doomed. That just isn’t true. Popular fiction sells just fine without being reviewed there.

We commercial authors don’t need the Book Review, but the Book Review needs us. It needs our publishers to buy ad space. Yet fewer and fewer publishers seem inclined to shell out the thirty thousand bucks to buy a full-page Book Review ad. When my publisher and I were discussing the promotional campaign for my latest book, Ice Cold, there was no discussion at all about buying ad space in the Times, even though they’d done it for my prior books. And I agreed with them that buying an ad in the Book Review is a waste of money. Why?

Because readers who buy commercial novels like mine don’t even read the Book Review any more. It’s become that irrelevant to their lives.

I absolutely agree that literary fiction should be reviewed there. But focusing only on fiction that few readers want to read just guarantees a death spiral for the Book Review. The more they limit their focus to esoteric fiction, the fewer readers will read their reviews. And fewer and fewer publishers will buy ads.

Recently, my UK publisher did a survey of my readership, and they came up with a figure that I found fascinating. Of all adult fiction purchased, 42% of books were bought because the customer had read the author before. But of those who bought my books, 62% purchased them because they had read me before. And 90% bought my books not to give away, but for themselves. That brand loyalty doesn’t come from a Times review; it comes from building your audience book by book. It comes from consistently satisfying your readers.

The way you, Jodi and Jennifer, have managed to do.

So ignore the slings and arrows from the literati crowd. Let them find their audience the good old-fashioned way: by writing books that people actually want to read.

17 Responses to “Dear Jodi and Jennifer”

  1. Sarah Langan says:

    Ms. Gerritsen,

    Hi! Regardless of their genre, it’s dumb to exclude good books from review, and it’s ignorant to accuse best-sellers of churning out their fiction, while by implication, authors like Franzen work harder to create something longer-lasting.

    I have two points to make–
    1) The NYT probably doesn’t do much for very successful authors, but it does help a struggling mid-lister. Perhaps not in sales, but in attention from libraries, guilds, and within their own publishing houses. My reviews there advanced my career, and I’m grateful.

    2) The issues remains– are books selected based on their labels/expectations, or their content? Do men get more attention, and is this harmful? Given how few romances (traditionally a female-dominated field) are reviewed (surely some are good), I think the answer is yes on both counts.

  2. Tess says:

    Sarah, so nice to see you visiting here! And I’m glad that the NYT reviews books like yours — not just well-written but also highly commercial.

  3. april says:

    Well said. I have very little to add. I don’t read the NYT books though I read the annual round up and visit occasionally. I’ve never purchased a book from the list and rarely recognize names.

    I actually get a lot of my book recommendations from Entertainment Weekly, mostly the website though occasionally from the magazine itself. That said, I’m a strong genre reader, almost of any genre. I’ll read a big blockbuster novel every so often (like I picked up The Passage and eventually get around to the book club type books). As a romance reader, I also understand that readers drive a lot of this. If many romance readers are embarrassed to say they read romance novels, how do they expect publications to publicize such popular fiction?

  4. Sarah Langan says:

    :)
    I read your blog because I admire you.

  5. TheTwoJeans says:

    I choose my books by familiar author names like yours because I know I’m going to get a wonderful read. If I want to be bored out of my mind or sink into tearful depression I turn to the NYT Book Review or Oprah’s latest Book Club choice!

  6. Frank Hood says:

    Well as a hick in the sticks, I’ve never read the New York Times Review of Books, but I’ve read enough LITERATURE to skip anything that says, “a novel” after the title. Dead giveaway.

    People who think the basic unit of a novel is the sentence rather than the story are hopeless. Mickey Spillane and Dashiell Hammett had plenty of sentences that sprang off the page, but they also created stories where, you know, actual events happened and proceeded to a satisfying conclusion that involved people who did something interesting with their lives rather than spend their time pondering the “thoughts they’d be thinkin’ if they only had a brain.”

  7. Frank, I’d recommend not to hold it against a book that says “a novel” after the title (as mine do). That’s the publisher adding that, and it’s primarily to identify it as being fiction rather than nonfiction!

  8. Maxien says:

    Hear hear! I can honestly say that i have NEVER read a book review in my life..well at least not one from somebody who gets paid to do them. If i read a review it is usually when i have read a book and want to give my opinion on it and when i do this i also read what others thought about it. So the reviews i read are from regular people like myself not somebody who gets paid to read books and give their opinion on it.

    I fell upon your books after i joined an online book club. The books were on offer because i was a new member so i got Sinner, Apprentice and Surgeon for 50p each (about $1) i read them all within a week because i loved them.

    I am more than happy and honored to be one of those statistics up there. I am in the UK and am glad that i am one of the 62% who bought your books because i have read you before, and i am glad that i am one of the 90% who have bought your books for myself rather than as a gift. I have even had 4 of your books bought for me as a gift from my partner. Although he became a Gerritsen widower for a short while after he bought them for me whilst i read them.

    The fact is if an author is as a fantastic writer as yourself they won’t need the NY Times, all they need is for one person to read them and that person will be sure to pass that book on to somebody else or recommend it to somebody else until eventually hundred of thousands of people are reading them, and if their books turn out to be as good as yours then each reader will be coming back for more.

    Besides….who cares what they think at NY Times? I certainly don’t and they sure as hell wouldn’t be able to turn me against reading one of your books thats for sure.

    Thank you for giving me many many hours of reading pleasure :o) x

  9. Sandra Brown says:

    Tess, I snickered all through your article about the Book Review. Ain’t it the truth?! A sure fire way to get me to *avoid* a book is for it to be reviewed in the Times. Give me humor, action, passion, chills, and thrills, all the stuff of melodrama, over angst and/or self-discovery. *Please!*

    Sandra

  10. Tess says:

    Sandra, glad I gave you a snicker!

  11. laurakate says:

    Great post Tess. Kind of glad we don’t have the Times out here! Being in the area I’m in we do have a few of the (how to put this…) “literary readers” that go straight to our “Prize Winners” shelf, but as soon as anyone asks for a good read it’s the staff recommendations that sell books! (That being said “Harvest” constantly sells in our store!)
    Have a great afternoon!

  12. Lev Raphael says:

    I think it self-evident that there are many thrillers that are the equal of anything written by any other contemporary novelist, Laurie King’s “The Game,” John Burdett’s “Bangkok Eight,” Leslie Forbes’s “Bombay Ice.”

    So I won’t dispute that. But Jodi Picoult does have her literary history wrong, and I wish Jason Pinter had pressed her when she invoked Jane Austen in the interview on The Huffington Post.

    Jane Austen was not a popular novelist, as I’ve just blogged here: http://tiny.cc/ee8ob

  13. alisavaldes says:

    Brilliant, just like your novels. Thank you for hitting this one out of the park.

  14. reba says:

    As someone who is NOT an awesome writer (or, sadly, no kind of writer at all), but is an avid audiobook listener (as I travel around for my job), I wanted to add my 2 cents. I read the NY Times almost daily, but ignore the book reviews. And I read (listen to, actually) all your of your books, and Jodi’s and Jennifer’s and Sandra’s. The reviews that matter to me are the ratings and written reviews from other listeners like me. I get them from Audible. I have found many awesome books by being willing to listen to almost anything that has a 4 out of 5 star rating on the site. That’s how I found you, Tess, and Sandra and Christopher Moore, too. Who would have guessed I’d like thrillers?

    Listening is a bit different than reading a book because the reader has a big part in the enjoyment, but I have found that the Audible community is committed and very vocal. I am certain that if I had followed the NY Times book reviews instead of the Audible reviews I wouldn’t have had nearly so much fun!

  15. Bridget says:

    Good afternoon Tess-
    I can lend credence to the stats. I tended to just buy the same authors again and again but after having taken advantage of authors speaking in the Atlanta area at the Georgia Center for the Book, I’m gradually expanding that list. Your author’s talk at the now downscaled Margaret Mitchell House program lead to my discovery of your work and I continue to buy your books as gifts. (My friend quite enjoyed her personalized copy of Ice Cold from your local independent Owl and Turtle bookstore-as did I.)

    I also had the opportunity to hear Mr. Frazen recently at the Decatur Book Festival over Labor Day weekend. Mr. Franzen seemed a bit embarassed about the whole kerfuffle re his work vs. the women authors in question; and someone in the audience made a point to bring it up during the Q and A. A good book is a good book whether it’s sensationalized by the media for their own ends or whether you hear about it from a friend. And yes the Times book review does seem increasingly irrevelant to my reading tastes unless I need to sleep or be depressed. (I do follow their “bestsellers” list however.)

    Thanks for leading an intelligent discussion of this issue and more.

  16. nc_annie says:

    First of all, it was torturous to register to leave a comment- not very user friendly!

    I have to say that I find it ironic that you say, “You really don’t need the New York Times. You don’t need Michiko Kakutani or Janet Maslin or three whole fricking pages in the Book Review. Because you have something far, far better: readers who actually buy your books.”

    At the same time as you state that, you proudly display that you are a “New York Times bestseller”. Hmm. Either the Times matters, or it doesn’t. Apparently being a NYT bestseller is very important to you.

    Although, as a reader, I stay away from NYT bestselling books and focus on the books being reviewed by the NYT. I, for one, find the formulaic, commercially motivated writing of Picoult (haven’t read Weiner) to be off-putting. I have read a lot of Picoult’s novels, but after purchasing and reading her latest, I was dismayed and frustrated to say the least. I was rolling my eyes throughout much of the novel. We get it! Enough! I’ve now passed all my Picoult hardcover novels off to two thirteen year old girls who appreciate and love the schmaltz.

    Having said all that, I do love and cherish novels written intelligently and thoughtfully with respect for the reader’s intellect. My favorite authors are usually female. I have recently adored “The Invisible Bridge”, “The Surrendered” (male author), “The Nobodies Album” (pop fiction), “The Swan Thieves”, etc. etc.

    I would beg writers to spend less time being jealous of an author who is truly passionate about his work and to spend more time writing beautiful words that speak to readers in a profound and meaningful way. Please actually craft the novel; don’t practice cookie-cutter writing like your beloved Jodi Picoult.

    Side note: I resent the fact that you believe that a reader who does read the NYT book reviews and then reads the reviewed book, is doing so because a “literary expert telling them they should feel these things”.

    Um, really? Perhaps you should respect the reader more. And maybe, just maybe, readers respond to the beautiful writing in the novel and not just a book review.

  17. alaska says:

    i always look at the book review, mostly to scan titles. i’ll read non-fiction reviews, sometimes, but i mostly skip the fiction ones, unless it’s by an author i know.

    however, i do look at what is on the best-sellers list. and the really tiny little blurbs that are usually on those pages – that’s where i find a lot of books that i end up really enjoying. books that get about two sentences.

    i won’t buy off the best-seller list just because it’s on there. i happen to like looking at trends and seeing what’s popular and if my favorite authors are doing well. (i tend to scoff a lot at the non-fiction section, and sometimes in the YA.) i don’t think this is a bad thing, i think it’s just how we go about finding books.

    i have adored every jennifer weiner book i have read (which is all of them, except the short stories). i can’t say the same of jodi picoult, whose endings just rub me the wrong way. i think it’s a case of “your mileage may vary”. not all “chick-lit” authors are created the same, just as not all suspense/thriller writers are created the same. you get attached to some characters, and you don’t to others. and then there are those that you stay with even when it becomes almost painful to read before finally admitting it’s just over. (::looks pointedly at james patterson::)

    i tend to pick up books based on recommendations from friends, people on goodreads, and my own research. i love a lot of different books. i am not a huge genre person because i read a lot of different genres.

    all that said, there is a drastic lack of women in the BR. it annoys me when i pull it out on sundays hoping for a review of one of my favorite authors’ new books and don’t find it – even the “literary” authors – because they are women. i find that much more tragic than this debate over “popular” versus “literary” fiction. i mean, it’s amazing what you can find in mass market paperback these days, so. people like what they like. i enjoy “popular” fiction to unwind, relax, read before bed. i like “literary” fiction, but it usually takes me longer to read, so i have multiple books going at once.

    (i don’t even want to know where young adult fits in to this discussion, because frankly, i think some of the best writing is being done there.)

    to be critically acclaimed and popular – those are the goals, are they not? why is being popular a bad thing? faulkner’s “sound and the fury” was one of the most popular books at my high school, along with everything tom stoppard and virginia woolf. so again, why is popular bad? and is it just judged on people buying books? because i’ll also admit, i’ll wait for paperbacks in a lot of cases because i can’t afford all the new books in hardback . . .

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