A Feast of Bi…er, Riches

In keeping with last week’s theme of brouhahas, I’d like to resurrect one that is a few months old, between two opponents who seem unlikely to rumble.

I’m talking, of course, about Martha Stewart versus Rachael Ray.

In an interview with Nightline, Martha said Rachael’s cooking and cookbooks were “not good enough for me.” Martha said that she strived to create books that were important, that she was a teacher and Rachael was more of an entertainer.

She also called Rachael “bubbly.”

Rachael Ray may be bubbly, and entertaining, but with this incident, she proved she is no dummy. She acknowledged that Martha’s skills were far beyond hers and, given the choice, she’d rather eat at Martha’s house than at her own.

Martha reacted to the  high-roadedness of this by apologizing. Then Rachael was invited on  Martha’s show, and Martha reciprocated by appearing on Rachael’s show, and what could have been the beginning of a beautiful feud burst like a big balloon of politeness. Not sincerity, necessarily, but ultimately, Martha and Rachael baked a pie together and settled their differences like ladies.

Feuds can be interesting. In the literary world, there was Hemingway’s rivalry with Fitzgerald. Henry James was envious of the popular success of his friend, Edith Wharton, as was Evelyn Waugh of Nancy Mitford, as was Wilkie Collins of Charles Dickens. Truman Capote was the inspiration for a character in Harper Lee’s one brilliant novel—and he may be the reason she only wrote one novel. Edgar Allan Poe once accused Henry Wadsworth Longfellow-!!!–of plagiarism.

The peak (or maybe the nadir) of literary infighting might be the row between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr. which hit the low point when Vidal called Buckley a crypto-Nazi and Buckley called Vidal a queer and threatened to sock him in the face. Instead of baking a pie together, they sued each other for libel. They did not settle their differences like ladies.

Last week, I wrote that a war about words was important. As Vidal-Buckley proved, a war of words, maybe not so much. But one thing Rachael Ray said did stick with me: “That doesn’t mean what I do isn’t important, too.”

I was spurred to this post by Edward Docx’s article on genre versus literary fiction. And this rebuttal from Salon by Laura Miller.

If you read these, both make some good points. Not new points, but good points. What I don’t get is the point of making these points.

Am I the only one who thinks the literary versus genre brouhaha is tiresome? There are many reasons why writers bash one another, not the least of which are money and ego. Maybe a genuine concern for art has a place, too, but I’m not confident about that one.

What I wonder is this: Why do (some) writers think they have the right to tell readers what they should be reading?

When my twin sons were sixteen months old, I was trapped in a country house during one of the worst winters in recent Western Pennsylvania history. I decided to read War & Peace. I read it because I was sure my brain would die at any minute and I wanted to revive it. Years later, when those same sons were teenagers and I was sure my brain would explode at any minute, I read Beverly Cleary’s Henry Huggins books to remind myself that sometimes stupid boys are just stupid boys. Different times of my life, different literary needs.

It’s just like food. Sometimes you crave a thirty-minute meal and sometimes only four-course fine dining will satisfy you. Is either wrong?

I write literary short stories. I have heard, and been annoyed by, writers who use the phrase “hoity-toity” when describing literary fiction. I am also writing a genre mystery. I have heard, and been annoyed by, writers who use the phrase “mindless tripe” when describing genre fiction.

Writers are advised to write the kind of book they want to read. Readers deserve the same respect. If I don’t like a certain type of book, I don’t read it, but I’m not going to stop my neighbor from reading it. A public put down of readers’ choices is a form of censorship.

If at the times of my life I described above, someone would have tried to take away what I wanted to read, I’ve have hit them over the head with War & Peace and smashed them in the balls with Henry Huggins.

To go back to the food metaphor, we all have to eat. There’s plenty of room at the literary table for all sorts of dishes. Some may be healthier than others, but my personal physician advises me that a well-rounded diet will keep me fit and happy. Plus, eating the same thing over and over, just like going round and round pointlessly on a topic, just gets boring.


So what do you think?  Do authors complaining about the work of other authors make you change your reading choices?



7 thoughts on “A Feast of Bi…er, Riches

  1. Luckily, I stopped trusting most people’s reading recommendation years ago. I now trust Mary Alice, Richard, and Buff at Mystery Lovers Bookshop because they know me well enough to know what I like. At speaking engagements, I’ve heard many authors list other books they love, but I’ve never heard one trash another person’s book. Except “The DaVinci Code”. Which should be trashed. 😉


  2. Kathy, sounds like you’ve found your dream team for recommending books!

    I’ll take issue on The DaVinci Code. Think of all the debate it generated. And many people liked it a great deal, and they can’t all be wrong, can they? (Don’t answer that, LOL!)


  3. Yes, I agree the literary vs. genre fiction argument is tiresome. More tiresome, perhaps, is the cry of: “What exactly IS a literary novel?” from many genre writers. Sometimes it’s better to keep your mouth closed rather than open it and remove all doubt of your ignorance, right? But Lee Child’s recent claim that he could dash off a literary novel in three weeks may be equally rash. Me, I’m reading Franzen’s FREEDOM and Margaret Maron’s latest at the same time. I think I’ll take my own advice to heart and not say which one I am enjoying more.


  4. One author trashing another appears to be a sign of insecurity and often causes me only to steer clear of the one doing the trash talking- and, as you pointed out so very well- there are different people, different times in people’s lives and enough different tastes in reading that it’s any one’s guess what will be read next- the point isn’t ultimately whether a book has literary value, an arbitrary decision at best based on whom you’re talking to – only the extent to which the book is read-


  5. All of which shows that Rachael Ray is a much sharper cookie than William F. Buckley, Jr. was. She was smart, detached, and perhaps just plain nice enough to defuse a potentially nasty situation. (Although a threat to punch Martha Stewart in the nose might have generated entertaining fall-out.)

    And Ms. Stewart might work on learning other ways to say “not good enough for me.”

    Life would be drab without A.S. Byatt’s “Possession,” but it would be just as drab without Miss Marple and Nancy Drew.


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