In the space of 24 hours, I was reminded of my place in literature.
I read a Guardian piece by Jennifer Weiner, one of the most vocal warriors against the industry’s status quo, that introduced a new and depressingly necessary term to my literary vocabulary: Goldfinching. Named after the Donna Tartt book, Weiner defines the word as a means to dismiss a book written by or marketed towards women once it reaches a certain level of popularity. The Goldfinch, an 800 page book that’s also a New York Times best-seller and Pulitzer Prize winner, received a perplexing level of backlash from critics and the literary community, most notably Vanity Fair, whose piece asked the question nobody was asking – Is it art?
Cut to the next day, with that piece weighing heavily on my mind, and I see the hashtag #MorallyComplicatedYA, in reference to self-published author Scott Bergstrom’s recent 6 figure deal and movie option for his book The Cruelty. YA readers of all ages are used to the category being sneered at by others, but it takes some serious nerve (or astounding lack of self-awareness) to do so when bragging about your own YA novel.
Bergstrom explains his work’s popularity as being a result of its morality being ‘more complicated than a lot of YA’, before making generalised statements about the entire category and how his work stands as a contrast to it. The impression one gets when reading Bergstrom’s statement is that he probably hasn’t read much YA, which would be funny if he weren’t making so much money off the backs of it.
Altogether, these two incidents reminded me of some pertinent points about publishing, literature and our critical reactions to it that shape the entire ecosystem: Women will be dismissed, even for the works and industries they create, and those works won’t be legitimised until a man appropriates them.
My Brilliant Friend is a wonderful book; a study of the minutiae of a complicated female relationship in 1950s Naples that’s as gripping as any thriller. Few things live up to their gargantuan hype, but Ferrante does. The mystique of her unknown identity has shaped the way we talk about her novels, but it’s also led to a hot-bed of conspiracies over the ‘real’ Elena that has dishearteningly yet inevitably spiralled into accusations that she’s really a man (a claim she has disputed in the few interviews she’s given). This pattern may strike you as familiar, because it’s near identical to the claims made against Harper Lee’s authorship of To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee’s refusal to court the spotlight was somehow damning proof that her talents must have been Truman Capote’s. Thomas Pynchon has never given an interview in his 50 plus years career, and finding a colour photo of him is a statistical impossibility, yet I’ve never heard a single claim that a woman secretly wrote his work.
Navel-gazing think-pieces on the psychological embarrassment of adults reading YA fiction are a dime a dozen. We’ve heard the arguments before – such works are emotionally stunted, structurally inferior, overtly focused on romance – and they never change. Weiner points out the way in which readers of books that face Goldfinching are painted as stupid for daring to enjoy something popular. These claims are often made as part of a genre or cultural generalisation. Twilight became wildly popular, so all YA is exactly like that book with no exceptions. Lots of people read The Goldfinch so clearly they’re sheeple who only follow the herd and are two dense to enjoy anything else.
As also noted by Weiner, similar claims have been mounted against Hanya Yanagihara and her surprise smash A Little Life. Its heightened emotional stakes are sneeringly described as sentimental or over-emotional, or something belonging in a fairy-tale. Such elements never get to stand on their own as deliberate stylistic choices on the part of the author (Yanagihara has been open about wanting everything in A Little Life to be ‘turned up a little too high’). The very act of having emotions becomes a feminine stammer, something uncontrollable and shameful. No wonder masculinity’s become so damn toxic.
Of course, what the above works all have in common is their popularity with women, with YA being an industry almost entirely developed by women, a few notable exceptions aside. Women continue to be game-changers with their tastes, particularly in literature because women buy more books than men, and in a patriarchal world, that’s a rebellious act that needs to be quashed. Something is popular with women, so it must either be dismissed or appropriated by men, or our very ownership of it denied. YA makes millions from girls and women, but it doesn’t become legitimate as a literary force until a male ‘saviour’ comes along. Men can make sweeping and utterly false assertions about that which they desire to control or profit from, and their comments are just accepted because why would he be wrong?
The publishing industry is a mess. It’s still determined to pander to middle class cishet white men who enjoy suburban ennui and unsatisfying character-building sex with busty redheads. Pop culture in general follows this well-fed trail, even as others stand on the side-lines wondering why nobody wants their money. I’m a woman, but I’m also white, and as Claire Vaye Watkins noted in her recent must-read piece, we may have to pander to white men, but writers of colour are more likely to be pandering to white women. Writing ‘like a woman’ may face critical maulings, but it’s still a preferable alternative to the industry than writing ‘like a person of colour’, or writing those experiences.
I have a myriad of intertwining feelings on all of this. I’m perplexed as to how a low-selling self-published YA of questionable quality is lauded as morally complex while the mere existence of industry veterans tackling those very issues is ignored. I’m livid that I still see smug creeps insisting Elena Ferrante’s work is too good to have been written by a woman. I’m dismayed that evident displays of emotion in literature are tantamount to hysteria in the eyes of the usual critics. I’m disappointed for not noting my own blind-spots as I centre such discussions on my narrow experience.
Most of all, I’m tired. I’m exhausted by this conversation, the frequency with which we have it and the absolute lack of change that follows. This is not the fault of those leading the conversations, many of whom are vocal critics and evangelists for progressive change. The industry itself is slow to follow suit, and with things like this happening, it often feels like we’re going backwards.
This morning, on the bus to work, a woman in front of me read Kerry Katona’s autobiography, while the lady next to me finished a book on Auschwitz. It’s good to see people read. It’s good to see people respecting the appetites of their mind. You don’t have to like the books they read, but it’s worth understanding why they like what they do. Maybe things will change if we understand that. Or maybe the Goldfinching will just start all over again.