On Seriousness

Last week I took New Yorker critic James Wood to task for his review of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch the tone of which struck me as unusually condescending. I’m spending a lot of time these days thinking about the unconscious bias at play in the way readers assess the work of women. I think there’s still a tendency to trivialize the work of female authors, particularly books that aren’t overtly “literary,” but lean toward the fantastical or focus exclusively on the domestic sphere. I felt while reading Wood’s critique that he was guilty of not taking Tartt seriously and I ascribed this, at least in part, to the fact that she’s a woman. My sense was that a similarly “fabulous” book by a male writer would have been treated as a legitimate attempt, whereas Wood wasn’t shy about saying that he wished Tartt had written a different book altogether.

Then a reader of the blog called me out for rushing to judgement and I started thinking more about it. The truth is that I haven’t read The Goldfinch. And it now strikes me as slightly unfair to imply that Wood let sexism color his review without having actually read the book in question. The reader who reached out to me maintained that Wood has a known prejudice against “unserious” books and that this probably explained his dismissal of it. Okay, fair enough. I’m going to reserve final judgment and read the book. Regardless, the whole thing has sparked a conversation in my head about the idea of “serious” versus “unserious” books. What exactly defines a “serious” book? And who gets to decide? Who, in the end, does it serve to place books within a critical hierarchy?

There are growing number of people out there who believe that traditional criticism has outlived its usefulness. They charge marquee critics, like Wood, with showering an undue amount of praise on a very particular stripe of book: the unabashedly literary novel, when the truth is fewer and fewer people are actually reading books like this. Over and over again, the critics champion the work of a literary darling straight out of Iowa or Syracuse, and over and over again readers overrule their choice by voting with their wallets. Or so the logic goes.

The emergence of social media has been a real boon for this sort of populist approach to books. Pockets of like-minded readers and writers are now banding together using platforms like Goodreads to form informal book lobbies that bypass the critics entirely. And in an era when publishing budgets are shrinking and publicity duties fall increasingly to authors themselves, this has been an invaluable tool. Thanks to Twitter, many books that would otherwise have sat collecting dust on basement remainder tables have found their audience. I don’t think anyone can argue that this is a bad thing. Books are written to be read and every book should be afforded a chance to find its watermark. Not every author sets out to innovate; some are in it simply to entertain, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But (and you knew there was a ‘but’ coming) just because “popfiction” is assuming more legitimacy doesn’t mean that the critics no longer have a real role to play.

In a recent interview with Scratch magazine, Jonathan Franzen suggested that the internet and social media are in danger of democratizing fiction to such an extent that they threaten to erode our powers of discrimination, and I think he’s on to something. In our push toward inclusiveness we are sometimes guilty of lumping the great in with the merely passable and that’s a problem. All books deserve to be read, but not all of them deserve to be celebrated. We still want to elevate work that we recognize to be exceptional, even in those instances when this work doesn’t excite the appetites of the layreader.

If there is a poster child for the literary melting pot approach, it’s Jennifer Weiner, who, in 2010, criticized The New York Times for failing to sufficiently cover both women’s fiction and popular fiction. For evidence, Weiner pointed toward the disparity between the paper’s coverage of Franzen’s 2010 novel Freedom and comparable work being done by female writers. Consequently, Franzen has become the stand-in for the sexist literary establishment (a state of affairs that starts to seem more than a little suspect when you look at how much energy he has devoted to calling attention to the work of female writers like Alice Munro, Christina Stead, Paula Fox and, yes, Edith Wharton). In the Scratch interview, Franzen talks about being the focal point of so much ire:

I can only do what I’ve always done, which is try to be gender-balanced in the books I recommend, the authors I write criticism about, the characters I put into my novels. I wince as much as anyone else does when I read the table of contents of Harper’s or the New York Times Book Review and see mostly male names. The point where I draw the line is when politics starts dictating literary judgments. I don’t think we should call pedestrian writing great, or vice versa, just because it makes someone feel better.

He then goes on to defend the role of “traditional publishers and reviewing” in helping to separate the literary wheat from the chaff.

People have, predictably, attacked Franzen for daring to point out the inherent shallowness of technologies like Twitter, but I think they’re overlooking his fundamental message. It’s true that many of us on the lower rungs of the literary ladder can’t afford to turn our backs on social media, but that doesn’t mean that the populist mentality that pervades that world should pervade everything. We still need experts willing to distinguish merely “pedestrian” writing from truly great writing. The reader who argued for Wood helped me remember this. I don’t want to defend Tartt’s book because doing so aligns with my politics. That would be doing her a disservice. She’s not running for office; she’s writing a novel, and her novel deserves to judged on its strengths and weaknesses alone. If it’s not a serious book, it shouldn’t be treated like one.

There is certainly a place for popular fiction, but I’m not persuaded that it merits the same attention or respect as authentically ambitious work. I happen to love Blondie, but that doesn’t mean I don’t see the distinction between her and Bach, or even her and Joni Mitchell.

All that said, I still get uncomfortable with the idea that such a small collection of people is charged with deciding what’s serious and what’s not. And I do wish that the big name reviewers represented a broader swath of humanity. There’s a compelling argument to be made for expanding the current definition of what constitutes seriousness.* But as long as most of our influential reviewers come to the table through prescribed channels, we’re unlikely to rigorously examine the standards we use to judge books.

We don’t want an insular group of experts to dictate our tastes. The opinions of the masses now chattering away on platforms, like Twitter, should be given voice by people qualified to filter out the noise. I think we’re in the process of ferreting out these people now. Websites like The Millions and The Rumpus are helping us do this. Eventually the gifted reviewers who are cutting their teeth on online forums will move up. The critical ecosystem will become more biodiverse and better for it. In the meantime, I’ve started reading Wood’s How Fiction Works in an effort to really understand what kind of work he deems serious, because this seems like an important piece of the puzzle.**



*Most reviewers, for instance, still seem to privilege craft over storytelling to an infuriating degree. An expert grasp on the language is a wonderful thing, but if it’s not used in service of a story capable of snaring the reader’s attention it’s unlikely to endure.

**If you’re interested in learning more about Wood’s philosophy and don’t have time to go to the source material, it’s worth starting with this wonderful essay by novelist Charles Finch on The Millions.