So a legitimate kurfluffle seems to have erupted over the last few weeks in the book world. I think it's a good thing.
It started, with a glowing review by Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times
by Johnathan Franzen. It's no surprise that there's been a breathless anticipation in certain literary circles about this book. It's his first in nine years. The President got an advance copy when he went on vacation a few weeks ago, and Franzen is the type of writer that book critics tend to love.
I will note that the last Franzen novel to come out, The Corrections
, received similar acclaim. Glowing reviews. Won the National Book Award. There was even a bit of a dust up because Franzen objected to Oprah putting The Corrections
in her book club. I think that he thought his book was too important to be in Oprah's little club. That may not have gone over as well for him as he expected.
At any rate, when the Kakutani review came out Jodi Picoult, a best selling author who happens to be female, tweeted
"NYT raved about Franzen's new book. Is anyone shocked? Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren't white male literary darlings." At roughly the same time Jennifer Weiner, another bestselling female author, was picking up on the Franzen love, also on Twitter
: "Jonathan Franzen! New book! Cover of Time! Profiled in Vogue! I bet Gary Shteyngart's beside himself." and she invented a new twitter hashtag to identify the breathless discussion of Johnathan Franzen.
"Is there a hashtag yet for chronicling the Franzen frenzy? #franzenfreude
in the meantime, issued another lenghty glowing review of Freedom
, this time by Sam Tanenhaus the editor of the book review section.
And for the last two or three weeks or so, a discussion has popped up about the inclusion of women writers in the New York Times
. It's not Franzen in particular that the Wiener and Picoult object to. It's the fawning of the New York Times
in particular and the "literary world" in general over white men, even in less so-called literary fiction and more in the popular commercial fiction. Lots of people have taken sides, slamming authors, slamming critics of all stripes. Weiner and Tanenhaus fought
over the issue on NPR.
Then, the women at XX Factor on Slate decided to put the matter to data.
Slate associate editor Chris Wilson got us started by putting together a spreadsheet listing every work of adult fiction that's been reviewed in the New York Times in the past two years.
We compared men to women and then highlighted the authors whose books had been singled out for the one-two punch of a weekday review and a review in the Sunday Times Book Review.
Here's what we found.
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 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. One crucial bit of information missing, of course, is the percentage of all published adult fiction that has been written by men vs. women. As for the double reviews, men seem to get them twice as often as women.
This still does not exactly answer the question Picoult and Weiner have raised. As far as we can tell, they were not complaining about the disparity of reviews allotted to all fiction writers but to the ones that fall in a hazy space somewhere between literary and commercial. "I don't write literary fiction," Weiner explains in an interview. "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."
Weiner seems most concerned about how we, as a literary culture, draw the boundaries around a certain group of books. Let's call this category zeitgeist fiction—commercial fiction that is for some reason deemed worthy of serious analysis, either because of sales (Twilight), cultural impact (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), or surprisingly spry writing (High Fidelity).* Weiner and Picoult raise the following question: Is pop fiction written by men more likely to be lifted out of the "disposable" pile, becoming the kind of cultural objects august institutions like the New York Times feel compelled to pay attention to? And are the commercial genres most commonly associated with male writers and readers—science fiction, legal thriller—more likely to be taken seriously than their female equivalents (chick lit, romance novel)? Or as Weiner puts it, would certain male writers—Nick Hornby, Jonathan Tropper, Carl Hiaasen, or David Nicholls—"be considered chick lit writers if they were girls?"
Our tools are not fine-tuned enough to answer these questions. But we invite our readers who are as obsessed as Weiner and Picoult to comb through our list and categorize books by genre, picking out the zeitgeist fiction, and see what they come up with. The full Google doc is here. Anyone who received a double review is in orange print; everyone else is in black. Our hunch is that while Weiner and Picoult chose entirely the wrong targets—Franzen and Shteyngart having just written excellent novels—they might have a point about those chick-lit dudes.
I think that Weiner and Picoult have a point, and I'm hoping that this discussion, which has taken place over multiple platforms over multiple weeks, will continue.
Linda Holmes, at NPR's Monkey See blog (which I encourage anyone with a love of pop culture to regularly visit) has an interesting post up today about the whole dust up.
It isn't as far as I can tell so much about the state of literary criticism in the paper of record, but about the discussion and how such discussions can veer off into other territory. (Incidently, she is reading Freedom
right now and seems to like it.)
As the matter of the advance reviews fades and the book itself becomes the topic, it's important to note that while there's no sign at this point that anything about the way The New York Times covers books has changed or will change, that doesn't mean it wasn't a worthwhile discussion, though perhaps not in the way that was intended. There do seem to be some lessons that can be taken away from the whole thing.
Most importantly, it demonstrated how challenging it is to talk about complicated things when the nature of back-and-forth in online discourse encourages constant diversions into things that are easier.
. . .
It's very, very hard to get your arms around the idea of whether or not some sort of gender bias exists in the way the NYT reviews books. The statistic that only 38 percent of the reviewed books are by women doesn't mean much without looking at what percentage of all books are by women. But even if you knew that 60 percent of all books were by women, for instance, you'd then have to know what percentage of those are so-called "genre fiction" — romances, thrillers, mysteries — that aren't often reviewed by the NYT whether they're by women or by men.
And then you get into the questions Weiner has raised about why it is that genre or "commercial" fiction should be ignored anyway. The New York Times doesn't limit itself to art-house movies; why should it limit itself to literary fiction? That's not necessarily a question of gender bias; that's a matter of philosophy.
What pops up in trying to plow through all this is mostly anecdotal evidence. For instance, I recently read One Day, a book that is not qualitatively different in style, form, or plot from anything by Weiner or Emily Giffin or any one of a number of writers of commercial fiction marketed to women. This book, however, was written by David Nicholls, and for some reason, it has mostly avoided being classified as the frothy, simplistic, unchallenging pop book that it is. (It also has, I have to say, one of the most shamelessly manipulative and maudlin endings I have ever read in any book at any time, ever — precisely the kind of thing people claim to hate about so-called "chick lit.")
It's very difficult not to wonder whether, had One Day had a different cover photo — say a woman and a man, seen from the back, walking and holding hands — and was written by a woman, The Guardian would have called it "a novel that is not only roaringly funny but also memorable, moving and, in its own unassuming, unpretentious way, rather profound."
Or whether it would have gotten such a positive review from The New York Times, which doesn't seem to have ever reviewed, for instance, any of Giffin's books (aside from a one-sentence mention here or there in a summer-books roundup) but has written about her three times in its Fashion & Style section in pieces like this, which keep you up to date about what she's wearing and informs you that when there are several "chick lit" books released at the same time, that means the summer might just be — yes, they really say this — "catfight central."
I don't care what the statistics are: that is uncomfortable.
Because this conversation is so challenging, as I followed it around the Internet, it kept diverting itself to questions that are easier, like "Do you like Jodi Picoult's writing?" "Do you think Jennifer Weiner makes too much money?" "Shouldn't we all be reading more classics?" "Does Jennifer Weiner understand German?" These things really aren't at all relevant to whether the argument that the Times could stand to review a broader selection of books is valid or invalid — that point could be made by a good writer or a bad writer or someone who isn't a writer at all, and it does nothing to refute that point to say, "Well, she writes trash that doesn't deserve a review." Who cares? That answers the question, "Should the NYT be reviewing Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner?" It doesn't answer the question, "Should the NYT consider reviewing a wider variety of books?"
This is a great question, and it doesn't have to be a particularly combative question. There's no reason to be afraid of it. If you think there's not enough evidence to demonstrate any kind of a problem — as have some people who have pointed out both that Franzen has been witheringly reviewed by the NYT at times and that there certainly isn't a total blackout on literary fiction by women writers, both of which are fair points — then that's the answer. There's no reason to skitter away from that and over to, essentially, "They're just jealous." Okay. Let's say they're just jealous; let's say we buy that. What about everybody else who sort of thought they had a point? Everybody's just jealous? Everybody who has that sense that they're not being well-served as readers?
I noted on Twitter yesterday that according to two pieces that had passed across my desk lately, 64 percent of book purchases in 2009 were made by women, but 61 percent of The Expendables' audience on opening weekend was men. That means buying a book is a more gender-specific act than going to see The Expendables. In part, this just means more women went to see The Expendables than you might think, but it does seem to underline the fact that it's a fair question, when women are buying 64 percent of the books, why they're only writing about 33 percent of the books that The New York Times is choosing to give multiple reviews. Whatever else is going on, the NYT does seem to be slanted toward selling books by men to an audience of women. Why that is, it's hard to say, but whether that is ... well, there's evidence for that.
There's more in there that I think is pretty interesting, and if you've gotten this far in this post, I encourage you to go back and read the whole thing.
I love that we live in an age that a discussion started on Twitter is taken seriously, and that multiple people across professions, generations, locations and platforms can take part. I'm not certain that this discussion will change in particular how the The New York Times
chooses to select and review books. But I do think that it adds to the way that media consumers who are interested in such things look at book reviews in the Times. The instant criticsm and really robust discussion, despite the various detours that the discussion can take given the lack of real constraints, I think is a good thing for criticism and consumption of media. And I find these discussions to be as interesting as the books the authors write.
Personal note: I read The Corrections
when it came out, and I wasn't nearly as impressed as I was with Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
, which came out roughly around the same time. I didn't think it was as good as everyone else seemed to think. I'm undecided if I'll read Freedom
I have read Weiner's Good In Bed
, In Her Shoes
, Little Earthquakes
and Goodnight Nobody
. I haven't picked up her last three books. I think I lost interest in her writing at some point, though I can't really pin point any thing in particular.
I have read Jodi Picoult's My Sister's Keeper
. I can't imagine wanting to read anything else of hers after that.
I read Gary Shteyngart's Absurdistan
and hated it passionately. I have never been so happy to put a book away permanently.
None of these opinions should matter too much in the discussion in general of whether women authors should be included more in the New York Time's
book reviews, but the biases of commentators probably should be known.