A kerfuffle over Jonathan Franzen's new book has exposed a controversy in the literary world: to hear some writers tell it, women may get the money, but men get all the praise. Except when men get both.
NYT raved about Franzen's new book. Is anyone shocked? Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren't white male literary darlings.
An argument over whether the Times actually skews white and male in its fiction reviews ensued over at NYTPicker, with some interesting nuance emerging (said Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, "I would add that they only cover authors 'of color' when such authors write about barrios, ghettos or magical thinking"). Hard stats on the issue turn out to be rather difficult to come by — a new study found that 95% of the American political authors the Times reviewed in 2009 were white dudes, but apparently didn't address fiction. Julianne Balmain of Sisters in Crime says 66% of the mystery novels the Times reviewed in 2009 were by men, and for 2010 so far the figure is 72%. Does the Times universally neglect female writers in favor of male ones? Hard to tell — but now Picoult and Jennifer Weiner are arguing that there's something else at work: money.
Explains Picoult in a Huffington Post conversation, "I think the New York Times reviews overall tend to overlook popular fiction, whether you're a man, woman, white, black, purple or pink." She adds, "There's that unwritten schism that literary writers get all the awards and commericals [sic] writers get all the success." Which, since women famously buy more books and some of the biggest bestsellers are by women, should also mean that women get the money and dudes get the accolades. Except that Weiner and Picoult say it's possible for a man to do both — as Weiner tweeted, "Carl Hiaasen doesn't have to chose between getting a Times review and being a bestseller. Why should I? Oh, right. #girlparts."
What Weiner and Picoult are talking about is something any female writer or reader is probably familiar with: the When A Dude Writes It, It's Serious phenomenon. Explains Weiner,
I think it's a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that when a man writes about family and feelings, it's literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it's romance, or a beach book - in short, it's something unworthy of a serious critic's attention.
There are really two problems at work here. One is the consistent devaluing of women's experiences (a woman's "domestic fiction" is a man's "sweeping family saga;" a woman's "self-absorption" is a man's "moving memoir"). The other, though, is the persistent and pernicious need to identify what is and isn't serious. The whole term "literary fiction" seeks to exclude science fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance, and yes, chick lit from the category of Things Smart People Should Read. Which, as many readers agree, is pretty fucking Dumb.
Actually, literary writers in the past ten years — Michael Chabon, Dave Eggers, Jonathan Lethem, Rick Moody, and Michael Cunningham, to name a few — have done some important work in breaking down these barriers. But the genres now semi-accepted into the "literary" camp are historically male-dominated ones: primarily sci-fi and mystery. It's not that women don't or can't work in these genres — some of the most famous speculative fiction in English has been written by Margaret Atwood, Jennifer Egan's recent A Visit From the Goon Squad has an entire chapter that's a futuristic PowerPoint presentation, and successful female mystery writers are numerous. The female colonization of once male-dominated literary forms is a fascinating topic, and one in which I'm pretty personally invested.