Commenting on the Messud kerfuffle, Rohan Maitzen points to this article by Meredith Maran. Maran writes about women she knows, or has heard of, who’ve been asked to revise their novels to make characters more “likable.” She’s specifically talking about “literary” novels. This generally means the more sophisticated reaches of the “mainstream,” books that are reviewed in the ordinary books pages of papers like the New York Times, instead of being banished to the one paragraph per book “crime” or “mystery” section (unless they’re best sellers or by seriously big-name authors like Stephen King, in which case they’re promoted to the front page and get extra space). Some genre writers, notably China Miéville, an English writer of literary-tending science fiction, have argued against the “mainstream” definition itself, on the grounds that “mainstream” is just another kind of genre, like thrillers or “chick lit.” Be that as it may, in the US, at least, it seems to be the case both that “mainstream” is treated as the default (or “unmarked”) variety of fiction, and also that the dividing line between literary and mainstream is not clear and bright.
Look at two “women’s” books that my mother lent me more than a year ago (neither of which I’ve yet been able to read more than a dozen pages of). The Help is billed as literary fiction, and clearly has literary aspirations, but I’d call it basically “mainstream.” The way it plays with point of view and with dialect is unusual for a genre novel, but somehow it seems to be aiming squarely at the middle—if not at “what will sell,” then at least at what by far the majority of people wouldn’t object to—and it seems odd to call that “literary.” Lisa Scottoline’s non-legal thriller, Look Again, strikes me as a kind of Sue Grafton novel with the focus on an ordinary person, rather than a professional detective; and on her personal journey, rather than on catching whodunit. It’s very well written, hitting all the creative-writing class marks, making none of the mistakes that are sometimes allowed to true crime or science fiction authors, but it’s clearly a mainstream, almost a genre novel, not highbrow or literary.
Mark McGurl’s The Program Years talks about the rise of the creative writing program in the United States, and the resulting professionalization of the American novelist. Most working writers in the US today have MFA degrees, and make their living teaching college students to write. But this means, also, it seems, that all writers—mainstream, as well as literary—are coming out of the same programs, for the most part (the most prestigious programs excepted). Is it not until after the first novel is accepted and published that it becomes clear whether a writer will be “literary” or “mainstream”?
This seems to be a problem especially for men, because the market for “mainstream” men’s novels isn’t really there to the same extent as the market for women’s novels is. There are Brooklyn-literary novels, maybe (say, Keith Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men), but it seems difficult to make a career of that. There are novelists who mark themselves out as “literary” by their style, like Paul Auster or David Foster Wallace. There are writers who at first might have seemed to mark themselves out for a kind of mainstream men’s market, by apparently masculine subject matter, like Neal Stephenson (who, after his first novel, moved on to science fiction), or Richard Powers (also science fiction), or Bret Easton Ellis (ultra-violence), or Tom Perrotta (who actually does comfortably straddle the line between mainstream and literary, I think). There’s Jay McInerney, but he seems to be an exception. Similar writers seem inexorably to be drawn back from the initial celebrity of their youth into a more literary obscurity, like Tobias Wolff, possibly making a pit stop in a different kind of career, as Ethan Canin did. On the other hand, a Gish Jen, Allegra Goodman, or Mary Gordon can continue publishing novels that earn out their advances by straddling the line between “popular” and “sophisticated”; and a Jennifer Weiner or Kathryn Stockett can publish blockbusters (which also might happen to get decent reviews in places like the Times) by appealing to the extremely large market for classy women’s novels.
But it’s a problem for women, too, that the line between mainstream and literary is so ill-defined. Women novelists, like those Maran cites, presumably face pressure to become more mainstream, in order to find a market. If a few changes, here and there, can double or triple the number of readers a book might find, why would a publisher not want to make them? There are very few young female writers I can think of who seem likely to have their manuscripts read as aspiring to literariness (which, in any case, can be a matter of prestige more than sales). Someone like Vendela Vida or Heidi Julavits can rely on her association with an established literary circle (in their case, around Dave Eggers and The Believer). There are probably some women who can gain a reputation within their grad school programs for being literary. Other than that—especially if they have no interest in science fiction type themes or in postmodern stylistic tricks (or in the kind of intellectuality displayed by, say, A.S. Byatt, who wrote her first novel as an imagined encounter between D.H. Lawrence and F.R. Leavis, and who in any event is British)—I don’t know what space there is for a first “literary” novel by a woman, unless it really tries hard to also appeal to a more “mainstream” market.