Thursday, September 09, 2010
It went up last Thursday evening, but by early Friday morning there were already a dozen comments about the Slate article that proved the predominance of book reviews in favor of male authors in The New York Times. There it is, in empirical black and white:
"Of the 545 books reviewed between June 29, 2008 and Aug. 27, 2010:
—338 were written by men (62 percent of the total)
—207 were written by women (38 percent of the total)
Of the 101 books that received two reviews (both the Book Review and a ROP review) in that period:
—72 were written by men (71 percent)
—29 were written by women (29 percent)
What does this tell us? These overall numbers pretty well line up with what other studies have found: Men are reviewed in the Times far more often than women. As for the double reviews, men seem to get them twice as often as women. "
The argument, at least in the Big Print of Huffington Post, a host of Internet stories, and the little print of Twitter, was ramped up a few weeks ago, amid the Jonathan Franzen hoopla, when Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner brazenly suggested that his attention was evidence of yet another "white man" stealing all the oxygen in the cultural conversation about contemporary fiction. They made many valid points, and a number of those points certainly can be seen to illuminate prejudice, or at least suggest the way the culture (and I'd suggest it's not just The New York Times, but all of us) view and value the work of women.
As you might expect, given my own public history with the Chick Lit/ Women's Lit argument, I was tempted to enter the fray. But Picoult and Weiner were carrying spears that I thought likely to confuse the message, if we're going to pierce an environment of inequity.
The staking of claims based on their success with popular, genre fiction, vs. Franzen's literary reputation, made Picoult and Weiner seem like bad sports. And I don't think that's what they meant. This is not their argument – it's all of ours. If we're not clear and careful, if we align ourselves with positions, however well-meaning or rooted in legitimate frustration, that allow reasonable people to question our logic, we're sure to lose the larger battle.
The problems and issues of prejudice are, of course, massive, pervasive, insidious and nearly impossible to untangle. It is very easy to jump to larger conclusions before smaller issues have been illuminated or resolved. And it is just as dangerous to miss the big picture as we stand at the side, trying to untie a small but difficult knot.
Weiner and Picoult write books that fit nicely into the category of Chick-Lit – or "Popular Genre Fiction", a valid category, parallel to Mystery, Sci-Fi, Thrillers, Romance, etc. That they may be well-written and are certainly well-loved is not the point -- exactly. At least, it's not the Jonathan Franzen point. Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett transcended Mysteries to a status of cult-following in the literati-culture. The seriousness with which Stieg Larsson's books have been taken, the attention Nick Hornby gets at every level of print and Internet – these examples are the real meat of Jodi Picault's and Jennifer Weiner's argument. And they should be.
Genre literature makes sense. It appeals, if not like a fetish, then certainly like a clarification of choice. A literary nod to popular restaurants – I like Chinese. You like Italian. It took decades of attendance for Mexican, Turkish or Korean eateries to be listed in New York tourist guide books. Marvelous, ethnic-cuisines, to be sure, but until The Underground Gourmet, it didn't register with publishers that anyone outside of the specific ethnic communities might be interested. If a city in America were largely made up of an ethnic group and its traditional restaurants were never reviewed or noted or listed, there would (and should) be an eyebrow raised. That's what Picoult and Wiener are saying.
But here's what I'm saying: if Eric Ripert's Le Bernardin were to be referred to as a Chinese restaurant because he'd made use of bok choy and ginger in a few of his recipes, there would be hell to pay in Foodland. And Anthony Bourdain wouldn't be the only one ranting.
The Chick Lit argument as positioned in the Franzen Debate clouds the issues to mix all kinds of cranky, if valid, complaints:
• Why doesn't The New York Times review the books the American Public seems to want to read? And if most of those books are by and for women, this is a valid argument, to be sure. Though I would still suggest that there is a need for an overview of the kind of material that will move the culture forward, not simply fill it's belly. And the likelihood that many of those books would be authored by women seems just as obvious. (We might better ask – Why is The New York Times Book Review so god-darned boring? But that may be another story, altogether.)
• Of the few "popular" or "genre" books reviewed or profiled in what's left of the directional press, why are women authors represented with such a disproportionate share? Another valid question – since they make up the reading, buying and authorship population to overwhelming numbers.
• And my favorite question: Why must we paint fiction that happens to be written by women, about contemporary female protagonists, facing everyday issues of family, career and home, without the benefit of guns, heroin or extra-terrestrial devices, with the Chick Lit brush – or – as a bone thrown to suggest respect --- as Women's Literature or Women's Fiction.
Let's keep apples with apples and genres to genres. If Franzen is seen as worthy of respect, and his work is not referred to as Men's Fiction, then why are Alice Sebold, Anne Patchett, Anna Quindlen referred to consistently by their gender?
Today's New Republic piece takes the issues one step further.
Why indeed, has the New York Times NOT responded to Slate's damning proof of prejudice? And even in the subsequent articles around the news of this study, I'm not seeing much public outcry beyond cranky observance.
I think it all comes down to the fact that men are not "doing this" to women writers. We all seem to think that the domestic lives of women have little value. Women will, of course, read Franzen, Roth, Larssen, Delaney, Michener, Updike, Vonnegut, Doctorow, McCann. But where are the men reading Quindlen, Patchett, Kingsolver, Berg, Tyler, Morrison, Straut?
What are we doing in the ways we raise young men to read and value a woman's perspective? Until we can grapple with these issues, it's unlikely the value of our output will transcend the worth we assign to our lives.