The Hipster Club for White Boys: Is Getting Reviewed by the New York Times the New Penis Envy?
Lately, there has been a flutter of activity surrounding the race-and-gender-biased reviewing practices of the New York Times Book Review. As reported by NPR, in just over a year’s time (2009-2010), political authors covered by the NYTBR were 95% white and 87% male. While this study was specific to books with political themes, it’s commonly held that the numbers for book reviews of fiction and creative nonfiction—while not as dire—are at least similarly skewed.
Commercial fiction author Jodi Picoult took up this issue on Twitter a couple weeks back, tweeting her lack of surprise that the NYT raved about Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom. Quipped Picoult: “Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren’t white male literary darlings.” She later wrote a more in-depth note about her comments, adding that, while women and writers of color do get reviewed, if you are “white and male and living in Brooklyn you have better odds, or so it seems.”
I don’t have any specific stats on the NYT’s gender or race proportions . . . I do not even, though this is still treason in some circles, read the NYT anymore on a regular basis. Therefore, it would be fair to say that I am not an authority on how their reviews are assigned (NPR reported an even bigger schism in the race/sex of reviewers than of the authors of books reviewed, incidentally.) However, I have an instinctive sense, from years of hungrily devouring the Sunday Book Review section as the ultimate taste-making authority, that Picoult is correct to at least some significant degree. A few years ago, the writer Elizabeth Merrick came out with statistics on gender and publishing on her blog (the now-retired Grace), analyzing the practices of the New Yorker and the New York Times in particular, stating that the New Yorker bylines were nearly 80% overall, and that NYT regularly gave 72% of their review space to male writers. So if it is not quite true that, as Picoult claims, “for every Danticat/Diaz review, there are ten Lethems and Franzens,” it is nonetheless true that the top literary media of New York is distinctly out of step with the gender proportions of the actual human population.
In fact, this is one of the reasons I stopped following the NYT to begin with, though my reasons had less to do with gender and more to do with the kind of “celebrity” culture such New York based publications seem to reinforce. For as I became more and more entwined in the independent publishing community, and met more and more writers, it became increasingly apparent to me that the writers I personally viewed as important, and who received much buzz elsewhere, particularly in the vibrant blogging community, were infrequently noticed by the NYT, whose coverage seemed a bit more akin to social pages in which wedding announcements were made: writers who were already New York publishing celebrities were given space they scarcely seemed to need, whereas newer writers, especially those from smaller houses, were, in any given week, given little to none. This is, of course, a far cry from the grievance expressed by Picoult, who is a bestselling author well able to laugh her way to the bank in response to the NYT’s shunning of her commercial—i.e. lucrative—fiction, so perhaps I digress. . .
Unfortunately, as is often the case when somebody points out an inflammatory truth, the conversation from there began to veer in directions more “controversial” than “informative.” Picoult was accused by some of griping because her own books are not frequently reviewed by the NYT, and publicly went on record saying that she did not expect them to be because her writing is “commercial,” while the NYT strongly prefers “literary” work. Oddly, venues such as the UK’s Guardian found Picoult’s personal Twitter griping fascinating enough to report on in-depth, and then returned to the Big Scandal again when Jennifer Weiner concurred with Picoult and proceeded to cover her opinions too. These discussions tended to focus on the fact that Picoult and Weiner write “chick lit,” to which Linda Holmes then wrote a response calling for the end of that dismissive and imprecise term—an argument with which I generally concur. Holmes, however, did not seem to take Picoult’s own distinction between her commercial fiction and the literary work the NYT favors at face value, and at times seemed to be disputing whether there is any quantifiable difference between popular women’s fiction and literary fiction, at one point arguing that Weiner’s work is terrific and shocking because it suggests that not all women’s troubles can be “solved by a makeover and diet.” (At the risk of being glib, if Holmes is under the impression that this is what most books by women do suggest, she may be drawing from a very narrow pool by which to measure what is either “shocking” or “terrific,” and is certainly undermining her own argument that women’s writing should be taken more seriously!) Yet Holmes makes the valid case that such “shoe fiction,” about relentless consumerism and man hunting, is not the same genre as popular women’s fiction, which often tackles serious issues such as relationships between mothers and daughters, loss, adoption, and many other real life circumstances to which women readers can emotionally relate. Certainly I would concur: there is a pretty big difference between Anne Tyler’s Digging to America (one of the novels cited in this debate) and The Devil Wears Prada, and the publishing industry’s lumping of such wide-ranging books by women writers into one essentially meaningless category can be maddening.
But . . . but. Something, to me, still feels slippery or elusive in this discussion. We seem to have gotten off the rails somewhere along the way. Because if the NYT really does have a gender and race bias, and Picoult and Weiner happen to have high enough visibility that their pointing it out drew some much-needed attention to the matter, that does not mean that it follows that the works that should be included more frequently in the NYTBR are works like what Picoult or Weiner write, when Picoult herself consents that the NYT, for better or worse, has set itself up as something of a smartypants literary venue, not as concerned with popular or genre fiction. In fact, popular authors ranging from Picoult to Dan Brown to Grisham to King to Rowling scarcely require the trumpeting of the NYT anyway. These writers are millionaires or better thanks to the popular consumption of their work. The public has spoken on the matter of their readability, and in a world where money talks, all they need to do is send out a single grievance on Twitter and the freaking Guardian is ringing from the other side of the pond, begging for a quote . . .
The issue, then, seems to have deeper, more convoluted roots. It raises a myriad of questions that have been lost in the shuffle, but that actually feel important to address—or readdress for the still-new millennium before we go pronouncing Freedom the “novel of the century.” Some of these questions might be:
1) What constitutes the difference between popular and literary fiction, anyway? Eschewing genres from “shoe fiction” to “romance” to “cozy mystery,” what is the dividing line between work that is considered “commercial” and work that is considered “literary?” I would argue that, while subject matter easily differentiates true genre work from more literary work, this is not as true when discussing popular women’s fiction in general. Women’s fiction writers like Sue Miller, Ann Hood, Anne Tyler and Jennifer Weiner do not necessarily write about more “shallow” material than their literary compatriots—in fact, many popular women’s novels specifically engage with deeply real and painful issues like the death of a child or spouse, divorce, traumas of the past, and other fodder not in any way quantifiably different from what is covered in work regarded as more literary or less oriented strictly towards women readers. The differentiation, then, must lie with the writing itself. But what are the perimeters for “literary” vs. “popular” writing? Literary writer Jane Smiley says that much popular women’s fiction takes great risks with subject matter, but can be overlooked by the critical establishment because it is “so straightforward, and because the payoff is emotional rather than intellectual.” In this vein, I would suggest that what most reliably differentiates popular vs. literary writing is the level of ambiguity (emotional, moral, factual) permitted, a lack of explicit explanations to serve as guideposts for the reader, more focus on nuanced characterization, psychology and atmosphere than on a flawlessly tight story arc, and more freedom to innovate with language wherein the prose is as important as the story itself, rather than merely a vehicle for relaying plot. But are these universally held, or do they differ widely? What standards is the NYT holding? And who decides what makes the cut?
2) Within perimeters of what is considered “literary” by venues that favor that type of work, do more men than women write such work? If we are to assume (and in a world in which authors like Mary Gaitskill, Margaret Atwood, Francine Prose, Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro, Jennifer Egan, Toni Morrison, Jhumpa Lahiri, Nicole Krauss, and the list goes on, are absolutely in no danger of being referred to as “chick lit writers,” I think we must assume the following:) that what is constituted as “literary” has a much deeper meaning than whether the person who is writing it possesses a penis, then if indeed more male writers than female writers are producing said work, what is the reason for this phenomenon?
3) What does it “take” to be a literary writer? In our current publishing Armageddon, Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic acknowledges that publishers these days may be eschewing women and minorities because everyone is going for the jugular of the crowd-pleasing “bestseller” in order to save their own financial ass, so to speak. If literary writers are less likely to find publishers for their work than popular or genre writers, and even when they do find publishers, are likely to be paid less, then is a certain degree of economic privilege almost a prerequisite for pursuing a highly literary career in all but exceptional cases? If so, how might race and gender intersect with this issue?
4) Perhaps most importantly of all, as Chris Jackson points out in The Atlantic, and as I discussed in a piece for She Writes at the onset of this year, how does the fact that male readers are so hesitant to buy books by women writers factor in to what books prestigious venues select for review? Why are male readers so unlikely to buy books by women, when women readers do not hold the same bias? What can review venues, editors, agents, writers, high schools teachers, the academy, and others in the literary world do to help rectify this issue, and what are the many reasons that such rectification is worthwhile, above and beyond who gets covered in the NYTBR?
And so, I would like to thank Picoult and Weiner for drawing attention to an elephant that’s been in the room for a damn long time, that many of us like to pretend departed a few decades ago but is actually still there, taking up more than its share of space I would like to urge those interested in these issues to stop discussing the problem in terms of Picoult or Weiner having sour grapes, or even in terms of chick-lit in general. Instead, if you are a woman, give a male reader in your life a favorite book by a female writer and urge him to read it. If you are male, buy or review a book by a woman. If you are a bookseller or editor, consider how you are classifying books, and whether you are categorizing them based on prose and philosophy, or by more simplistic standards like the sex of the writer or the book’s protagonist. If you are a writer who cannot make a living writing literary fiction and have been urged by your agent, friends and family to write something “more commercial,” speak out and bring this issue to the forefront, whether or not you decide to take the suggestion. And if you are a publisher, for god’s sake send every book you publish by a woman or writer of color (or better yet, both!) to the NYT and other media, and press them to cover these titles. Because I think that, whether Freedom is the greatest novel of the century or just another pretty good book, we can all agree that our boy Franzen does not need a whole lot more media space.