These literary controversies keep creeping closer and closer to me. While maintaining a professional smokescreen about the situation, let me just say I was recently involved in a decision to retract an article, and it got me thinking about the reasons pieces get retracted. First, read about what a retraction is. For my purposes, we’ll say retraction is removing a previously published piece from the public view for reasons unrelated to space.
So I typed in “why do pieces get retracted” into Google and came back with an interesting blog on the subject. Retraction Watch apparently keeps track of retractions of scientific studies. Which is fascinating, because often we hear about studies being based on shoddy evidence and disproved. It’s a common practice in science—too common, it seems like, based on the amount of posts on the site, and apparently, according to one article I saw, getting even more endemic. But I was thinking more in the journalism and literary world. Why do things get pulled there?
This always seems to happen–the literary world is as still as a pond, and then right as I start panicking and amassing my ways of insulting various authors of my acquaintance so as to manufacture my own controversy, some idiot somewhere does something. I feel like I’ve been hopping on the feminist bandwagon as of late, but here ya go.
So, Wikipedia apparently has separated out “American women novelists” from “American novelists.” All the “American Novelists” are now male. Ok, yes, that’s a little bit insulting. But can we all calm down just for a second. While Wikipedia is kicking themselves for taking this step and quickly trying to correct it, it kinda makes sense. There were more than 3900 names on the American novelists list, and that was after taking off the women. Yay for the large amount of American novelists, but that does cry out for some organization.
What should have happened is that there’s no “American Novelists List” at all, or if there is, it’s a page composed of smaller lists: for instance, “American Male Novelists”, “American Women Novelists”, “American Hispanic Novelists”. Look, I’m sorry, if you have a problem with that sort of organization, I don’t know what to say. I admit it does group people by a certain characteristic that they cannot change, but it’s up to you to supply the positive or negative connotation of that characteristic. Wikipedia’s not saying, “these novelists are a minority so they are not as deserving of attention”. They’re just presenting them based on an interest many people might have and an organization many people might ascribe. I mean, would you honestly prefer a list of names? Then sure, do them in alphabetical order. Maybe that’s the fairest, most inoffensive way.
I don’t know who J.Robert Lennon is, but he made a lot of my Facebook friends see red last week with a Salon.com article entitled “Most contemporary literary fiction is terrible.” A moderately well-known contemporary lit fiction author who I happen to know was so offended he posted a status asking his friends to post one of their favorite books written in the past 10 years. And I now have to admit something which is a bit awkward for a book-reviewer-come-lately to admit. As deliberately provoking as his article was, I have to admit, I agree with J. Robert Lennon.
I don’t know exactly when it started, and I can’t and I’m not going to name names. OK, fine, I’ll name a few. Life of Pi. God, I hate that book. I think it made a whole generation of people think they could away with nothing happening in a plot as long as they were sufficiently profound. And honestly, what is the likelihood that a devout believer of multiple religions would be trapped on a boat with a tiger? A totally contrived situation. Yes, I know fiction doesn’t have to be realistic. But it has to be believable. Then, I don’t know, it seemed like there were a bunch of white people who authors forced to have marginally terrible lives for the sake of art. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen was a good example of that. If that was the next great American novel, when can I get a visa to Canada? The privilege dripping off that book was obscene, and even better, nothing actually happened.
When I started writing this column about literary controversies, I never dreamed that 9 months later, I’d find my hometown in the center of one. Not that I’m happy about this (other than not having to look in obscure places or manufacture a controversy out of thin air), but we haven’t had a good ‘ol fashioned book banning in a while. Lane Tech High School in Chicago broke that local streak when for whatever reason staff were directed to pull Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, out of school libraries. Or something that seemed very, very close to book banning. Something that took Persepolis out of a place where students who previously had access to it will no longer be able to do so.
Actually, I can’t figure out the order of events here, and neither can anyone else. Stories abound. Is it inaccurate to say the book was banned? Some people say it was just taken out of the 7th grade curriculum, others say high school libraries no longer have it either. Some say the ban is over, but I have it on good authority from the ALA (located in Chicago, what are the odds?) that the challenge is ongoing. I’ve heard the objection came from a pro-Iranian family in Englewood, but if you know anything about Chicago, that story smells worse than Bubbly Creek did on a hot day, especially since reports came out of Lane Tech…on the other side of town. I don’t want to add to the flurry of information about this event, especially since I suspect much of it is wrong. You do the investigative journalism of Googling yourself, and let’s just talk about what it all means.
Wherefore art though, Juliet, in the New York Review of Books?
What kind of problem affects 50% of the writing population? I’ll tell you. It’s that women are criminally underpublished and/or reviewed in almost all the major literary and cultural magazines.
When I was at AWP last year I was intrigued by an organization called VIDA. In addition to advocating for women writers, they had charts and statistics showing the shocking lack of women being published from year to year. Sadly, I wasn’t surprised by this, and not just because I am a woman with eyes.
On my way into morphing a literary sage, I started and edited a literary magazine, The Toucan, for four years. (It’s still going, just not with me, and you should submit, especially if you’re a girl). Despite this fact that The Toucan was run by two liberated ladies, (and my co-editrice, now lead editrice, is a card-carrying feminist), we for some reason didn’t have a lot of ladies in our pages. This concerned us. We couldn’t figure out if women weren’t submitting, or if we too fell prey to patriarchy’s silvery sentences, depriving our sisters of a place in literature.
And to be honest, I’m still not sure what’s going on. Among my friends, there’s no lack for female writers, and an informal survey of Facebook actually has them griping about the submission process more than the guys. (Refrain from sexist stereotype here.) Still, I could see a trend among female writers not submitting work. I’m not going to speculate as to why, but it’s possible.
As literary controversies go, this is the granddaddy of them all: is writing even fun? Why of course, you say? Why else would I be doing it? Never mind the alcoholics and suicides. There’s parties and awards and private moments where you, for one second, wrote the perfect sentence. There’s the opportunity to communicate what you believe to everyone and see what they say. To lay out an argument and edit it. That’s what I believe about writing, and this is why I do it.
Philip Roth apparently didn’t think the whole thing was worth it. According to an encounter with a New York waiter/novelist, Roth thought writing was terrible work. And then Roth quit writing soon after and was damn happy. (Perhaps letting go of that whole Nobel Prize thing helps?) And then Elizabeth Gilbert, she of relentless optimism. self improvement, and globetrotting, was like, “no, no, writing is fun! How dare you, you cranky old man?”
This New Yorker article by Avi Steinberg lays out the difference between Roth and Gilbert, apart from the obvious, eloquently. So I’m not here to rehash that.
And you know the statistics and quotes as well as me. Kurt Vonnegut, a depressed writer himself, and one of the funniest, believed that writers were a naturally depressed lot. Bukowski, another cheerful soul, thought you shouldn’t be a writer unless you were consistently inches away from suicide. Not to mention unless we are Elizabeth Gilbert or lord save us, James Patterson, we’re inclined to starve. Really, what is the big deal about writing?
Hi guys! Sorry I’ve been away for so long, but hopefully the literary world has not gone profligate unchecked in my absence. Ah, who am I kidding? Those writers and their damn opinions, those silly people who criticize writing, those readers reading way too much into things…it’s not going to stop anytime soon,. It’s been going on for years, as evidenced by this story found in the Guardian. Apparently this was a bit of current news back in September, though it might have been a scandal back in 1947 had it been known.
Imagine, if you will, a government being so proud of its country’s prodigious output of crime fiction that they asked a leading crime author to write an essay on it. While you are squeeing with joy, let me remind you it was 1947, this was Britain (who artistically have always seemed a bit more on the ball than the U.S sometimes: Shakespeare, The Beatles, Doctor Who, anyone?), and the author was the “Duchess of Death”, the unstoppable force, the woman who made crime fiction a worldwide phenomenon, Agatha Christie.
The world woke up last week with one question: who is Mo Yan? It was a fair question, since he’d just won the Nobel Prize for literature, and all of the Western intellectuals were steamed since no one knew who he was. It turns out he’s actually a pretty big deal in China, and his books are being translated and printed in the U.S to great acclaim (when they’re actually reviewed.) So, why is everyone upset?
Human nature: we all want to root for what we’re familiar with. Apparently everyone thinks it’s a great crime that Philip Roth has never won a Nobel. It’s not like the Nobel has some sort of boundaries of taste–while people, including a member of the Nobel committee, are still annoyed about Elfriede Jelinek, another sexually frank writer, getting the prize in 2004, she still got it. (So that little scene in Portnoy’s Complaint shouldn’t mean anything.) And it’s true that some literature winners have never gotten the traction that the prize should entail. If you look at the list of early 1900s winners, you’ll only recognize Kipling, and if you’re lucky, Henryk Sienkiewicz. While it would make sense that someone of Roth’s stature would and should be under consideration, that misses the point of awarding the prize in the first place.
A few days ago the internet exploded yet again. Salon, Slate, Gawker, you name it went bananas over the New Yorker profile of J.K Rowling. “Look! He said she’s stiff and reclusive and wears too much makeup!” they crowed. “And her teachers say she wasn’t a brilliant student. How could they ever be so mean to J.K Rowling? Wait, is she really all of those things? JUICY!”
Well, I read those articles too, and I was appalled that such a slam would have been printed—as Salon said, “Imagine! a writer who’s not a natural joiner”, and to that I would add “Imagine! A writer who’s not a good student!” (There’s been many, including, at times, me). And then I thought, I have to read this article. There’s no way it can be quite as mean-spirited as everyone says it is.
John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is one of the most heralded, widely read and referenced books of all time. Not to spoil it for you, but it involves a mentally retarded character who accidentally commits a crime. So fine, the state of Texas referenced it in regards to the case of Marvin Wilson, who allegedly murdered a police informant back in 1992. The U.S government has banned the execution of mentally disabled prisoners. What’s the problem here?