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Monday, September 13, 2010

POST-KATRINA LIT

I seem to be undergoing an identity crisis.  This blog, originally meant to chronicle  electronic adventures,  will henceforth address itself also to the larger issues  (and non-issues) of the literary world, since it develops that twice in a week I've been unable to resist. Even Mike Shatzkin, the 600-pound gorilla in the e-pub world, sometimes talks about baseball. So this guerrilla feels free.

Let us now give our attention to a piece in the New Republic by a staffer named Chloe Schama, in which Ms. Schama wonders why no "major literary figures" have tackled the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in sharp contrast to the way they wrote about 9/11.  "In fact," Ms. Schama writes, "the literary response to Hurricane Katrina has been almost non-existent."

As a New Orleanian, I'd have to agree that there isn't nearly enough post-Katrina lit out there, but I'd submit first that there's a lot more than Ms. Schama seems aware of and second, that the fault may not lie so much with the writers as with the prevailing attitude of New York editors and possibly agents.  I think we should establish that she's talking about fiction, although she is grateful for Dave Eggers'  Zeitoun, which isn't fiction. Actually, she just seems grateful that a writer of Eggers' stature took on the issue.  But I think what she's missing is that there are probably only three writers she'd probably consider "major literary figures" who are actually qualified to write a credible Katrina novel.

New Orleans being the extremely tricky and many-layered can of worms it is, Eggers was smart to go the non-fiction route. The Treme crew has gone to great lengths to make sure they portray the city properly, and yet Treme, though widely loved here, is also roundly criticized for every bit of misplaced minutiae. Offhand, I can think of four "major literary figures" who  actually could write about the disaster with the confidence of an insider, but since one is Anne Rice, I'd have to guess that Ms. Schama wouldn't find her literary enough (though you could hardly get more major). Ms. Rice could do it, though--she's written some good mainstream novels in addition to her paranormal material. The other three are Valerie Martin, who grew up in Lakeview, as thoroughly annihilated as the Ninth Ward; Richard Ford, a sometime resident who has deep roots not only in the community, but  in local political life; and Robert Olen Butler, who's already won the Pulitzer for a book set in New Orleans.  Frankly, if a major literary figure who didn't have that kind of connection tried to take it on, the results might well be laughable. Let's hope to hear from these four one day. I can only thank other "majors" for staying out of  this thing.

But I wonder if a lot of "minors" haven't been heard from because there is simply no taste in the world of  New York publishing  for post-Katrina angst. I can guarantee you there wasn't some years ago when I proposed such a novel myself. I was shot down before I could get the last syllable of "Katrina" out.  Maybe Ms. Schama's right--no one wants to hear what a mere mortal might have to say about it, and no literary god has yet stepped forward.

But a lot of others have. She did acknowledge Tom Piazza's City of Refuge and something else she described as "a comic book," not even a graphic novel. Since she mentioned the comic book, I'm going to decide that she isn't a literary snob, she just doesn't know about the many books and short  stories  that have made it through the Big Pub sausage-grinder.  One of the first on the scene was Patty Friedmann's very good but highly  under-appreciated A Little Bit Ruined.

New Orleans Noir, a book I myself edited, contained no fewer than eight post-K short stories, every one of which I commend not only to Ms. Schama, but to anyone. Two post-K books have become best-sellers, that I know of, one by James Lee Burke, the other by Erica Spindler. Other authors who've honorably tackled the subject are Tony Dunbar, Greg Herron, and Jean Redmann.  And it's also notable that Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine devoted a whole issue to New Orleans, containing several post-K stories.

I doubt Ms. Schama ever heard of EQMM, as it's affectionately known, so I'm cutting her slack for that. But what about every other book and story in the preceding paragraph? They're all mysteries, thus not "major," but then again she did mention the comic book as well as the movie Bad Lieutenant, noir by every description. So by Ms. Schama's own standards, surely these works should count if those do.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

LATE TO THE FRANZEN FEUD

Late, but I have new info! Well, new to me, though possibly not to Jennifer Weiner, who it will be remembered, along with Jodi Picoult, took on the early canonization of Jonathan Franzen sometime in the distant past. AKA last week. Their point, or one of them, was their distress at not, as women, getting enough respect from the literary establishment.  I was particularly struck by something Weiner said, which to paraphrase, was that she was no Jonathan Franzen, but why couldn't she be treated as well as Nick Hornby or Jonathan Tropper?

At the time,  I had no opinion, having read one Picoult, almost all of Weiner,  and one Hornby, with varying degrees of enjoyment. But no Tropper. However, I did have a copy of Tropper's THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU on my TBR pile. So I  picked it up, ripped through it, and loved it!  Yet also found that Weiner not only has a point, she has a major, scary point.

Omigod, that was a funny book! I thought I'd die when the D-cup mom having the affair with the female neighbor at her husband's shiva  gives her kid a tube of K-Y jelly along with with tips on how to masturbate at Friday night dinner! Completely rolled on the floor.

It's actually the kind of thing Weiner can do just as well.  But I have a feeling if  she had, reviewers would have sneered. Tropper's book's a coming-of-age story about a 35-year-old guy, practically a genre,  and a well-respected one. But if  someone tried to write about a  woman as whiny and distant as Tropper's hero, she'd get slapped around, I'm pretty sure. (Not meant as a criticism of  Tropper; I   have personally known a number of immature and self-pitying, although very smart 35-year-old males, especially when I was 35, so I know this is a phenomenon that needs to be addressed.)

Women in literature have to be somehow Better. Because if they're not, their biographers will be dismissed as trivial. If  Weiner wrote a book about a family sitting shiva, in which all the characters were over the top,  the heroine was basically a princess who needed to grow up, and by the end of the book, actually had grown up a bit, at least realized she had "options", as Mr. Tropper rather unsubtly put it,  I think she'd be dismissed as commercial, trivial, and formulaic. Or perhaps the book wouldn't be reviewed at all.

I'll take Weiner's word for it that the NEW YORK TIMES hasn't treated her as well as the guys, because in a five-minute search, I couldn't find the reviews to confirm it and didn't want to spend all day on it--Tropper's came up right away, so maybe that means something. But I guess that's even a bit irrelevant. Tropper's book was a great beach read--and in fact, that was where I read it.  But isn't it weird to hear that? Can guys' books (other than those of Nicholas Sparks and thrillers) be beach reads? Let me tell you something: If that book had a heroine instead of a hero, no matter who wrote it, it would have been so considered. The problem may not be with women authors so much as the perception of female experience, period.  But that shouldn't be a surprise.

Still, it was. I was actually kind of shocked. In researching this piece I came across this amazing quote from the young and evidently oblivious female writer C.E. Morgan: "Male genius has far outnumbered female genius in the history of literature." Morgan went on to pronounce that this kind of discussion would stop if women would simply produce "more work of indisputable genius." 

Aside from her grammatical issues,  Morgan couldn't possibly know any of that, and she'd know she couldn't if she had the slightest grounding in what used to be called women's studies, though now I wonder if it exists at all. C.E.-cakes, listen up--feminists of yore tried tirelessly to get across the simple point that since men have consistently controlled the standards, sure, they've patted themselves on the back; sure they've considered women's books trivial, sure they've hired female reviewers with similar sensibilities. How many female geniuses have gone unsung and maybe unpublished no one knows. And Genius is always disputable--look at the Franzen skirmish. Plus, there's the small matter of perception of what constitutes genius, which, in a lesser way is one of Weiner's points. Only she's not talking genius, just fair recognition.

Evidently these early pioneers failed miserably. I'm horrified that we're having this discussion in 2010.