Poor Jonathan Franzen is getting it in the neck because he has a new novel out – Purity (about what a ball-breaker his ex-wife is) – and he always drips ego in his interviews… Personally I enjoy ego in interviews esp. if it’s marinated in bitterness and petty hatred but then I also enjoy his jealous haters spewing think-pieces all over the arts pages because trying to keep your intellectual dignity when you want to scream ‘why that bastard and not me!!!’ is entertainment.
It’s also a sneaky schadenfreude because he’s so successful and they’re so serious… and its rooted in the pecking order that exists between readers, writers and reviewers.
In the genre world the writer has to please the reader… they need to be their best mate or wise guide… they chase the readers with fantasy, wish-fulfillment and flattery… The readers have all the power although they often elevate the writer to the position of guru or God… It’s the kind of relationship that could exist when we were hunter-gathering and all our knowledge came in the form of animistic folk tales.
Literary novels are different. They’re supposed to be objectively educational – expanding our horizons and depth of understanding about What We’re Doing and Where We’re Going and When We’re Doing It and Why and How. The writer has to be a word-master with something new and important to say. The literary reader may be more sophisticated than the genre reader – but – if the literary writer is accepted as good – the literary writer is above them. And that can feel slightly demeaning when you’re a smart cookie.
Genre hits this power-struggle when it comes to awards. In the sci-fi world there’s currently a culture war between Progressives (or Social Justice Warriors) whose stories include more minorities and Conservatives (or Men’s Rights’ Activists) who prefer old-fashioned adventures with male protagonists… Good writing is good writing, fan-bases are fan-bases… the fight has more to do with us being trapped between the hyper-demands of individualism and the tanking economy… it’s a narcissistic malaise that finds comfort in cosplay and scrolling without being entirely sure what it wants to dress up as or look at… but to the fighters it’s about who gets to be Top Dog.
Literary fiction is Top Dog but it has to be championed by a critic or academic in order to have a tiny smart cookie public. The critic has a higher status than the writer or the reader – but only if he or she likes the work. If they don’t like the work and someone else does – they’re lower. Agents and publishers are higher than the writer until the writer is successful – but then they’re consoled by money and most wannabe writers don’t care about them now self-publishing is a click away and all they can offer is the prestige of being ‘picked’.
Who gets ‘picked’ by agents, publishers and critics is an issue. The white male heterosexual is still the universal voice. Everyone else is niche. They might be an interesting, talented or worthy niche – but you can’t learn about the Human Condition from the them. They don’t control enough resources. Not controlling enough resources often throws them off literary fiction and into Causes – which may or may not punt them higher than the keyboard-bashers – who may or may not resent that X is whinging about Y and getting all the attention.
It’s these massive, conflicting – and superficially pointless but soul-deep vital – status war tensions and pressures that make reading about writers so enjoyable.