August 2002

Jessa and Mike


In Response to Bitch

The last issue of Bitch contained an article about Oprah v Franzen. After I read it, I threw the magazine to the ground, cursed and made sure everyone I know read it as well. I was outraged. (Read the article for yourself here.)

Mike and I decided to formulate some sort of response. And since what we really wanted to do was bitch, we got together and taped the conversation we had. We talked mostly about the article, swinging a few times to The Man Show or Aquafina, but we always got back on track. I do have to say, however, that this will be the last time I transcribe my own conversation because listening to my voice on tape is quite horrifying.

[Edited for length and to remove a lot of “like”s.]

J: The first thing that bothers me about the article is this “By this argument, Oprah’s books aren’t literature because they’re about social issues, and topics like child molestation lend themselves to nonfiction reportage or therapied self-disclosure, not to literature. Good thing no one ever mentioned this to Dorothy Allison – or Vladimir Nabokov, for that matter.”

M: What social issues were his for one thing?

J: She says Nabokov or Dorothy Allison who wrote a book about child abuse and child molestation. And she’s saying Lolita is a book about child molestation, which it’s not.

M: And she’s comparing him to Dorothy Allison who is no Nabokov. She has one book right? And a few others that no one has read.

J: Exactly. Did she really think that Lolita was about child abuse? I mean Dorothy Allison wrote her book to bring attention to child abuse or child molestation. Nabokov did not write Lolita to make some sort of statement about molestation. It blows my mind that she pairs them together.

M: I don’t understand it, and I don’t get her assertion that women’s fiction or Oprah’s books are all about social issues. I mean, what about Maeve Binchy, you know.

J: Or The Deep End of the Ocean?

M: Yeah. Where are the social issues in those books? I don’t remember any of Oprah’s books being sociofiction or whatever.

J: Well, the ones she references are like The Map of the World, which is about a woman falsely accused of abusing a child.

M: She has a weird child abuse obsession in this article.

J: I wonder if she has read any of the male authors that she references. I mean, did she read Lolita? Because if she did, I don’t know how she came to the conclusion that it’s about the same subject as Bastard Out of Carolina.

M: It was more of a love story than anything else. It was a weird love story, but it wasn’t some social or political statement about pedophilia. I don’t really get what she’s trying to do there. And then she brings in this equation that Franzen never made between women’s fiction and social, middlebrow fiction. Unless I’m remembering wrong, Franzen never said that, “Oprah writers are women and they all suck.” I don’t recall that ever being his thing.

J: It’s like that essay that he wrote about what Oprah was making him do…

M: Yeah, in the New Yorker.

J: to be in the book club. I think that’s what drove him away from the Oprah book club. Because she was turning it into this heart wrenching, sentimental… Let’s make him go stand and stare at the tree that he helped his father plant in St. Louis. What sentimental bullshit!

M: I know, it is middlebrow, as much as she doesn’t want to admit it. Oprah’s book selection is middlebrow, even if she did have Toni Morrison, and, well, Joyce Carol Oates who I consider middlebrow, and I don’t understand why she doesn’t. I have never really heard anyone refer to her as being high art. It takes her a week to write a book, how good could she possibly be? She leaves out the quote from Fresh Air about he hated seeing that logo on his book, that Oprah thing stamped on his book. I think that is the whole co-modification of literature, not the fact that he was objecting to be on the same list as women authors or whatever.

J: Even if that was what bothered him, I would be bothered by it. Could you imagine Salman Rushdie being on that book list? Next to The Map of the World and The Deep End of the Ocean.

M: She’s Come Undone. Yeah.

J: I would be offended by that. Well, not offended. Insulted. I would wonder about how people were reading my books.

M: Absolutely. I think you’re absolutely right, it’s just a totally different interest. And this quote here, “dipping into the comfort of Maeve Binchy’s Tara Road one day and stretching to accommodate the difficulty of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye the next.” Is The Bluest Eye a difficult book, or am I just not remembering it right? It’s thin, and it’s her first book. Okay, or this “No one to my knowledge has ever called [Anne] Tyler or [Annie] Proulx middlebrow…” But Anne Tyler, her books get sold in supermarkets. I thought that was sort of the definition of middlebrow. Not to seem snobby, but I’ve read her books and they’re not… they’re just on a totally different level from any writer that has more of a higher tradition.

J: I have a problem with her comparing men’s writing and women’s writing like they’re completely different from one another. She’s picking these examples of women who do write these very family centric, very issue driven literature. And there are women writers who aren’t part of that at all. But she doesn’t mention them. She uses these family writers as examples of why women’s literature is great. But that’s the literature that makes me think women’s literature is boring. If you’re going to talk about how family is traditionally women’s area of writing and Jonathan Franzen, swooping in and stealing it away from women, well, what were women saying about it anyway? It’s like that book, the One True Thing, The One Sure Thing, whatever, the girl coming back to live with her mom who’s dying of cancer, I don’t want to read about that. What is that supposed to be saying to me? But I would want to read The Corrections. I mean, I haven’t because with all the crap going on, I wanted to have some distance from that before I tried to read it.

M: Some sort of perspective.

J: That doesn’t interest me at all. I have no interest in books that just focus on the family and that’s it. Like this is some thing that I need, like this is going to bring me closer… It’s bullshit.

M: I think she’s perpetuating the stereotype that that’s all women want to read about. And she’s blaming Franzen for it, which is weird. She’s not taking into account women like Dorothy Lessing or these women writers who are as far from issue driven as they can possibly be. Or for that matter, male writers like Wally Lamb or Richard Ford who write very family centric books all the time. She has this false gender grading thing. She’s setting up this dichotomy between male and female writers that just does not exist. I’ve never even thought of it until I read this article.

J: And she’s using stereotypes of men’s writing and women’s writing to make big, sweeping statements about them. And it doesn’t hold together. It’s like her statement that men can’t write characters, that they sacrifice character development for plot. And then she uses Salman Rushdie as an example.

M: See, that I don’t understand. Has she read Satanic Verses or Midnight’s Children?

J: Or anything? Shame?

M: Every one of his books belies that assertion. Well, maybe not Fury. Fury’s another issue. Every author is entitled to one.

J: Yeah, let’s just forget he wrote that.

M: Using The Joy Luck Club is her trump card. This is the example she uses of high art by a woman writer. Couldn’t she pick anything better than that?

J: I hate Amy Tan.

M: She uses David Foster Wallace’s quotation about tribal writers, which sort of, I don’t see anything wrote about his quotation [“Tribal writers can feel… anger and identify themselves with their subculture and write to and for their subculture about how the mainstream culture’s alienated them. White males are the mainstream culture. So why shouldn’t white males … write at and against the culture?”], I don’t understand what her problem with that is.

J: She seems to be hinting that she believes white men have nothing important to say because they’re white men.

M: It’s the mainstream culture evidently.

J: Nothing that comes out of the mainstream culture can be at all interesting or thought provoking.

M: I don’t think she realizes that white men have very different experiences. You’re talking about this category that encompasses Jews and Christians and atheists and gays and straights. People from vastly different cultures growing up in different parts of the world. Lumping them all together like that is ridiculous.

J: You are a white man, so therefore you have nothing original or new to say. Or you are a white man so therefore you cannot write characters.

M: That’s what I don’t understand. Her thing with women being people who can draw characters, but men have no concept. I don’t understand where that’s coming from. When you think great characterization, you think of a lot of great, white male authors. Not that’s it’s intrinsically a male thing, but it’s definitely not intrinsically a female thing.

J: How far back is she going? Are we going to say that Anna Karenina is not a good character because it was written by a man? What about Humbert Humbert and Lolita, two of the most classic characters of 20th century literature? Or Holden Caulfield? How can she completely dismiss characters just because they’re written by white men?

M: Jay Gatsby. And then at one point she says “women’s literature stigma.” I have never heard of family literature being stigmatized as a women’s lit thing. Ever. She has a vastly different interpretation of the culture than I do apparently.

J: The stigma I have about women’s literature is that I find Oprah’s books boring.

M: I don’t see how she can defend Oprah’s book club on any level. It’s just a mess. There’s no common thread in any of these books, and I guess you can argue there doesn’t have to be. But there’s no reason that anyone who likes Book A would like Book B on this list.

J: It’s also a nationwide book club. She does have to pick middlebrow. It’s like defending Minority Report as a great piece of art. It’s not, it’s a pop movie. She’s picking pop literature. If you’re going to appeal to the masses, you have to dumb it down some.

M: I think the essence of the Oprah Winfrey show is very middlebrow. Just watch the commercials. Is it really snobbery to say that one author is better than another? Is it really snobbery to say that Leonard Cohen is a better songwriter than Britney Spears?

J: I think that it can be said that Anne Tyler is not as good a writer as Don DeLillo, which she takes offense at in the article. And she perpetuates these stereotypes that you think any feminist would want to get away from, that women are family-based, relationship-based, emotional-based. She disregards so many women authors, a slew of them. Has she ever heard of Kathy Acker?

M: Any of the authors who have books that aren’t “My husband’s going to cheat on me and my kid who has this disease.” And by the way, how many books did she pick about kids with some sort of disease?

J: Or children who are abused. Or kidnapped.

M: She’s picking 500 variations on A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I understand that’s her tastes, but when you’re as popular as Oprah, don’t you have some responsibility not to pick another Maeve Binchy?

J: I think that’s what she tried to do with The Corrections. Her statement that Oprah “called [Franzen’s] bluff” when he started to badmouth her list is bullshit. It was a “Well, I don’t want to play with you anyway” move. It had nothing to do with “Oh, she’s going to raise herself above his level.” It was completely about her hurt little ego. If she can’t take a little bit of criticism, if she expects every author to run to her with open arms, then maybe it’s good she stopped the book club.

M: I wonder if this had anything to do with it.

J: I really think it did. She tried to pick something a little bit of higher, but he didn’t want to be associated with, let’s face it, crap. She picks crap more than she picks good authors.

M: And how easy a pitch is Toni Morrison anyway? Did anyone really need to be introduced to her? Nobel Prize winner, best selling author, she’s pretty much regarded one of the great living authors. Deepak Chopra is on the list. Deepak Chopra.

J: I think Deepak Chopra can pretty much kill any argument that she has a highbrow reading list.

M: You make those choices. She’s going to have to live with the fact that she once endorsed Deepak.

J: She started it out with The Deep End of the Ocean, which is not the way to start a high art tradition. I read it. I was working retail and it was there and I was desperate. And it was horrible, sentimental crap.

M: And what is this social issues thing? What great social issues have they tackled with the books on this list?

J: The only thing I can think of is The Poisonwood Bible. It’s an interesting book. It was pretty good until the end until she blew it completely. It’s the only book on the list I can think of that dealt with Issues. Capital I.

M: You have all these books about child abuse and kidnapping, and it’s not to say that’s not important.

J: The authors that she picks tend to only focus on that. It’s a book with a mission. I don’t enjoy literature that is on a mission. I can read Shame by Salman Rushdie, and that has a point, but it doesn’t do it in a hammer over your head kind of way.

M: Saying Oprah’s books are sociofiction is like saying all the kidnapping movies on the Lifetime Network are social cinema.

J: That is definitely the equivalent of Oprah fiction.

M: Yeah, it’s like a little Lifetime book club. And that’s not to say that a network, a book club geared towards women is bad, but they’re picking the worst possible… I don’t know any women who watch Lifetime. I don’t know any women who watch it regularly and like it. Because of course I watch it. I don’t really know any women who are huge Oprah fans as far as her book club goes.

J: Can I make an analogy?

M: Please.

J: Oprah’s book club is to the Lifetime Network as the women writers I read is to the WE Channel. That shows Welcome to the Dollhouse.

M: The WE Network is doing an awesome job at diverse programming. Who would have thought it?

J: And Lifetime now has two channels. One with just women’s reality programming. Fantastic. I’m going to upgrade to digital cable, just so I can get that. It’s not the Sopranos that drags me in, it’s this. And is it Oxygen? I think it is. They have a 70 year-old woman giving sex advice on Sunday nights.

M: That’s cool!

J: Yeah, but seeing her talk about anal sex…

M: That could turn you off from any sexual habit you might have. But I think that the Oprah book club is to women I know as The Man Show is to me. The Man Show horrifies me.

J: I like The Man Show.

M: Do you really? You would, though. It’s such a burlesque. Men who take it seriously, the Maxim audience. “Oooh, big breasted women!”

J: “Jumping on trampolines! Rah!”

M: She also mentions how Franzen was denounced in the media for snobbery and sexism. I remember the snobbery, but did anyone really call him sexist?

J: I do remember editorials when this all came out that said he was wrong, but I also remember an equal number of “Good for him”s.

M: I get this “Ooh, Mr. Man and his big book” feel from this whole thing.

J: Yeah, the anti-intellectualism.

M: Which is there.

J: It’s like the new Aquafina commercial where he says “There’s no much ado about nothing in this water” or something. And then “What the heck is ‘ado’ anyway? I don’t know.” Like this is supposed to endear the consumer to the product. “Fuck yeah! I don’t know what ado means either! I’ll drink that water!”

M: “I like Home Improvement reruns! Aquafina is for me!” You can’t even talk about this without sounding like a snob.

J: Well, that’s what the argument is built to be. So. Do we have any concluding statements?

M: Concluding statements…

J: My concluding statement is that she’s perpetuating stereotypes that she’s trying to destroy. Or that she claims that she wants to destroy. And that she obviously isn’t studying contemporary American literature hard enough. [A blurb at the end of the piece stated that the author of the article studies contemporary American literature.]

M: Wow. Complete sentences and everything. I agree. I concur. I just wish I knew what her problem with white men is. Because I’m hurt. We might have to go through this and make ourselves sound a little smarter. At least me. I don’t know about you.

J: That’s what the editing process is all about.

M: Feel free to change my quotes to “Actually, I believe Samuel Johnson would have put it this way” when the quote is “She sucks!”