Salon's David Daley had a little chit-chat with Jeffrey Eugenides' rakish mustache about the state of literary fiction, how it is that the The Marriage Plot had the Pulitzer Prize door slammed in its face, and what Jodi Picoult is always complaining about, jeez.
After spending a little too much time in rapture over Eugenides' penchant for vest-wearing, Daley starts pressing the literary darling to survey both his own work and the landscape of contemporary fiction. Eventually, Daley asks the thoughtful question that Picoult and Jennifer Weiner have both asked: "Do you think books by by men and women on similar topics are received differently?" Says Eugenides,
Well, over there [Eugenides points to his publisher's book shelf] I see "NW" by Zadie Smith, and I think that Zadie Smith is treated exactly like one of the literary male authors that had been brought into this category. It seems to me that there's a difference between the kinds of books that Jonathan Franzen writes and Jodi Picoult writes - so it's not surprising to me that they're treated differently in terms of review coverage or literary coverage. I don't think that's based on gender.
I think right now probably the writer that every writer loves the most is Alice Munro. I teach with Joyce Carol Oates; I don't think she suffers from this. To me, it's a question of actual category writing. It was kind of a genre novel bumping up against a literary novel. I think those are actually different things. I don't think it had to do with male or female.
You see, there are these books that Smart People Read, and then there are the other books, which is why we couldn't possibly equate Jonathan Franzen with Jodi Picoult because Franzen writes LITERATURE and Picoult writes the book that your mother will most likely take to the beach. Distinctions like "literature" or "science fiction" are, to some extent, based on critical consensus, but more often they're categories that make it easier for publishers and booksellers to nudge readers in the right direction. (For all the inveterate literature nerds out there, check out Darrel Mansell's critical essay, "Unsettling the Colonel's Hash: "Fact" in Autobiography," which explains in part that the designation "autobiography," for instance, is often arbitrary.)
Daley follows up with another interesting question about the covers of books written by women, specifically, how much pink a book like The Marriage Plot might have sported on its jacket if it had been written by a woman. He asks, "Would The Marriage Plot have had a different cover if it was written by a woman? Something pink or frilly or less serious?" To which Eugenides says,
As a male you can never know and you're not supposed to talk about it. But I have lots of female literary novelists who I don't think would agree. I'm friendly with Meg Wolitzer and she was a big fan of "The Marriage Plot," and she wrote something about this, and especially about the treatments of the covers. I wondered about that, if that might be true, if women get treated differently in the way that their covers are marketed. You know, it's possible.
To me, it was a little bit… I didn't really know why Jodi Picoult is complaining. She's a huge best-seller and everyone reads her books, and she doesn't seem starved for attention in my mind - so I was surprised that she would be the one belly-aching. There's plenty of extremely worthy novelists who are getting very little attention. I think they have more right to complain. And it usually has nothing to do with their gender, but just the marketplace.
Marketing and cover design are really obvious ways in which female authors can be marginalized, and it's a shame that the only real answer Eugenides offers Daley is, "It's possible" that cover design has something to do with how critics treat female authors. It's an even bigger shame that he feels the need to dismiss Jodi Picoult's tweet of two years past — "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." — as "belly-aching" by drawing a categorical distinction between the sort of highfalutin fiction Franzen writes, and the Picoult's own work. Picoult wasn't necessarily arguing that she should immediately be handed a Nobel prize, rather, she was pointing out the fact that even male authors of popular fiction are taken more seriously than female authors of popular fiction.
Jeffrey Eugenides is a literary superstar, and, though it seems a little silly to gauge his opinion on every little happening in the world of arts and letters, Daley's interview offered at least one well-respected make author the opportunity to say, "Hey, yeah, you know, those book covers can be awfully gender normative, which is bullshit because cover designs are both extremely important and totally arbitrary." Instead, he just shrugged and wondered why everyone keeps talking about this stuff instead of how Middlesex is still just the bee's pajamas (which it totally is).