“The fan fiction of today will be tomorrow’s classics.” Karen Toole made that point in a lecture I attended at the University Women’s Club last week. Karen is a Manitoba pastor, newspaper columnist, chaplain and winner of the Lieutenant Governor’s award for the Advancement of Inter-religious Understanding. She was talking about the twenty five novels of best selling writer Jodi Picoult. Although some dismiss Picoult’s writing as commercial rather than literary fiction and even Jodi herself says, “I’ll never win a Pulitzer Prize,” Karen claims that Picoult has a prophetic voice. Karen told us that Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and Shakespeare were the popular fiction writers of their day and have now become classic writers. She thinks the same thing will happen with Jodi Picoult. In the future people will study her books to find out what was going on in America during the current time period.
Jodi writes about the social issues of our time- abortion, school shootings, racism, euthanasia, sexual identity, capital punishment and physical abuse. Her novels never provide black and white answers, often have surprising endings, and feature multiple narrators who each approach issues from different points of view. Karen says the secret to Jodi’s success is that she finds her topics in the daily newspaper headlines and then dives deep to find out more. She takes the lives of ordinary people and turns them upside down in a way that makes readers ask, “What would I do if that happened to me?”
Karen told us that Jodi has her finger on the pulse of ‘the other’. She helps us understand people who may be different than we are. In that way Karen feels Jodi’s books resonate with the theme of Michelle Obama’s recent biography Becoming in which the former first lady encourages us to listen to one another’s stories, especially the stories of those we think have little in common with us. And Jodi’s stories don’t just resonate in North America. Her work has been translated into 34 languages and her books have sold more than 40 million copies world wide.
I have read nearly all of Jodi Picoult’s novels but was surprised how few of the people attending the lecture had. I shared a story from my teaching days during the question and response period about how I was having difficulty getting teenagers to attend one of my high school English classes scheduled for first thing in the morning. Then I brought in my coffee maker and started reading a chapter from Jodi Picoult’s book My Sister’s Keeper aloud to the students at the beginning of each class. Coffee and Jodi’s engaging writing style worked magic on my sagging class attendance.
Karen says Jodi’s books have value because they make us think. Jodi writes in an immersive and not diversionary way. Her novels which often debut at the top of the best seller list can help us transform the way we think about things and give us hope. Jodi is an author who writes the stories of our lives and that’s why Karen thinks readers of the future will view her books as the classics of our time.