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Lady Lit

2010 September 7

A few weeks ago, best-selling author Jodi Picoult made public her opinion that the New York Times favors “white male literary darlings” following literary critic Michiko Kakutani’s review praising Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom. Obviously, these are not new allegations. In fact,  Fringe ran its own “25 Books Project” several years ago in opposition to the NYT’s list of the “Best 25 American Novels of the Past 25 Years” a list that included only two female writers, one of whom (Toni Morrison) was the only writer of color on the list. The American “paper of record” has come under fire in the past for its focus on upper-class white male America, and now it seems that some women writers have had enough. Jennifer Weiner, author of In Her Shoes and Good in Bed, seconded Picoult’s ire, tweeting that “Carl Hiassen doesn’t have to choose between getting a Times review and having a bestseller. Why should I? Oh, right, #girlparts.”

Picoult went on to clarify her comments, saying, “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.” Now, I’ve never read one of Picoult’s books (My Sister’s Keeper being the most famous), but I have read my share of the “chick lit” (Weiner’s Good in Bed included) so disdained by literary types everywhere.  While I have enjoyed a few of these books, they are, for the most part, just fun to read, more valuable for their entertainment than for any intrinsic literary qualities. Should the New York Times be covering commercial fiction? I don’t think that’s where the heart of the debate should be. Rather, I think that the debate should be about whether or not there needs to be more attention paid to women writers (and writers of other races, ethnicities, and sexual orientations) in the literary world (even beyond the hallowed pages of the NYT Book Review).

In a recent post on The Atlantic blog, Chris Jackson talks about a recent conversation where he was asked what was the most recent fiction he had read by a female author. He admitted, sheepishly, that he blanked before he could offer his response. Sadly, I have had this conversation a few times as well, and have had the same response–and I’m a woman, and I read a good deal of female writers! It seems to be the overriding opinion that the literary canon is dominated by white male writers not because of gender bias, but because they are better writers, and that that’s the way it should stay. I have talked to pompous young literary types who insist that they won’t read female writers. While one can rattle off contemporary male literary demigods at the drop of a hat (the Brooklyn Jonathans: Lethem, Franzen, Safran-Foer; Joshua Ferris; Gary Shteyngart; Jonathan Tropper; Keith Gessen; Michael Chabon), we stutter when it comes to the female counterparts. Its not for lack of talent–writers like Lydia Davis, Amelia Gray, Jennifer Egan, Karen Russell, Aimee Bender, Edwidge Danticat, Alice Munro keep challenging literary fiction, strengthening it and making it grow. It’s because of those “sad young literary men” (and women) that refuse to accept that just because it’s by a female author, doesn’t necessarily make it “chick lit.”

Chris Jackson has decided to read one female author for every male author he reads. After all, isn’t the goal of reading to learn about things beyond the realm of our personal experience? I’ve been making more of a conscious effort to expand my own reading comfort zone, and part of that has been reading more female writers. But why does this have to be a conscious challenge? Females represent one half of the world’s population, and we are quickly growing to dominate the educational and professional worlds (at least in number and talent, if not in recognition or earnings). I should be able to walk into a bookstore and pick up an equal number of titles by men and women from the display tables at the front of the store.

What do you guys think? Is there a bias toward white male writers in the literary world? Should more attention be paid to “chick lit” and other commercial fiction on the pages of book reviews?

*Cross-posted to Fringe

3 Responses Post a comment
  1. Mallory permalink
    September 9, 2010

    There is so much talk about how hard we are on young actresses, and I think Hollywood and modern lit seem to treat women in the same slightly underhanded manner. In much the same way that young entertainers are lauded, fawned over, and immediately discarded (Megan Fox), young female authors are often set up for failure.

    I think of the particular case of Donna Tartt, whose brilliant book The Secret History was called a wonderful debut, the best in years, promising beyond belief. Readers waited with bated breath for Tartt to release her sophomore effort, and when it (finally) did come, you could almost hear the critics cackling. With The Little Friend, Tartt suddenly became a disappointment and a failure. I’m not arguing that The Little Friend is a great book—it simply isn’t. Tartt, however, is still a ridiculously gifted writer and was not treated as such.

    But compare the critical reaction of her second book to the reaction to Safran-Foer’s stilted, boring, derivative, and downright poor follow-up to Everything is Illuminated, Extrememly Loud and Incredibly Close. While many admitted that his first book was superior, he somehow maintained his status as literature’s new golden boy, and even when they were criticizing the book in front of them, critics wanted to see what else Safran-Foer had to offer. With Tartt, all they did was look to the past and wash their hands of her.

  2. Llalan permalink
    September 10, 2010

    When I worked at a travel bookstore I often wondered this about this particular genre. There were almost no women in travel anthologies save Susan Orlean and Jan Morris…who used to be a man. This trend was answered by a series devoted to female travel writers. Unfortunately, most of these essays were simply no good. Chick lit? Possibly. It’s a book designed for women about women–whatever that means. Why do we need this?

    And what does this mean? Are there no talented females who write general travelogues out there? Or are there just a dearth of them generally. If asked who my favorite travel writers were, they would all be male. And I too would blush at my ignorance of female writers in this genre, being more familiar with the old white guys. Is there something inherent in travel writing that attracts males and not females?

    The same goes for general fiction and nonfiction, too. My knowledge is sadly limited past Munroe, Lahiri, and a few others. Now I am determined to read more Hannah Tinti’s and Maaza Mengiste’s of the world: up-and-coming female writers who deserve the praise and attention of up-and-coming males. Thanks for the reminder.

  3. September 11, 2010

    I haven’t read enough of Picoult to really step into her argument, but as in most other things, there is definitely a white male bias, along with many other biases. (For instance I think there is a big “if it ain’t depressing it ain’t good” bias in the hoity toity upper class literary stratosphere. For instance, one of the FEW female writers on that NY Times list, Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, I read for a class a couple of years ago. Although I did think it was exceedingly well written, it was also exceedingly depressing and hardly kept my attention most of the time. In other words, I could think of a number of richer, more joyous novels that I thought were better, but since Housekeeping was as dreary as a Cormac McCarthy novels, it gets to be up there with Cormac McCarthy novels.)

    I think it reflects the male dominance still reflected in modern society. This may seem slightly off topic, but one thing I’ve noticed in my somewhat in depth study of GLBT lit for teens is that there are now a number of really good novels by men about gay men/teens available for kids now, which is AWESOME. But books for teens about lesbians? I can only think of a couple. Which I think reflects society’s rising comfort level with GLBT people in general – gay men are now prevalent as side kicks in many TV shows and movies, but it’s hard to find that many lesbians that aren’t just there to satisfy the male gaze of “oh man lesbians are hot.” Obviously there are exceptions to this, like the new The Kids Are Alright movie, but, Will and Jack were still accepted first. Okay, I feel like I am rambling hardcore here.

    The last thing I’ll say is that I think your (and Chris Jackson’s) goal of reading more female authors is good; I’ve recently set a goal of reading more black authors (and particularly black female authors). The first book I read this year in keeping with that goal was Their Eyes Were Watching God, and I mentioned it to quite a few people, including people I viewed as pretty “educated” but I was pretty surprised when NONE of them had even heard of the book, or of Zora Neale-Hurston. This didn’t make me look down on them or anything, I think it’s just interesting and a reflection of our white literary educations.

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