Why Books By Women Aren't "Serious"

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.

Said kerfuffle began when Jodi Picoult tweeted about the Times review of Franzen's Freedom:

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.

But I'd also like to see female-dominated literary forms get some respect. If the boundaries of the Serious can be expanded to admit Philip K. Dick (who is awesome, but dude could not create a round character or, half the time, even a pleasing sentence) I'm not sure why they can't include Jodi Picoult. Actually, I think I know why: as Chris Jackson says, "it's clear that women are willing to buy books by male writers, but men seem much more reluctant to buy books by women." That's how books by men become universal and books by women become specific, feminine, domestic. But it doesn't have to be this way! Maybe I'm a ridiculous optimist, but I've noticed that plenty of men are actually interested in women's lives (if Daulerio will admit to watching rom-coms, imagine how many other dudes are doing so secretly). And perhaps if interest in women's lives itself weren't so totally stigmatized — women aren't even supposed to be interested in ourselves! — then a man could actually pick up a Jennifer Weiner novel without the masculinity police jumping out from behind the bookshelves and beating him with their dicks.

Of course, nobody's actually going to beat a dude for purchasing, say, House Rules. And in fact, male readers could do a lot to combat the ghettoization of women's experiences by challenging Jackson's observation, one purchase at a time. So go ahead, dudes: buy a book by a woman. We promise it won't hurt.

Jodi Picoult And Jennifer Weiner Speak Out On Franzen Feud: HuffPost Exclusive [Huffington Post]
NYT #1 Bestselling Author Blasts NYT For Giving Rave Book Reviews To "White Male Literary Darlings" [NYTPicker]
All The Sad Young Literary Women [Atlantic]
Women Are Not Marshmallow Peeps, And Other Reasons There's No 'Chick Lit' [NPR]

Earlier: Help Some Well-Meaning Dudes Read Books By Women