Leaders of Literary Fiction

Tao and Franzen

Thanks, S, for sending this interesting blog post from the Economist.  In the blog, the author compares two cover stories from Time Magazine and a magazine called the Stranger.  Time featured a posed Jonathan Franzen with the title Great American Novelist, while the Stranger had the same exact title with Asian American author Tao Lin in the exact same pose. In the article, the blogger talks about how the literary fiction establishment restricts its definition of mainstream normalcy to authors who are White men.  The author writes, “Will an Asian-American author, or an African-American or a woman, ever be credited with writing the Great American Novel?

This anecdote from the same blog post sums it up well:

Last month Chris Jackson, an editor at Spiegel & Rau, wrote an impressively candid piece about his own reading. Over lunch another editor had asked, “When was the last time you read fiction by a woman?” He couldn’t remember. “It was a pretty shameful moment,” he admitted. Judging from the (great) bookstore owned by his wife, he writes, “it’s clear that women are willing to buy books by male writers, but men seem much more reluctant to buy books by women.” He then observes that “there’s definitely a feeling out there that men—even when writing about frivolous subjects—are taken more seriously as literary writers and are more likely to be presented to serious readers by the various literary gatekeepers.”
All readers are gently trained to empathise with white male narrators—the bulk of important books are dominated by them. The gender specificity of a narrator’s voice hardly matters. Whether reading “Moby Dick” or “Rabbit, Run”, the hero’s “I” becomes the reader’s “I”. My own copy of “Zuckerman Bound” is littered with the pen-marks of a younger self, not just for the book’s insight into the life of a vital and sexually voracious male writer, but for the clarifying light it cast on my own.

I don’t know anything about Tao Lin (I read of him from another blog post by those AFCC women who were railing against colonialism, but I was too busy cherishing the AFCC irony to really look into it).  I do think the author raises some good points.  There happens to be a stigma that follows all non-White-men around the literary fiction world, where people who aren’t White men are either not taken seriously or are treated as niche writers.  I don’t know when or how that will change.  I can’t see e-books really making much of a difference either way (I don’t know why the guy in the anecdote didn’t realize that Jennifer Egan was female; I think most people are interested in who the author is.)

Interestingly enough, this rule doesn’t apply to non-literary fiction.  Jodi Picoult, for example, is a leader in her part of the fiction world (which many say is halfway between genre fiction and literary fiction).  J.K. Rowling is the undisputed queen of children’s fiction, and the Twilight author owns vampire stories, for the moment. 

But I do think that literary fiction has cachet that the rest of the fiction world doesn’t.  All eyes are always on the literary fiction world, even when that world pulls in far less money.  There are of course women and minorities in literary fiction–Ishiguro, Atwood, Toni Morrison, etc.–but the stigma still exists, and the establishment still seems to treat them as niche writers.

How do people get their voices heard?  How do people make their case to be treated seriously?  It’s a good question, both for intellectual and activist reasons.

2 thoughts on “Leaders of Literary Fiction

  1. Pingback: Literary Fiction vs. Realistic Fiction and the Literary Hierarchy | bigWOWO

  2. Pingback: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (Review) | bigWOWO

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