It’s that time of year again …. The time where every newspaper and magazine that covers pop culture comes out with their best books of the year. I’ve seen lists in magazines like Salon, Atlantic, Entertainment Weekly … and even in these diverse periodicals, the books are pretty much the same. And I’ve read half of one of them.
What does it take for a book to be named one of the best of the year, or to get a glowing review from a major publication? From my admittedly jaded viewpoint, these books are either poetic-sounding historical literary fiction with titles like “Breath Forms Clouds of Sunlight,” or a non-fiction tome that could double as a dictionary, usually a biography about some nineteenth century general or cabinet member.
These books may be heavy and important, but they’re usually not fun. And I like fun. I read for fun.
It makes me wonder whether these lists are helpful in getting more people to read, or if the majority react the way I do – that reading these books is a task, something you have to do, like exercise or flossing or getting a colonoscopy.
I fell in love with reading at a very early age. Some of my earliest memories are of my favorite picture books, like “Harold and the Purple Crayon.” In early elementary school, I was addicted to the “Little House” books. A year or so later, my mother introduced me to some of Beverly Cleary’s books about teenagers. Even when I went away to sleep away camp in the mountains, I could usually be found in the library.
In middle school and high school, though, reading became a chore. It’s almost as if reading and English teachers deliberately assign the most obtuse, plodding work available. Rather than getting lost in intriguing stories and characters I could identify with, I was totally lost looking for symbolism and foreshadowing and trying to decipher strange vocabulary.
This is also the period where I got hooked on certain serial TV shows. Coincidence? I think not. It wasn’t until I’d graduated college, got my first fulltime job and needed something to do during those metro commutes that I discovered reading for pleasure again.
My son underwent a similar journey. I read to him from the time he could understand words, and together we went from Curious George to Harry Potter, with Animorphs and private investigators in between. And then the public school system struck. When he brought “Sarah Plain and Tall” home from the first grade, I knew it was all over. And while as a college student he’s become a voracious reader, unfortunately it’s all non-fiction. (although with some of those political books he likes, calling them non-fiction could be a stretch.)
I love women’s fiction. Early Stephen King-style horror. Mysteries with female protagonists, especially if they’re PIs. In other words, nothing you’d see reviewed on the front page of the New York Times book section.
Jennifer Weiner is well-known for speaking out about how female authors who write in her genre aren’t reviewed the way male authors are. Recently Jodi Picoult gave an interview with a similar complaint. Sadly, Jennifer is viewed as “Jennifer Whiner,” as some – including other authors – see her complaints as personally motivated. I don’t doubt her personal situation figures into her feelings somewhat, but the issue is bigger than that, and bigger than one or two authors. When Liane Moriarty can take over the New York Times bestseller list but be ignored for reviews in that same newspaper, it isn’t just about her, or Jennifer, or Jodi. It’s about you and me and every reader (and all these authors have owned the Times’ lists) who enjoys books in this genre. (And don’t get me started on the romance genre. I’m not a reader, but it’s the most popular genre in publishing.) These publications are saying our tastes don’t matter. We don’t matter. If we’re not reading “Blue Butterfly, Black Clouds” then we don’t deserve to have books in our genre evaluated. If it’s good, bad, whatever … we’re on our own.
And it’s also frustrating to me as a writer, because even though the conventional advice is “write what you know/write what you want to read,” when I do that, I hear back that that’s not what publishers think they can sell. Is this related to the review dilemma? I don’t know. I do know that while a positive New York Times review pretty much guarantees bestseller status, there are plenty of bestsellers that don’t get reviewed by any well-known magazines. I’ve even seen a few self-published books on that list. So I think I’m writing what people (at least women like me) want to read, but unfortunately that opinion is not shared by those in charge.
I’m currently about halfway into one of the books that’s been on many of the end-of-year lists. It’s good, but for the life of me I can’t figure out what makes it so special. If this had come to me as one of the manuscripts in the slush pile for the literary agent I work for, I might have told her to pass on it.
But what do I know, anyway? I’m just another average Weiner/Picoult/Moriarty fan, someone who loves Emily Giffin and Sophie Kinsella and her job reviewing books for Chick Lit Central.
Oh, and I’m someone who bought 83 books for her Kindle last year. Eighty three. And 2014 isn’t over yet.
And not one of them was called “The Peculiar Insurrections.”