The Curious Case of Determining Literary Merit

April 29th, 2005 · 16 Comments
by Booksquare

Today, we learned that we’ve been laboring under a misconception. We thought we took writing pretty seriously as an art. We were wrong. Only men can do that, which is good since the hunting thing they used to do so well isn’t paying the bills. Our work is fluffy and inconsequential. Probably we shouldn’t even call it writing. From now on, we’ll think of it as random scribbling that sometimes happens to form coherent thoughts.

“The women who write [cozies] stop the action to go shopping, create a recipe, or take care of cats,” he [Otto Penzler, who is apparently the “dean” of mystery writing in America; we presume he knows Lawrence Summers] says. “Cozies are not serious literature. They don’t deserve to win. Men take [writing] more seriously as art. Men labor over a book to make it literature. There are wonderful exceptions, of course—P.D. James, Ruth Rendell.”

Maybe it’s because if we had male characters doing the shopping or cooking or feeding the family, it would be considered too outlandish for fiction? You can get away with some crazy stuff in real life, but, man, fiction? You just can’t go nuts like that.

As is typical when we encounter a provocative thesis, the article neglects to answer all our questions. This leads us to make stuff up and draw conclusions. Like, for example, that eviscerations are more literary than raising children. That violent murder is more literary than sustaining human life. That rape is more literary than creating life. Oh, sure, women can write about this stuff, but we won’t labor over our work to ensure it meets an (undefined) standard of literature. If we get gory, our writing will not be good. There may be genetic reasons; our feeble little brain cannot know for sure.

Since we’re busy internalizing this shift in perception, we’ll leave the last word to Brenda Coulter:

I’d like to point out that Mr. Penzler is a member of the sex that thinks flatulence jokes and burping the alphabet are clever.

File Under: Square Pegs

16 responses so far ↓

  • Lauren Baratz-Logsted // Apr 30, 2005 at 5:58 am

    Sadly, mystery is not the only field where women are automatically relegated to less-than status merely by virtue of the wrong hormone coursing through their bodies. This is by way of posing the question: Has anyone else ever noticed that the works of Tom Perrotta, Christopher Buckley, Christopher Moore etc get labeled “literary,” albeit satirical, while similar offerings by women get umbrellaed under Chick-Lit?

  • Booksquare // Apr 30, 2005 at 9:40 am

    I have not only noticed, but have written at length on this issue. You can imagine the joy on the faces of regular readers when they realize it’s going to be another rant on that particular topic.

    I heard Malcolm Gladwell speak at SXSW and he told a great story about how women were essentially excluded from the world’s big orchestras. The perception was that they weren’t good enough to play with the big boys. Blind tests (where the candidates are hidden from the view of the judges) proved otherwise. While I agree with the manner in which Susan Estrich hammered home her point on gender bias in op-ed pages, I think she had a point. The New York Times Book Review skews heavily toward men. I don’t believe it’s a deliberate bias, but there is a bias. The more we talk about it, the more it will become of the consciousness.

    Then change can happen.

  • Kate R // Apr 30, 2005 at 10:54 am

    I happen to think that flatulence jokes and burping the alphabet ar a whole lot more clever than Mr. Penzler.

  • Booksquare // Apr 30, 2005 at 11:48 am

    Hmm, Kate, revealing special skills are we (g)?

  • Lauren Baratz-Logsted // Apr 30, 2005 at 1:07 pm


    I like the way you think. I was posting on a related issue at the other day and Bookdwarf said, IIRC, she really doesn’t read chick-lit because there’s no way to tell which authors are good ar not. And I got to thinking – well, OK, I got to thinking after I self-promoted my own books in her direction – that the reason is that there’s no ‘reputable’ review source that touches the genre. Oh, sure, if you’re married to any of the men behind A Beautiful Mind etc you’ll get reviewed. But the rest? The rest have to rely mostly on the graces of the prepubs and Romantic Times, which skews review points away from books that aren’t romance-centric (and for some chick-lit authors, the romance is secondary to other issues). OTOH, the NYTimes has special columnists for Mystery, Sci-Fi, etc. But there is no such regular roundup of Romance, never mind chick-lit. Personally, I think with the preponderance of chick-lit titles out now, it is the responsibility of conventional review sources to start separating the wheat from the chaff.

    OK, enough of a rant for now. I guess that, in short, I think there’s a lot wrong with the book business…and maybe I should start fixing it!

  • Booksquare // Apr 30, 2005 at 2:32 pm

    And an activist is born. Now, if you want my (never humble) opinion, I think it’s a good thing that you can’t get a good review in RT. While some great people write for it, I believe the publication doesn’t create a grown-up, serious view of women’s fiction. I find it very off-putting.

    But there needs to be a serious, reputable source of reviews for all women’s fiction. I don’t think the major newspapers are ever going to come around, and I think the majors have made a conscious decision to alienate a lot of potential readers. Women buy more books than men (though I don’t know why!), and I think they’d take major review sections more seriously if the reviews (and reviewers) reflected this. An online-only venture would reach a larger, more diverse audience anyway.

    Sorry…running away with your good idea!

  • Lauren Baratz-Logsted // Apr 30, 2005 at 2:54 pm

    Well, you know, My New Best Friend, we could always go at this jointly!

  • Booksquare // Apr 30, 2005 at 3:34 pm

    Yeah, I knew I’d end up getting into trouble here! Let’s talk more — and maybe throw out the idea on the chicklit list? There are a couple of interesting models out there to follow.

  • Sarah // Apr 30, 2005 at 4:37 pm

    You guys can even call it All About Chick Lit!

    Seriously, I think that a critical site about chick lit books is extremely necessary, even if it prompts the kind of hysterical “debate” that AAR and Mrs. Giggles and the new blogs seem to prompt. But there must be intelligent discourse, else how to, as another commenter said, separate wheat from the chaff?

    Although I’m primarily a crime fiction proponent I do like myself a good dose of well-done chick lit if I can. But AFAIK, I’ve only found a select few writers — mostly British — whom I think do the trick. So where would I go to get critical reviews so I can, potentially, expand my reading and make my TBR explode more than it already does? That’s the question.

  • Booksquare // Apr 30, 2005 at 5:14 pm

    Laughing, Sarah, laughing. Mostly because I can imagine the fan-girl outrage should that title be used. It’s almost worth the agony.

    This is what happens when people try to avoid work on Saturdays (which used to be reserved for goofing off). It’s really odd that chicklit is a fairly mature genre (subgenre, style, not a clue any more) yet there isn’t a place to separate the wheat. I’m becoming so selective in my reading that I rely upon recommendations from people I trust. Which is a shame because if my TBR stack dwindles, then I’m not sure what will hold the house up.

  • Bron // May 1, 2005 at 12:58 am

    Yes, we have to keep refusing to accept the judgement that fiction which is by women and which represents women’s interests and values can not be ‘literary’. And we have to highlight, in part through quality reviews, that within ‘women’s fiction’ (I hate that term!) there are works that are equal in skill, craft, originality, and importance to many works regarded highly by the literary establishment.

  • Lauren Baratz-Logsted // May 1, 2005 at 4:15 am

    Actually, Booksquare, my dream would be more along the lines of what you siggested a few posts up: a review source for all women’s fiction (which means I’d want chick-lit in there too). As you can well imagine, I’ve got some pretty specific ideas. If you’re interested in back-and-forthing on this, feel free to email me through my website; or, if you’d prefer, we can brainstorm here in public, gathering feedback along the way.

    And, Sarah, if you want chick-lit written with a British style of humor, you could always check out my first two books! 🙂

  • Lauren Baratz-Logsted // May 1, 2005 at 4:16 am


  • Booksquare // May 1, 2005 at 9:12 pm

    Lauren — will be contacting you. This week is crazy, but I’m sure I’m going to want to goof off in a constructive manner. Of course, anyone who wants to throw out ideas is welcome.

  • Lauren Baratz-Logsted // May 2, 2005 at 6:21 am

    Looking forward to it, Booksquare!

  • Jeannie // May 2, 2005 at 8:01 am

    Funny you should mention flatulence and burping, since there was an article in our local newspaper yesterday about how these topics have become such hot sellers in the children’s market that they are now getting a genre name of “poop fiction”. Now THAT’S literature. How can we lowly females even hope to compete? Might as well just take our shoes off and get pregnant, I guess.