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.
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