Let’s Not Judge People Based on Literary Taste

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From The New York Times

Once again I’m responding to an opinion piece in a newspaper about reading (see my last response here). This time, I’m looking at a New York Times piece by author Jennifer Weiner titled “‘What’s Your Favorite Book’ Is Not A Trick Question.” In it, she discusses the response to the fact that Georgia politician Stacey Abrams writes romance novels under the pen name Selena Montgomery.  Recently she appeared on Stephen Colbert’s show where he read excerpts from her work:

As Weiner says:

 With salacious glee, and with a visibly uncomfortable Ms. Abrams beside him, Mr. Colbert read a sex scene from her novel “Reckless” on TV. She writes bodice rippers, was the joke, which played into layer upon layer of prejudice against women writers, women readers, women’s pleasure and women’s stories, especially when those stories are by, and about, women of color. Ha ha, sex! And also, lady-trash!

This plays into society’s misogynistic bias against the romance genre, which I discussed a bit in this post.

Firstly, it’s difficult diminish Abrams based on the fact that she writes romance. She has a Masters in Public Affairs from the University of Texas at Austin and a JD from Yale Law. She is a former Deputy Attorney General for the city of Atlanta, and served as the Minority Leader of the Georgia House of Representatives for six years. In 2018 she was the Democratic nominee for Georgia’s gubernatorial election, making her the first black female nominee from a major party in US history. In 2019 she also became the first African American woman to deliver a response to the State of the Union address. In addition to her work as Selena Montgomery, Abrams has published articles under her own name on issues of public policy, taxation, and nonprofit organizations. She also wrote Lead from the Outside: How to Build Your Future and Make Real Change under her own name. The fact that she writes romance doesn’t negate any of those achievements.

Secondly, Abrams’ work as Selena Montgomery is quite popular. Her books have sold more than 100,000 copies and she is the winner of the Reviewer’s Choice Award and the Reader’s Favorite Award from Romance In Color for Best New Author, and was featured as a Rising Star. I haven’t read any of her work, but according to Weiner, Reckless, the novel that Colbert mocked “is an especially challenging journey to happily ever after, given that its star-crossed African-American lovers were lawyer and the cop who pulls her over.” In other words, it seems that Abrams is a good novelist and people enjoy her work. So why the mockery?

Weiner contrasts this mockery to the response to  Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend Indiana, who shared his list of ten books he’d like to bring to a desert island. Buttigieg put James Joyce’s Ulysses on the list.

Clearly, Mr. Buttigieg wants us to know that he is smart. “Ulysses” is a great book, a book that is firmly ensconced in the canon, but probably doesn’t end up in a lot of beach bags. I am ready to concede that Mr. Buttigieg is an outlier, a man who truly enjoys “Ulysses” and expects that other readers will dig it, but it is not a book that many people read for fun.

First of all, there could be many reasons that Buttigieg has this book on his list. He might be showing off. Maybe he’s never been able to get through it, so he would bring it to a desert island where he’d have the time to attempt it. Or maybe it’s something he didn’t appreciate when he read it but is familiar with its reputation and wants to tackle it again. Or maybe it’s his #1 favorite book of all time, and he just can’t get enough. There’s no way to know for sure. But aside from a bit of eye rolling, there was no mockery of Buttigieg’s presumed love of Joyce.

The contrast between Abrams and Buttigieg isn’t exact because Abrams is a writer of several romance novels whereas Buttigieg is a reader of another writer’s work. Also the same people aren’t doing the mocking: in Abrams case it’s a late night television comedian, and in Buttigieg’s it’s a vague “Some people rolled their eyes at this; the literati swiftly leapt to his defense, some saying they’d rather reread Joyce than attempt a graphic novel.” Um, why? I’m not criticizing anyone who wants to read Joyce, but what’s wrong with attempting a graphic novel? Yes there are bad graphic novels and trashy graphic novels. But there are also graphic novels that are groundbreaking and literary and artistic. Should we dismiss Maus or Peresoplis because of their format?

I take Weiner’s point: that Abrams is a WOC and Buttigieg is a white man. Her writing career is mocked because of genre whereas what he reads is praised for being literary. I think that she’s conflating two things. One is the tendency to praise white men for well, just about anything, but to hold others to a much higher standard. The other is the tendency to place reading literary fiction above writing genre fiction.

The comment about graphic novels shows that it isn’t just about romance.  Recent comments from Ian McEwan about sci-fi also show that there is a general dismissal of genre fiction from mainstream media and literati. Yet most people who read fiction, read genre fiction.

What qualifies as literary changes as the world changes. Once upon a time, Shakespeare was considered lowbrow populist entertainment. Today his work is considered quite possibly the high point of the English language. Novels as a literary form were once dismissed (prompting Jane Austen’s famous defense of the novel). Obviously things have changed. A hundred years from now, no one knows what we’ll consider great. So let’s reserve judgment.

Top Ten Tuesday: Authors I’ve Met

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For That Artsy Reader Girl’s Top Ten Tuesday:

This week I decided to do a little twist. Instead of

October 2: Authors I’d Love to Meet

I’ll be doing Authors I’ve Met. I’m leaving off most of the ones who I just got an autograph from at a book signing, and sticking with the ones with whom I interacted in some way, even briefly.

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Gail Carson Levine with my student teaching class

1. Gail Carson Levine- As a student teacher, my fifth-grade students read Gail Carson Levine’s novel Dave At Night. We were paired with a nonprofit that connected authors with classes reading their books Ms. Levine came to our class twice. She read the students work and took their questions. She also gave them a class set of her books and the kids all loved her. They wanted to read everything she’s ever written!

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Me and Kate Forsyth hanging out

 

 

 

 

 

2. Kate Forsyth– The connection was a bit random. I had a good friend in Australia who initially recommended Kate Forsyth’s books to me. When she had a US tour, I didn’t see any appearances near me, so I asked about it on twitter. She replied saying that she’d had an appearance near me, but it was canceled. She’d still be in town though so if I knew of some sort of literary event where she’d be welcome, she’d be happy to come. I asked her to come to my writing group and she did. Actually, we’d all planned to meet at a coffee house that I was not aware turned into a bar at 6pm! So we went to a nearby diner and she answered our questions about writing and publishing. She was lovely and encouraging and she signed my copies of Bitter Greens and The Wild GirlThe Wild Girl.

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A scan of the article about Joyce Carol Oates that my classmate and I collaborated on

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3. Joyce Carol Oates– My freshman year of college, Joyce Carol Oates came to speak to one of the classes about her book Faithless. The theater department also did a staged production of a play that she’d written called Dr. Magic. The morning she was supposed to come, someone from the student newspaper asked if anyone in our class was interested in joining her and Ms. Oates in an interview. I quickly said, “yes, please!” We only had a couple of minutes to speak to her, and I was so nervous that I completely lost the ability to say anything remotely intelligent!

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4. Bradford Morrow– In college, I took a class called Innovative Contemporary Fiction. Well, there was sort of a loose definition of  “contemporary” since books from the 1960’s and 70’s were on the syllabus. But Bradford Morrow, author of a number of books including The Prague Sonata and The Forgers was the professor. For me, he is best remembered as the man who “introduced” me to Angela Carter. I put the word in quotes because really he introduced me to her work. The actual Angela Carter was long dead by the time I took the class.

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5. Peter Sourian– My freshman year of college I took a class called Cultural Reportage with Peter Sourian, author of Miri, At the French Embassy in Sofia, and Three Windows on Summer among others. The class focus on essays and artistic criticism. My senior year I finally got up the nerve to apply for a fiction workshop with him, and I got in! He was really funny, endearingly cranky and totally irreverent. Sadly he passed away about a year ago at the age of 84.

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6. Libba Bray– Many years ago, I stumbled across, Libba Bray’s gothic, feminist, YA fantasy A Great and Terrible Beauty and thought “finally,  a YA author who gets me!” I’ve devoured her work since then, from the conclusion of the “Gemma Doyle” trilogy to the bizarre brilliance of Going Bovine and the madly satirical Beauty Queens.  A few years ago, I saw that she was giving a reading at a literary bar not too far from me, so I headed over. She read from her work in progress and I spoke to her for a few minutes afterward.  She was pretty much exactly as I imagined she would be: silly, self-deprecating and brilliant.

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7. Mary Jane Clark– In high school, I was selected as the “Enthusiastic Reader” for my class. No one was very shocked. The Enthusiastic Readers in each class came together for a lunch and a talk with an author. That author was in this case, Mary Jane Clark. Who is often confused with Mary Higgins Clark, a fellow mystery writer, and Mary Jane’s ex-mother-in-law. She talked a lot about the process of writing a book, and let us know that you don’t have to be “organized” to do it. For me, that was a revelation, because while I’m very organized in some ways, in other ways, not so much! We all got a free copy of her debut novel Do You Want to Know A Secret, and she raffled off some copies of her later books. I won a copy of Do You Promise Not to Tell.

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8. Jennifer Weiner- After work, one day, a few years ago, I stopped in the library on my way home. There was a crowd and I discovered that author, Jennifer Weiner was giving a talk and a reading. I’d enjoyed several of her books (In Her Shoes, Good  In Bed, Little Earthquakes) so I took a seat and listened. At one point she told a story about her daughter’s pre-school teacher sending home her daughter’s dirty underwear after an “accident” and she wondered why the teacher thought that she’d want it when she was just going to throw it out. People laughed and she moved on. After the talk, I went up to her and told her that I was a teacher and in a similar situation, I’d been told I had to return the underwear. She kind of chuckled and thanked me for the explanation and on my way home, all I could think of was what possessed me to say that of all things!

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9. Russell Banks– In the Innovative Contemporary Fiction class mentioned above, Russell Banks was a guest who came to discuss his novel, The Sweet Hereafter. He spoke a bit about the film adaptation, but what I found most interested was that the book was inspired by the story of the Pied Piper. The novel, about a town where a school bus crash kills everyone on board, is a contemporary vision of Hamelin, a town that has also lost its children.

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10. Edmund White– White came to talk to my Innovative Contemporary Fiction class as well.  He’s written novels, plays, and nonfiction, and is recognized as being one of the founders of the LGBTQ literary movement. We read his novel, Fanny, in the class. The novel was about the relationship between two nineteenth-century female writers. Interestingly, he said that some of the best research that he did was reading “trashy” nineteenth-century novels. The classics, the ones we read and study, are classics because they’re still relevant. They deal with the human condition, and psychology, thoughts, and feelings are as meaningful today as they were 200 years ago. But “trashy” novels that deal with things like fashion, trends,  etc can give you information about the slang of a period, or what people wore or how it smelled. I thought that was interesting.