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The Lit Biz Eats Its Best and Brightest

November 19, 2018

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The American novelist, Barbara Kingsolver, writes stories that encourage readers to think while they’re being entertained. Her novels are concerned with the great social issues of our time, such as global climate change and political turmoil.

Publishers have a variety of names for this genre, as though the lit biz can’t quite get a grip on it—social novel, social justice novel, social protest novel, political novel, the literature of social engagement. Whatever these kind of novels are called, they’re generally viewed with suspicion by critics and editors, who see little or no place for social commentary in “literature” or in sales. Happily, that attitude hasn’t stopped Kingsolver’s books from becoming best sellers, and being shortlisted for such prestigious honors as the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award.

Kingsolver’s eighth novel, Unsheltered, was published in October. It’s more overtly political than her previous novels, as well is should be in this Time of Trump. It’s also one of the most entertaining and thought-provoking novels I’ve read in quite some time.

The plot revolves around an educated middle-class couple, a de-tenured academic and a freelance writer, as they attempt to fend off poverty and find satisfaction and fulfillment in their lives, even though they’re trapped in the gig economy and the sandwich generation. (Think boomerang children and aging parents, not mayonnaise.) What could be depressing in other hands is both humorous and enlightening. Gritty truths about how we live in Trump’s America are not Photoshopped away, but nonetheless, the characters and readers are left with a renewed sense of optimism, realistic but real.

So why was Unsheltered savaged by critics in two publications that I read faithfully and respect greatly, the New York Times and the Atlantic? Dwight Garner in the Times wrote that the novel was “dead on arrival,” and that “every other conversation threatens to become an op-ed piece of a humanistic monologue out of lesser John Steinbeck or Arthur Miller.” And those are not the worst things he has to say. Merve Emre’s review in the Atlantic is headlined “Liberal Pabulum,” and goes on to say “Tackling the Trump era, she brings us the American family-novel as Sunday talk show—all sound bite, no depth.”

Trying to get beneath the invective, Garner either has a personal axe to grind or he is simply defending the typical lit biz trope that “a novel isn’t an essay.” I think he’s also guilty of a bubble mentality, the bubble in question being the glamorous and wealthy Big Apple. He singles out for criticism one of the most truthful pieces of dialogue in the book, truthful except for economic outliers like Silicon Valley, Manhattan, and parts of Brooklyn and the New York suburbs: “It just seems like…I don’t know. There’s less money in the world than there used to be. I don’t know how else to put it. Like something’s broken.”

Emre, who may be an American but who teaches at Oxford, picks on the same line of dialogue, but apparently for a totally different reason. She seems to think that Kingsolver has only a superficial understanding of the horror show that is America, writing that Unsheltered “fails so dramatically to capture the corrosive realities of liberal capitalism.” (Perhaps she would have been more satisfied if Kingsolver had written, “there’s no money in the world” rather than “less,” a sad truth for about fifty percent of our citizens.)

Moreover, Emre takes conventional lit biz wisdom a step further, or perhaps she’s trying to explain it, by dismissing novels like Unsheltered, as a “middlebrow fantasy that stories can help us get through these dark times.” In other words, novelists, don’t bother to try.

The lit biz seems determined to rope fence socially-conscious fiction, pooh-poohing any attempt to deal with the major issues that affect our daily lives, and that will affect the daily lives of our children and grandchildren and their children, assuming the planet is still livable. So its heartening to note that Unsheltered is an Amazon Best Book and a New York Times’ bestseller, reaching as high as #2 on the hardcover fiction list.

It would be a shame if influential reviews like Garner’s and Emre’s start to take their toll in sales. My advice is don’t take their advice. Unsheltered is a really good, meaty read that will not disappoint. Buy it!

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