Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who's the Most Mediagenic of Them All?

by Sabra Wineteer

Telegenicity. Mediagenic. These two words appeared in two separate articles in the Sept/Oct 2006 issue of Poets & Writers. They brought to mind a discussion I had with a novelist concerning Zadie Smith’s attractiveness and whether this has contributed to her success as a literary fiction writer. I was undecided on the issue, but the novelist believed that though physical attractiveness might not play a part in a writer getting published, it was favorable to publicity once the writer was published.

Mediagenic is how Jessica George Firger described Jennifer Egan in her article about the writer. Having read Egan’s book Look at Me, I don’t believe her success as a novelist has anything to do with her looks. That a National Book Award nominee could play the beauty card is a ridiculous notion. Yet, why are Egan’s looks up for discussion? In Azita Osanloo’s article in the same issue of Poets & Writers, she goes one step further and posits that there is increasing pressure for literary writers, especially fiction writers, to present an overall package of salability. For Osanloo, this has meant projecting a degree of exoticness. For Egan, this means her looks become touted.

The proliferation of literary fiction writers and the fall of readers of those works means the literary slush pile has reached glacial proportions. Salability of writer supersedes salability of the written work. The literary fiction scene is quite bleak and much like the purple crocus which will occasionally be blooming when a late Winter snow falls at my Tennessee home—in such a bleak landscape, any splash of color will draw attention to itself. If a publishing house deems you exotic, you might be that eye catching bloom poking through an otherwise white, homogeneous field.

Homogeneity of literary fiction is not a new topic. Any English graduate or major can relate classroom discussions of why the dead white guys make up the majority of the Western canon. Most of my professors recognized the bias and remedied it as best they could. For my Old English Literature professor, it was to include Old English riddles and spells with our reading of Beowulf and Boethius. My Modern American Literature professor was able to draw from African-American Ralph Ellison, female writer Louise Erdrich, Native-American N. Scott Momaday, and others. Publishing houses also reach into the ethnic and racial make-up of America and pull out rising stars such as Z.Z. Packer.

Increasingly, however, the criticism over the homogeneity of American letters is one of voice. Among the usual suspects, the number of MFA in Creative Writing programs and the students it produces deserves some of the blame. A peek into these classroom doors shows a diverse group of students cut from every racial, ethnic, religious thread woven into the American tapestry. As a result there will fewer dead white guys in America’s literary future.

On closer inspection, however, the issue of voice goes deeper. The bios of the kind of writers who come out of Master’s programs in English or Creative Writing read like a sociologist’s report on upper middle class America. Many of these writers are from large city suburbs and have received educations from either Blue Ribbon public schools or private college preparatory high schools. They often attend the nation’s top universities usually with nationally ranked English programs. These writers often graduate with various forms of Laude on their degrees. A Master’s degree from an even more prestigious university and higher ranked English or Creative Writing program usually follows. This demographic, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, or exoticness, is where the majority of literary fiction writers fit. And this is not America.

Top universities, and ones through which America’s newest generation of literati pass, practice an admittance policy known as “development cases". Development case students are admitted less on their academic record and more on their family’s ability to donate money to the university. Financial aid students will never be considered in this admittance pool. In his book, The Price of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges—and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates, Daniel Golden names names including Brown, Princeton, Amherst, and Stanford. Regardless of how they were admitted most of the next generation of American literati (Jeffrey Eugenides and Rick Moody—Brown, Jonathan Safran Foer—Princeton, David Foster Wallace—Amherst, Nicole Krauss—Stanford) attended private and extremely expensive universities. Conservatively estimating that only those students whose family incomes exceed $75,000 a year could possibly afford to buy the above-mentioned type of education for their children. This leaves, at most, between 65% and 70%, of America’s population out of this group. We should not be surprised that literary fiction doesn’t have a large audience; it is a niche market, written by upper-middle class writers for upper-middle class readers.

Marketing within this niche market is tricky. How do you distinguish one upper-middle class Jewish female writer with a private university Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s from an exclusive and iconic European university from another? You find the distinction, no matter how slight, between the two. Krauss is Jewish, received her Bachelor’s degree from Stanford and a Master’s from Oxford. Egan, also Jewish, is the daughter of a lawyer and art dealer, received her Bachelor’s from University of Pennsylvania, and her Master’s from Cambridge. The two of them seem to have lived parallel lives, with one distinct and marketable difference. Egan published her first book at the age of 32 while Krauss was 27. In marketing literary fiction, the line between publishing before thirty or after is epochal. Krauss is marketed as young while Egan is marketed by another distinguishing characteristic—she is attractive.

Should Krauss’s age and Egan’s physical appearance matter in the world of letters? No, but it does because American publishing houses are grasping at straws. They are in a business to make money, not promote art. Anything and everything they believe will sell a literary work is on the table. As readers and writers, if we dislike the labels—young, mediagenic, Iranian, lesbian, and so on—placed on literary writers by their respective marketing firms, we are only pointing our fingers at a symptom of the disease. The American literary world is dying because of its identity crisis.

The distinctions the literary publishing world attempts to make about literary writers read like Equal Employment Opportunity statements. “Big Literary Publishing House does not discriminate against literary fiction writers on the basis of race, color, gender, religion, age, sexual orientation, national or ethnic origin, disability, marital status, or veteran status. In fact, we will use these differing characteristics in order to find a further niche group within the literary reading upper-middle class demographic in hopes that all the albino, hermaphrodite, Jedi, pubescent, bisexual, Basque, quadriplegic, thrice divorced, former POWs of Kerblakistan will identify with you and buy and read your upcoming novel. At the very least, we hope our upper-middle class literary readers will find your background downright kitschy and buy your book because you are so exotic.”

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I grew up never knowing institutionally sanctioned segregation. That the Louisiana public schools I attended were, and still are, segregated racially surprises some people. It’s almost exotic. A middle school classmate of mine once called me exotic simply because I have red hair. In my four years of high school, out of the over 1400 students in seven graduating classes who concurrently walked the halls with me, I was among four natural red heads. When I went to college in Missouri, the home state of my parents and grandparents, my exotic hair color became downright commonplace. I maintained a degree of the exotic, however, because I spoke with a Southern accent. That my husband and I, at the ages of 24 and 27 respectively, decided to begin our conversion to Judaism continues to fascinate others and though no one has gone so far as to call this decision exotic, it has been described as weird.

Azita Osanloo believes emerging writers “will inevitably be seduced into presenting themselves as rare birds (albeit supremely marketable ones).” She implies that this seduction may lead some to exaggerate their special brand of exotic. When I publish a novel, perhaps the fact that I have red head, speak with a Southern accent, and converted to Judaism will be used to market me. I may even join the ranks of the mediagenic literary writers simply because I got lucky in the physical attractiveness crap shoot. I don’t need to exaggerate these details, nor do I feel seduced into doing so, save one.

I have never felt more like a rare bird than when I attended a writer’s conference workshop in which I was the youngest person. The other eight participants were Baby Boomers or older. When I admitted that, growing up, my family rarely turned on the air conditioning in the Louisiana heat because we couldn’t afford to, the Baby Boomers in the class immediately compared me to Frank McCourt and my life to his memoir Angela’s Ashes.

Despite this, my parents are both highly educated. My mother has a Master’s degree. But not being able to afford to turn on the air conditioning in summer heat was something my husband knew and his father has a Ph.D. in Chemistry. My husband and I grew up in the middle class no man’s land—too well off to qualify for public assistance and substantial student financial aid while being too poor to be able to turn on the air conditioning in Southern heat on a regular basis.

Yet, those Baby Boomers could not identify with my childhood in the least bit and I find this ironic. With at least 65% of America’s population being able to identify with my life—public school education, public university complete with student loans, sometimes doing without—I shouldn’t be such a rare bird. But I’ve come to realize that the most exotic background a literary writer can have in America today is simply having an income that falls below the upper-middle class.

As someone who has always stood firmly on the ground of lower-middle class and never stepped a pinkie toenail into the realm of middle-middle class, much less upper-middle class, I can’t identify with Krauss, Egan, or Eugenides or with most of my own generation’s literary stars. I have read many of their works and enjoyed them. However, I enjoyed the novels as an aspiring literary novelist. And since their works tend to be a reflection of the life they’ve lead, I read these works to pick up craft crumbs that they might have been served, for instance, in a Joyce Carol Oates classroom at Princeton. I believe a writer should write the kind of fiction they most enjoy and are mostly likely to read. For me, that is literary fiction. However, if I weren’t passionate about this type of fiction, I wouldn’t bother. If Americans can’t identify with what is considered the best writing America has to offer, they, too, won’t bother. Instead, they’ll enter into worlds which don’t exist. For all its allegory, Middle Earth does not exist. Yet a Tennessee boy like my husband is more likely to identify himself with Hobbits than any character Bret Easton Ellis could ever create.

I honestly can’t blame him, especially when these very privileged writers have myopic views of their own lives. Krauss says of herself “I felt like I really did have the last real American childhood.” This last real American childhood consisted of growing up on a Long Island estate with an elitist education. This education, as I pointed out before, is out of reach for the majority of Americans. Unfortunately, Krauss is not alone in her thinking. In A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers describes his home with a living room “full of heirlooms and antiques, an oriental rug covering the center of the hardwood floor.” When both of his parents die within weeks of each other, Eggers states that his brother, Bill, will “handle all the money, from insurance and the house—there was nothing saved, nothing really at all.” This circumstance is described as “the family's precarious finances” by Sara Mosle in her New York Times On the Web review of Eggers book. These precarious finances enable Eggers to move with his sister and younger brother Toph to a sublet home in Berkeley, California with views. Eggers describes the people living below as having “humbler views.” These precarious finances also enable Eggers to start up Might magazine.

I am among millions of adult Americans who will disagree with Krauss about her childhood. Moreover, precarious finances entail counting change to buy groceries for the week and losing significant weight when it doesn’t buy enough. Never will they consist of living in one of the most expensive cities in the world overlooking the “humbler” residences below. Even those Bay Area abodes with their inferior views are out of reach for most Americans.

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No where is economic status mentioned in the definitions of EEO diversity statements written up by the Civil Rights movement Baby Boomers. From what I experienced in that writing workshop, they can’t even tell you the difference between Frank McCourt’s family of origin and my own. This economic myopia and literary elitism has leaked down to the next generation and so the cycle continues. The result is a strong and powerful stranglehold on American letters. They have created the MFA programs, populated these classrooms with their creative writing instructors, and become the gatekeepers of the students allowed to enter. They are the literary agents and editors and publishing house executives who attempt to find those rare bird literary writers. Yet a class schism exists and the state of American letters directly reflects this. Try to name an American born Gen X literary fiction star that did not attend a private university or come from an upper-middle class background. Just don’t think too hard, you’ll likely give yourself a headache.

Conversely, look at the writers and literature of our English speaking counterparts. Canadian literature is not suffering even though they have ten times fewer readers than we do. Britain’s move toward socialism gives students far more equal opportunities to attend their best universities both in admittance policies and grants to pay for the costs than America does. As does, since there are supposedly so many similarities between him and me, Frank McCourt’s Ireland. These countries are far less concerned about telegenicity and a writer’s degree of exoticness.

Literature from any country is a linear line with the reader on one end, the writer on the other, and between the two, connecting them, is the work. American publishing has developed a blind spot and one which excludes the majority of the American population—the readers on their end, the writers on the other, and the works which connect the two. Again, the majority, 65% to 70%, live below the upper-middle class existence. A market savvy publishing house cannot create a writing persona with which tens of millions of American readers can identify. But these writers already exist.

Good looking or not, a writer who understands what it’s like to live outside the upper-middle class world and writes well about that very broad world will have more readers than the rarest of rare birds or most mediagenic of the mediagenic. They are more likely to be scanning their own groceries at the local Super Wal-Mart than walking around the quad of Brown University. Once the American publishing world opens its eyes, uncovers its literary blind spot, and begins to see again, American letters will thrive.