Happy Women’s Equality Day everyone! Or…not? By Deborah Siegel

It is a truth universally acknowledged (ok, yes, by some) that popular, or “commercial,” fiction by women tends to be critically overlooked. Said New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Weiner in an interview posted at HuffPo yesterday, “[I]t’s a very old and deep-seated doubled 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, interviewed in the same piece, was less universally convinced, making the point that while the Times reviews “tend to overlook popular fiction, whether you’re a man, woman, white, black, purple, or pink,” other venues, like The Washington Post, er back when they had a book review section, reviewed more widely. But that’s EXACTLY the point; with book reviewing space increasingly precious, what are we to make of the fact that the Times chose to review white male literary darling Jonathan Franzen’s new novel Freedom twice in seven days, when so many other books merit that precious review space too?

Personally, here’s what I think: IT’S CRAP.

No one has anything against Franzen here, present company included. But Weiner and Picoult have been tweeting and commenting about Michiko Kukatani’s recent rave of the latest from a certain white male author who lives in Brooklyn, and I join them in righteous feminist ire. Tweeted Weiner, “Carl Hiaasen doesn’t have to choose between getting a Times review and being a bestseller. Why should I? Oh right #girlparts.” She added, in the Huffpo piece, “How can anyone claim that [the Times] plays fair when genre fiction that men read gets reviewed but genre fiction that women read doesn’t exist on the paper’s review pages?” Go, sister.

The furor around gender bias in reviewing, or gender bias in Times reviewing in particular, and the debate about the status and importance of popular fiction in our culture is not new. Jane Austen, anyone? (This was, shall we say, part of what motivated me to pursue my PhD in women's literature back in the 1990s.) When Kamy Wicoff posted a link to an Atlantic article titled “All the Sad Young Literary Women” at She Writes’ Facebook page yesterday, author Julia Cheiffetz wrote, “Do you remember sitting with me on your couch in 2006 discussing This Is Not Chick Lit with Laura Miller and Alix Shulman? Not much has changed since then!”

Oh, She Writers, but it will.

Because we—10,800+ of us—are here at She Writes, and Kamy and I have some serious plans underway. We have yet to even begin to flex our collective power as readers and reviewers (see Kamy's posts--calls to action--on International Women's Day, the 2010 Best American anthology editors announcement, and Publisher's Weekly's Best Books of 2009 list, for a taste.) But I digress. Back to our regularly scheduled post.

Some great little pearls from Weiner (my new favorite feminist heroine, who knew?!):

“[W]omen are getting the short end of the stick. If you write thrillers or mysteries or orror 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.”

“Nick Hornby, Jonathan Tropper, Carl Hiaasen, David Nicholls…all of these guys write what I’d call commercial books, even beach books, books about relationships and romance and families. All of them would be considered chick lit writers if they were girls….If Nick and Jon and Carl don’t have to choose between a slot on the review page and a space on the bestseller list, why should Jen and Sophie and Emily?”

And my personal fave:

“I think it’s irrefutable that when it comes to picking favorites—those lucky few writers who get the double reviews AND the fawning magazine profile AND the back-page essay space AND the op-ed, or the Q and A edited and condensed by Deborah Solomon—the Times tends to pick white guys. Usually white guys living in Brooklyn or Manhattan, white guys who either have MFAs or teach at MFA programs…white guys who, I suspect, remind the Times’ powers-that-be of themselves, minus twenty years and plus some hair.”

There are SO many different threads we could tease out here, but since it’s Friday, and this is a She Writes on Friday post, I turn it over to you:

Do YOU think there’s bias in literary criticism/reviewing? Have YOU—as a reader, writer, teacher of writing/literature, librarian, publisher, editor, fill-in-the-blank—experienced literary sexism in your own literary life? If so, how, when, and where?

We’ve written the She Writes Credo. Methinks the time for the She Writes Manifesta may be near.

(For an EXCELLENT accounting of how far we've come, and where we still need to go in the wider world of women's leadership *off* the page, please see this wonderful oped posted yesterday by She Writers Jacki Zehner and Linda Tarr Whelan, in honor of Women's so-called Equality Day, "Women Call for Obama to Act")

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Comment by Julia Kyle on July 29, 2012 at 6:37pm

I have experienced sexism but more from people outside the writing industry. But I'm sure lots of women have experienced the blank look and slow-shuffle sideways escape routine when they mention that they're a writer (or in my case completing a Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing). Though I do often get the pat on the head treatment from other men, I find women are a lot more hostile about it. Could just be my personal experience though.

Comment by SM Tolhurst on May 8, 2012 at 5:09pm

There has always been sexism in literature, in reviews, in publishing, in politics.  Until women stand up for all women, sexism will continue.  We don't stand up for all women, let's admit it--get over it or get down to it.  Many of our heroines, meaning female writers who burned the path, which you walk, in English Lit, penned first under male names for a reason.  Have things changed all that much in the eyes of reviewers?  My first official review knocked me for a blonde protagonist--well, forgive me for being blonde.

Comment by Lisa Solod on September 6, 2010 at 11:23am
See my take on this... published in HUffPo the same day as the Picoult/Weiner whine. While I agree that many women writers may not get the acclaim that Franzen and other males do, the cream rises (Atwood, Drabble, Morrison, Strout.... etc. etc. who ALL get reviewed in the Times).... Weiner and Picoult missed the point.
Comment by Sally Kohn on September 5, 2010 at 11:43am
Finally stumbled on this, Deborah! Right on!! And thanks for weighing in AND taking action. Excited to be a part of She Source, as a group that's proactively trying to do something about this dynamic!!
Comment by Christina Brandon on September 3, 2010 at 8:53am
Thanks for this great post!
Comment by Ashlei Austgen on September 1, 2010 at 3:41pm
Per usual, I'm in awe of the ladies here. I have a very tiny voice, for now, but I'm inspired to push forward with my dream, where about two hours ago I was asking myself - "what's the point?" Thank you for that.
Comment by Deborah Siegel on August 30, 2010 at 11:46am
Tania, you move me. So much. Carol, you've said it beautifully - I think you've started us on the manifesta right here. Kevin, I so appreciate this perspective -- and I believe you are right. Meg, off to check your link!
Comment by Erika on August 29, 2010 at 8:04pm
Thank you...really...this is a difficult conversation to have and at times, even including ourselves in part of those unwilling to address. I needed this voice of hope because we have come a long way but have a longer way to go.
Comment by Meg Waite Clayton on August 29, 2010 at 7:38am
I think there is gender bias, but I'm not sure it's as conscious as the current slugfest seems to be suggesting. Maybe more to do with what we've all been taught is good literature - which I've written a little about in "THE SCENT OF A WOMAN'S INK, STILL."
Comment by Kevin Camp on August 29, 2010 at 5:51am
I haven't directly experienced it, at least in this context, which is obvious because of my sex, but I do see instances of it out in the greater world. What it comes down to, in my estimation, is a cultural deficiency on the part of men. Many men simply don't see women as role models, mentors, or influences. Or if they do, theirs is a very limited interpretation of such. I'm not this way, but I'm very atypical in this department.

And with that oversight comes an unwillingness for men to be introspective. They can react, but they aren't supposed to contemplate and ponder before doing so. It is a short-sighted perspective on their end, but until male gender roles are challenged enough to change, one will see evidence of this. It's very unfortunate because it short-changes everyone. It short-changes women writers, but it also short-changes men who might otherwise recognize that there is much wisdom and information to glean from them.


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