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