Heather Horn at The Atlantic with the round-up. Horn:
The New York Times is really taken with Jonathan Franzen’s “galvanic new novel, ‘Freedom.'” Michiko Kakutani wrote a glowing review last week. Two bestselling authors, Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, are mad. They think The New York Times has a soft spot for white males. As Alison Flood reports in The Guardian, Picoult and Weiner have had a field day on Twitter, Weiner tweeting that the “NYT loves its literary darlings, who tend to be dudes w/MFAs.”
But is The New York Times (among other publications) really playing favorites? And if so, how so? Do influential outlets disdain female authors, or disdain popular fiction of any variety? Here are a variety of perspectives on the growing debate.
Alison Flood at The Guardian:
Picoult, whose popular novels of everyday people facing awful dilemmas have sold more than 12m copies worldwide but are largely overlooked by the literary establishment, was quick to respond. “NYT raved about Franzen’s new book. Is anyone shocked?” she wrote on Twitter. “Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren’t white male literary darlings.” For every review of authors such as Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat or the Dominican-American Pulitzer winner Junot Díaz, “there are 10 Lethems and Franzens,” she added later.
Picoult also criticised Kakutani’s use of the word “lapidary”. “Did you know what [it] meant when you read it in Kakutani’s review? I think reviewers just like to look smart,” she tweeted.
As well as Kakutani’s Franzen piece, the most recent fiction reviews in the New York Times range from a piece on Gorky Park author Martin Cruz Smith’s latest novel Three Stations to critiques of Norwegian novelist Per Petterson’s I Curse the River of Time and Suzanne Rivecca’s debut story collection Death Is Not an Option, along with shorter pieces on Ann Weisgarber’s Orange-longlisted The Personal History of Rachel DuPree and Helen Grant’s debut novel The Vanishing of Katharina Linden. Chick lit fails to make an appearance.
Contacted by blog the NYT Picker, Picoult reaffirmed her view that “the Times favours white male authors. That isn’t to say someone else might get a good review – only that if you are white and male and living in Brooklyn you have better odds, or so it seems”.
“The NYT has long made it clear that they value literary fiction and disdain commercial fiction – and they disparage it regardless of race or gender of the author,” said the author. “I’m not commenting on one specific critic or even on my own reviews (which are few and far between because I write commercial fiction). How else can the Times explain the fact that white male authors are ROUTINELY assigned reviews in both the Sunday review section AND the daily book review section (often both raves) while so many other writers go unnoticed by their critics?”
But she rejected the blog’s claim that her disgruntlement stemmed from poor reviews of her own work in the paper: in 2008 a reviewer said she had written her novel Change of Heart “on authorial autopilot”. Posting her email response to the blog online “in the effort of truth in journalism”, Picoult insisted that “nowhere in here do I criticise Ms Kakutani, rant, or suggest that my comment (which really was just that – a COMMENT) was precipitated by the fact that I don’t get rave reviews from the NYT. Just stating an opinion, as I see it, about those to whom the NYT chooses to devote inches of print”.
Her feelings were backed up by bestselling chick-lit writer Jennifer Weiner, author of In Her Shoes. “Carl Hiaasen doesn’t have to chose between getting a Times review and being a bestseller. Why should I? Oh, right. #girlparts,” she wrote on Twitter. “Books read by men – mysteries, thrillers, horror – at least maybe they’ll be noticed, whether author male or female. Books read by women – romance, chick lit, commercial fic, whatever – rarely get noticed. When they do, reviews often ignorant.”
Later, she added: “NYT loves its literary darlings, who tend to be dudes w/MFAs … In summation: NYT sexist, unfair, loves Gary Shteyngart, hates chick lit, ignores romance. And now, to go weep into my royalty statement.”
Jason Pinter at The Huffington Post:
Why do you feel that commercial fiction, or more specifically popular fiction written by women, tends to be critically overlooked?
Jennifer 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.
Jodi Picoult: I think you only have to really look at the facts. I don’t think it’s overlooked in all venues. I think the New York Times reviews overall tend to overlook popular fiction, whether you’re a man, woman, white, black, purple or pink. I think there are a lot of readers who would like to see reviews that belong in the range of commercial fiction rather than making the blanket assumption that all commercial fiction is unworthy. But it’s not universal. The Washington Post for example, back when they had their book review section, used to do the widest reviews, because there were so many kinds of fiction reviewed, not just literary fiction. That’s where my gripe comes from. When in today’s market you only have a limited review space for books, I wonder what the rationale is for the New York Times to review the same book twice, sometimes in the same week. I want to make it clear that I have absolutely nothing against Jonathan Franzen. I hope I read (“Freedom”) and love it. None of this was motivated as a critique against him or his work, just that he is someone the Times has chosen to review twice in seven days.
Have you had experiences where you’ve felt, due to either the content of your books or your gender, your books have been misrepresented or dismissed?
Weiner: The only mention my books have ever gotten from the Times have been the occasional single sentence and, if I’m lucky, a dependent clause in a Janet Maslin flyover piece: “Look! Here’s a bunch of books that have nothing in common but spring release dates and lady authors!” I don’t write literary fiction – I write books that are entertaining, but are also, I hope, well-constructed and thoughtful and funny and have things to say about men and women and families and children and life in America today. Do I think I should be getting all of the attention that Jonathan “Genius” Franzen gets? Nope. Would I like to be taken at least as seriously as a Jonathan Tropper or a Nick Hornby? Absolutely.
Picoult: Oh yeah, sure. But you know what? That’s your trade off. I think Jen Weiner was the one who tweeted the very comment that, “I’m going to weep into my royalty check”. She’s funny and honest and that’s what makes her great. There’s that unwritten schism that literary writers get all the awards and commericals writers get all the success. I don’t begrudge the label of ‘commercial writer’, because I wanted to reach as many readers as I could. I read a lot of commercial fiction and a lot of the same themes and wisdoms I find in commercial fiction are the same themes and wisdoms as what i see lauded in literary fiction.
Though the Times has devoted tremendous space to covering writers such as Jonathan Franzen and Gary Shteyngart, it has also done numerous positive pieces on thriller writer Lee Child and raved about Laura Lippman’s work. Do you feel that the reviewing plane is evening out, or do you see these as anomalies?
Weiner: The examples you cite reinforce my argument that women are still getting the short end of the stick. If you write thrillers or mysteries or horror fiction or quote-unquote speculative fiction, men might read you, and the Times might notice you. If you write chick lit, and if you’re a New Yorker, and if your book becomes the topic of pop-culture fascination, the paper might make dismissive and ignorant mention of your book. If you write romance, forget about it. You’ll be lucky if they spell your name right on the bestseller list. I think I remember seeing one review of Nora Roberts once, whereas Lee Child can count on all of his books getting reviewed. This strikes me as fundamentally unfair.
Picoult: In my personal opinion I think those are anomalies more than the norm. But again it is one person’s opinion.
Michelle Dean at The Awl:
Both Picoult and Weiner are the kind of writers who, to use Saul Bellow’s phrase, are free to stuff their ears with money if they don’t like what they’re hearing about their own books. And while I hadn’t time to look up every interview they’ve ever given, I have a hard time believing that in their heart of hearts, they envision themselves as even writing literary fiction, or at least that they aim their work at the same critical audience Franzen does. (Would Franzen’s website have as a title “Novels About Family, Relationships, and Love”?) So I think it’s overbroad to claim that they are themselves being treated differently solely as women, in this instance.
And yet, they do have a point. And it’s a point that brings us right up to the edge of the precipice of having to re-evaluate what it is we think is worthwhile about literature, and why it might not be what current standards say it is.
There are a number of levels on which one can analyze this problem of literary merit. Only the first and most superficial is markets. From that perspective, this entire discussion is little more than wankery. First of all, not a day goes by where we’re not being reminded by publishers that the collapse in transaction costs related to publishing writing (thanks in no small part to websites like this here fine publication) is absolutely destroying traditional publishing. Whatever the former gatekeepers to literary fame think, in short, is becoming more irrelevant by the day, because if they don’t like what you’re writing, you’re perfectly welcome to self-publish (or to work with a progressive change publisher) and potentially earn a higher income, proportionate to sales anyway, than you would have if you’d signed with a major publishing house, by cutting out the middleman.
Linda Holmes at NPR:
Weiner, who wrote the terrific and unexpected novel Good In Bed (which dares to suggest, among other things, that not all of a contemporary woman’s personal problems can be solved with a makeover and a diet, try to contain your shock) all the way back in 2001 and has been writing fiction about women ever since, is blown off as a “chick-lit author” here and here, and in The Atlantic, while her books aren’t exactly called “chick lit,” it has to be pointed out that they (and Picoult’s books) are “often referred to as ‘chick lit.'” (We’re not saying it’s chick lit or anything … we’re just saying SOME HAVE SAID it is chick lit, y’know.)
It’s a category we just don’t even need anymore.
I’ve written before about how much I dislike it when people don’t distinguish between popular women’s fiction and the much narrower category of shoe fiction (by which I mean fiction disproportionately focused on the acquisition of designer shoes and bags and other yabba-dabba-doo that is inevitably described in nearly pornographic detail). But at this point, I think the only solution is to stay away from the term “chick lit” as much as humanly possible, because it’s become a term that means “by and about women, and not something you need to take seriously, although we’re not necessarily saying those things are connected, so it might be a giant coincidence.”
Jennifer Weiner writes primarily about relationships between and among women. She writes about families, she writes about loss, she writes about loneliness, and she writes about a wide variety of other human emotions. The fact that she wrote a book called In Her Shoes doesn’t mean she writes primarily about shoes. (Seriously, is that where this started?) That book is about family — just like, for instance, Jonathan Tropper’s This Is Where I Leave You (a great book, by the way), which may or may not be a book written with greater skill, but which does not find itself assigned to a special genre as a result of being about a man, written by a man, and concerned with a man’s thoughts and feelings and complicated family and romantic relationships.
Once we’re calling Jennifer Weiner “chick lit,” I don’t know what “chick lit” is, and I don’t think I’d like the answer if I did. Most of the definitions I’ve ever known are apparently too narrow. If “chick lit” means it’s about young, independent single women looking for love (which was what I understood to be the earliest definition, when I first heard it back in the Bridget Jones era), Jennifer Weiner doesn’t qualify. If it means it’s about finding a guy in general, she doesn’t qualify. If it means the book isn’t serious, she doesn’t qualify. If it means it’s about the centrality of men to the lives of women, she doesn’t qualify, since most of the most important relationships she’s written about in her career are relationships between women (sisters, friends, mothers and daughters).
The term “chick lit,” as I mentioned today on Twitter as I was composing this entry, increasingly makes me feel like I’m being compared to a marshmallow peep just for reading books by and about women. I know what romance novels are — I read some of them, I dislike many of them. I know what shoe fiction is, in my own experience — it’s fine, but it’s not very nourishing. There are subgenres within commercial women’s fiction that are real and identifiable.
But I don’t know what “chick lit” is anymore, except books that are understood to be aimed at women, written by women, and not important. And I can’t get behind that.
Tina Jordan at Entertainment Weekly
Chris Jackson at Ta-Nehisi’s place:
Various people have chimed in agreeing with Piccoult or arguing that the Times
coverage is more balanced than she claims. Ironically, Kakutani has previously been accused of taking special relish in pillorying white male authors. (Norman Mailer
called her, in his typically subdued, politically correct style, a “one-woman kamikazee. She disdains white male authors…she’s a token. And deep down, she probably knows it.” I feel dirty retyping that.) And she recently sliced up
the prototypical white male literary darling from Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem.
But this whole controversy, such as it is, reminded me of a recent lunch I had with a fellow editor. I was going on about some novel I was reading and loving and she cut me off and asked, when was the last time you read fiction by a woman
? And I honestly couldn’t come up with anything for a few minutes. It was a pretty shameful moment, in part, because I started wondering about early onset memory loss (I eventually remembered that I’d recently read the luminous and terribly titled Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing
by Lydia Peele), but also because I’ve spent a lot of time advocating the reading of books outside of the reader’s direct experience as a way of understanding the world (through the Ringshout
organization, for instance) and apparently I’ve been ignoring the literary output of half the human population. I can’t speak to the specifics of the Piccoult/Times
but I can say that the frustration Piccoult expressed is shared by a lot of women (and men) who write or work in the literary world. In my experience with by son’s namesake bookstore, it’s clear that women are willing to buy books by male writers, but men seem much more reluctant to buy books by women. And while I’ve never seen it quantified in any way, there’s definitely a feeling out there that men–even when writing about frivolous subjects–are taken more seriously as literary writers and are more likely to be presented to serious readers by the various literary gatekeepers.
So I’ve been trying to balance my own reading–consciously trying to read at least one piece of fiction by a woman for every one I read by a man. This sounds stupid, I know. But what are the results of this small and recent experiment?
It’s been sort of fascinating. After reading the well-reviewed-but-somewhat-disappointing
(but still worth reading) Next
by James Hynes, I read The Keep
by Jennifer Egan, which was, like the Hynes, formally inventive, but also creepy and funny and knee-wobblingly suspenseful.
After reading Gary Shteyngart, I just turned to a book that’s been on my queue for a while: Chimamanda Adichie’s achingly beautiful The Thing Around Your Neck,
both books about immigrants and police states and love affairs, but from two vastly different, whiplash-inducing, perspectives (BTW, check out Adichie’s fascinating TED talk, “The Danger of the Single Story”
if you’re interested in the art of storytelling).
Between chapters of The Book in the Renaissance,
I’ve been dipping in and out of Patti Smith’s Just Kids,
which is an incredible evocation of a young woman’s unruly interior, even if she was once picked up by Allen Ginsburg because he thought she was a boy
Anyway, there are ways that our reading is shaped and limited by the biases of the dominant literary gatekeepers–maybe without realizing it, we’ve only read books by people of a certain race, or who write in a certain language, or who follow the conventions of a certain genre (including the unnamed genre of Anglo-American Serious Fiction). To some people this is the great opportunity in the coming bookquake, the chance to disintermediate some of those gatekeepers and their peculiar, ossified biases. But the real bias may be inside of us, as readers, and we might have to force ourselves out of them to take advantage of these new opportunities. How exciting is it to consider that there are worlds of literature out there that you may not have tapped into, undiscovered countries of books to explore that might yet tell you something new in a new way?