The New York Times seems to be overdoing reviews of Jonathan Frazen’s “Freedom” and writer Jennifer Weiner comments,
Schadenfreude is taking pleasure in the pain of others. Franzenfreude is taking pain in the multiple and copious reviews being showered on Jonathan Franzen. It’s about the establishment choosing one writer and writing about him again and again and again, while they are ignoring a lot of other worthy writers and, in the case of The New York Times, entire genres of books.
Before this gets written off as “commercial women’s fiction writer complains about the lack of reviews for women”, consider New York Times editor Sam Tanenhaus’s reaction, “For us as editors, reviewers and critics, what we are really try[ing] to do is … identify that fiction that really will endure,” and further argues that his goal is to find books that will engage New York Times readers and interest their reviewers.
Ironically Jane Smiley, who has been cited by Jonathan Franzen as a source of inspiration, points out that critics don’t choose the writers who will endure because that’s the job of readers. Since most readers of fiction are women, that would strongly suggest the New York Times really is choosing the wrong books.
Let’s return to Sam Tanenhaus’s comment about reviewers and critics identifying “fiction that will really endure” and whether this is a good approach to reviewing.
It’s worth pointing out that the New York Times has the luxury of choice when it comes to selecting what to review. Like most publications, they receive more review copies than they could ever reasonably review so some selection process is always present. But should book reviewers merely select the fiction they hope will stand the test of time or should they review a wider representation of what they are sent?
Could you image the music reviews page focusing purely on a handful of bands on independent labels and ignoring commercially successful music? Could the film reviews team get away with focusing on arthouse productions and ignoring the last Disney offering or star vehicle?
Whether reviewers like it or not, taking away the choice of only reviewing what they want to review, actually improves their skills as reviewers. A reviewer focusing on a niche, whether that’s novels by Jonathan Franzen, music by Bob Dylan or films directed by Kathryn Bigelow, is fine but eventually the reviews and critical writing will become increasingly narrow and insular. Exposure to a boarder range stops the insularity and provides the reviewer with a wide frame of references and a sense of context. Jolting writers out of their comfort zones occasionally produces better writing. The New York Times view is too narrow and their reviewers need to read (and preferably review as well) commercial fiction.