Why Maureen Dowd Should Avoid Bookstores

February 14th, 2007 · 6 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

Recently, Maureen Dowd went to a bookstore. This shouldn’t be news, but one suspects this was a rare event in her life. One also suspects she’ll avoid the experience in the future. What she saw terrified her: nubile pink books snuggled up against aged gray novels. Surely she thought the sweet young things would take the gravitas right out of William Shakespeare.

The thought that fake fiction had made its way into our home is alarming

Dowd’s faux outrage was because the sea of chicklit that threatened to drown out the classics. Yeah, it’s not like most of those are force fed to young readers in ways that make them grow up to hate literary standards. But that’s another rant for another day. Dowd pretends to be shocked, shocked!, by the continuing popularity of chicklit, noting, rather unsuccessfully, that it expanded seemingly overnight beyond the original confines of young editor in the city desperately seeking a halfway decent guy for a lifetime of contentment.

Someone needs to tell Dowd to wander over to the manga aisle. That’s going to give her nightmares for decades.

Then there are the sub-genres of chicklit, which, when you get right down to it, are merely nice marketing niches. Clearly Dowd doesn’t read her own paper. If she had, she might have thought twice about condemning, at the very least, the trend of “Bollywood chicklit”. As Rachel Donadio noted last year, on the international stage, these stories are exposing female readers to societal injustices and alternative viewpoints on what it means to be female in a patriarchal society. She also, probably, wouldn’t have made the egregious error of equating young adult fiction with regular adult fiction. Sloppy, that.

Jane Austen and the authors who preceded her — authors of books Dowd acknowledges have always been linked to female reader — used their fiction as a way of subverting authority. The tradition continues. Even the Harlequin romances dismissed by Dowd challenged the patriarchal status quo, what with depicting satisfied, successful career women during eras where June Cleaver was the epitome of femininity. Yeah, they also noted that coupledom and family are critical to the human experience. Hello? They are. Men and women seek this. Women, at least, explore the challenges of wanting it all, having it all, and realizing that it all changes over time.

We digress. Novels change society. Novels expose hypocrisy. They get the message out to the masses. What better way to pass new ideas in societies where two or more females in a gathering is considered a danger to a culture? Novels are a time-honored way to share subversive thoughts with a potentially receptive readership.

Step one, of course, is to convince the reader that opening the book is worthwhile. Step two, naturally, is to convince the reader to move beyond the first page. Step three, it only goes to follow, is to create a world so absorbing that the reader is enthralled enough to read, learn, and think.

Dowd’s outrage is stemmed at readers who, wow, this is hard to say, buy books and read them. Those crazy gals! Imagine — they’re enjoying the beauty of books! They’re treating fiction like it’s something to be…liked. Don’t they realize that fiction is like cod liver oil? Taking a spoonful of sugar in your fiction will not help the medicine go down.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, Fay Weldon is expressing similar outrage, though far less gender specific. It’s like readers are the enemy. She cannot bear that some books achieve commercial success while “real” books, written by those who take writing “seriously” do not achieve the publishing version of success. Weldon neglects to indict herself in the novel-as-commercial-venture game; she, of course, accepted cash from Bulgari to include their products in a novel. We do not condemn Weldon’s decision, by the way. Writing is not a good way to get rich. If that’s your goal, we strongly suggest the lottery. Better odds.

Weldon is, we believe, complaining that publishing is a commercial venture. Publishers focus on hits, sequels to hits, cheap, quickly produced titles geared toward desperate shoppers, books that rake in cash with very little expense. Duh. If you truly believe that publishing is all about fantastic talent, you are doomed for disappointment. Or a career that makes your really happy while doing little to put food on the table. Again, no judgment. You follow your art, that’s what matters.

Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling are authors who especially aggrieve Weldon — how dare they write books that readers want to read? Especially Rowling, doesn’t she realize that “[c]hildren’s writers must stick to their age groups…”? As Weldon rants that the commercialization of the publishing industry (not new, by the way) leads to the death of creativity, citing the pigeon-holing of genre writers like children’s authors, she chooses to pick on the one author who gives lie to her argument.

Why is Rowling successful? In a word, archetypes. In more words, the heroic journey. In even more words, compelling storytelling that crosses generations. If only she hadn’t had the misfortune of success, then maybe she’d be taken seriously as an author. You live, you learn.

Both Dowd and Weldon fail to fully acknowledge the truth of what they see in the publishing business: a lot of decisions are made because it’s just good marketing. Commercial fiction (and, yes, commercial non-fiction) plays a critical role in any publishing house: it brings in pots of money. In order for publishers to acquire “real” books and pay the authors something resembling reasonable advances, there must be money in the bank. Editors simply cannot afford to buy “dignified” books; there is a need to keep the lights on, you know. Also, little known secret: editors must eat at least once a week. This requires a paycheck that doesn’t bounce.

Publishing is full of trade-offs, and, as Scott Pack notes in the essay printed just below Weldon’s, major houses have responsibilities that small presses can skirt (shareholders, for example). There’s a reason why a lot of great fiction is coming from small press publishers; the trade-off being that authors aren’t getting sumptuous advances. Major houses tend to overpay for fine literature, the general public, less so. Sorry. It’s true. If you’re going to be precious about fiction, you need to understand that it’s a diverse readership out there, and the fiction we champion isn’t always what the average reader wants.

This is not our way of saying that money equals bad fiction. Bills are paid when units are moved. Sales less returns are the only factor (also, other costs, but why ruin your day with algebra). Commercial fiction, or fiction deemed by marketing to fit a specific publishing niche, ranges from very good to very cringe inducing. A lifetime of reading literary fiction leads us to the same analysis. It is amazing what is considered well-written in some circles. Less amazing is the inability of serious fiction critics to admit the truth when encountering bad fiction.

No good can come from labeling readers “good” or “bad” because they read or don’t read certain types of books. No good can come from blaming authors for marketing decisions made by publishing houses, regardless of the content of their books. No good can come from deeming practical business decisions wrong, just because one isn’t getting the major advances one feels she should.

Shopping with Dowd that fateful day was Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic. Wieseltier shook his ponderous head (presumably) and tsk’d over the books he saw:

“These books do not seem particularly demanding in the manner of real novels,” Leon said. “And when we’re at war and the country is under threat, they seem a little insular. America’s reading women could do a lot worse than to put down ‘Will Francine Get Her Guy?’ and pick up ‘The Red Badge of Courage.’ ”

Thanks, Leon. Will file that under useless advice. Already did the Red Badge thing. Junior high. Good book. And what’s up with the notion that we must read books about war in times of war? By all accounts, the so-called War on Terror will continue for generations. That’s a lot of books about war. Do you offer the same advice to men who spend weekends glued to frivolous sporting events? Do you say, “C’mon, man, we’re at war. Drop and give me twenty.” Or is football sufficiently gladiatorial enough for your new rule?

Perhaps, Leon, you should spend some time actually considering the reading habits of American women rather than condemning them wholesale based on lame evidence (major chain bookstore, covers chosen by marketing, titles, ditto). You might be surprised. Remember, Leon, that women tend to read more fiction than men. Romantic fiction comprises approximately 50% of fiction sales, sure, but that leaves, wow, a whole lot of room for “real” novels. A little logic suggests that women are buying and reading those, too.

Oh, and Leon, what is a real novel anyway? Are there specific guidelines? Are all those books you see fake? What if, by chance, a real novel found itself disguised as a fake novel? These are not rhetorical questions. We really want to know. After all, our desk is littered with books. The thought that fake fiction had made its way into our home is alarming. When that happens, surely the terrorists have won.

In many ways, both Dowd and Weldon are judging books by their covers. They are blaming readers, authors, and publishers for the fact that some books sell well and others don’t. There is no good explanation for the success of The Da Vinci Code but one: it struck a chord with readers. There is no good explanation for the success of the entire Harry Potter series but one: it struck a chord with readers. Far more readers than Dan Brown’s book, but, as noted, Rowling’s work crosses generations.

Dowd doesn’t like books with pink covers, and the best thing about our free world is that she doesn’t have to buy or read them. Weldon wants to change the definition of success from the perspective of the publishing business, and the cool thing is that all she needs to do is change publishing houses.

[tags]maureen dowd, fay weldon, rachel donadio, scott pack, fiction, writin, publishing, chicklit, dan brown, jk rowling, harry potter, the da vinci code, Leon Wieseltier[/tags]

File Under: Reviewing Reviewing

6 responses so far ↓

  • Wendy // Feb 14, 2007 at 11:50 am

    BS, you are beautiful when on a soapbox.

    The Dowd piece was a bit baffling for its lack of relevancy. Her outrage would have seemed more timely two or three years ago, when bookstores were overflowing with pink covered books. Now, this seems more beating a dead horse than topical.

    That said, she makes some cogent, if shallow, broad-stroked points about chicklit. Even counting myself as a devoted fan of single girls in the city books, when I see plot after plot, with seemingly little change from author to author, I wonder what other stories about women’s lives there are to tell. And, more importantly, why there doesn’t seem to be room for them on bookstore shelves.

  • Kassia Krozser // Feb 15, 2007 at 12:28 am

    I honestly think that Dowd was making up her outrage. Seriously. You’d have to live under a rock to have missed the chicklit explosion.

    While I’m willing to agree that Dowd had a point, I’m not so sure about the cogent. I think she danced up to the edge of an argument we’d both love to have (or would it be debate, or is it a debate if we’re both on the same side), then she chose preciousness over substance. She missed the opportunity to discuss the fact that it’s so hard for women’s stories to make an impact on the market…which, in my more feminist moments, is a result of the focus on “guy” fiction. But you know me, always whining.

    I would argue that there is quite a bit beyond the single girl in cities books. Marian Keyes (who, you know, makes me go all fangirl). You can be smart and funny and very much about the modern world. Keyes often explores dysfunctional families in a loving context. She also explores issues like addiction in ways that make you cringe. In a good way. There are others, though the ones that come to mind on a mainstream scale are British. Which says more about American publishers than it does American writers.

    However, if you’re looking for a great book about women’s lives, I totally recommend Valerie Trueblood’s Seven Loves. It’s a novel-in-stories about the various loves in one woman’s life. Beautiful. Oh my, it was great to read. I also loved Elizabeth Poliner’s Mutual Life & Casualty. Both are, to a degree, exploring women from another era (especially the 70’s), but both are also, I’d argue, a sort of chicklit, if you’re willing to accept that the genre looks at the life experience of women.

  • Lauren // Feb 15, 2007 at 1:22 pm

    I blogged about this yesterday because I couldn’t resist any longer. The smug commentary about The Red Badge of Courage made my stomach hurt for days. As if it’s either romance OR “true literature”

    The smug, sexist classism of both Dowd and “her friend” at the New Republic make me cringe.

  • David Thayer // Feb 17, 2007 at 6:47 am

    K2, I guess Maureen Dowd is starting an Inspector General series although Shopping with Leon was flawed from the beginning since the article’s premise was outrage before she left the Times in search of same. Leon’s remark about being at war falls into the abyss since women are not home riveting F-16s in the event the Iraqi army storm the Jersey shore. Your instinct is correct: Dowd is patronizing and Leon shouldn’t be shopping anyway. Nice work.

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