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?
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.
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.