We at the Sisterhood have been following Jennifer Weiner’s crusade for literary gender parity for years. Finally, the witty (Jewish) Twitter maven and fiction writer has gotten her own New Yorker profile by Rebecca Mead, complete with childhood description, literary analysis, a home visit and the immortal phrase “garotted with a pair of Spanx.”
What follows are a few connected meditations from someone who has been following the gender and highbrow/lowbrow literary debate with my lips pursed in concentration for years.
Last year, I spent a lot of time writing about the literary feud known as “Franzenfreude,” which occurred when the plaudits received for Jonathan Franzen’s novel “Freedom” inspired a big conversation about gender, genre and the marketing, reviewing and treatment of books in the media.
Here’s a brief history of the ongoing conversation.
Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult spoke up and complained about the undue love “white male literary darlings” like Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides receive; Picoult said commercial fiction was ignored, while Weiner argued that commercial fiction by men was given more credence than that by women. Several literary authors responded, grumbling about these perennial bestsellers grumbling about them, but then the VIDA numbers came out, which surveyed bylines by gender, revealing a stark gender problem in big literary establishments. Meg Wolitzer, whose novel “The Wife” satirically skewered “white male literary darlings” years ago, weighed in this spring with a piece called “The Second Shelf,” in which she complained that literary writers face gender bias, too. She noted that Eugenides’ lauded effort “The Marriage Plot,” which concerns the romantic and intellectual lives of some Brown students in the ‘80s, would have had a much different color, and presentation, were its author a she.
Now we’re up to date, and Eugenides himself continued the fray, throwing down against Picoult in a recent interview with Salon as “The Marriage Plot” comes out in paperback.
Towards the end of their interview, Salon’s David Dayen proffers Wolitzer’s question about whether “The Marriage Plot” would have had a pink or frilly cover if he had been a woman. Eugenides replies that he’d read Wolitzer’s piece and thought she might have a point. Maybe.
Female novelists might not be getting the respect they deserve, but they sure can get rich trying. This, in short, is novelist (and, disclaimer, my friend) Teddy Wayne’s response to Jennifer Weiner’s recent post about the New York Times’ persistent bias towards male novelists — an issue that The Sisterhood has been following.
Weiner found that while the Times showed some improvement in 2011, women still got only 41% of all reviews, and were far less likely to get profiled in addition to getting reviewed.
Wayne acknowledged the preference among critics for male authors, but points out that, apart from the “literary 1%,” it is much harder for male novelists to make a living than female ones.
For the majority of male literary authors — excluding the upper echelon of [Jonathan] Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides, Don DeLillo and their ilk, plus a few younger writers like Chad Harbach who have scored much-ballyhooed advances — it’s actually harder than it is for women to carve out a financially stable writing career.
Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, “Freedom,” arrives this week with considerable fanfare, but also a little bit of backlash. Although the author is not a Jew, one of his characters is, and he has a place in the cool crowd of literary writers than includes many Jewish writers such as Michael Chabon, Jonathan Safran-Foer and more recently, Gary Shteyngart.
But the glowing reviews and attention the book garnered also provoked a little bit of anger, which Jewish writers have weighed in on both sides. It began when bestselling author Jodi Picoult criticized The New York Times Book Review for its undue attention to the aforementioned group of writers to the exclusion of more mainstream, popular titles — many of them written by women. She asks:
How else can the Times explain the fact that white male authors ROUTINELY are assigned reviews in both the Sunday review section AND the daily book review section (often both raves) “while so many other writers go unnoticed by their critics?”
What’s on ‘Our Rack’:
“97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement” (Smithsonian) by Jane Ziegelman looks at the eating habits of five immigrant families living in New York’s Lower East Side between 1863 and 1935. Relying on census date, cookbooks from the era and newspaper clippings, Ziegelman chronicles the lives of the families — who are Irish, Italian, German, Russian Jews and German Jews — and how their respective cuisines evolved in their new homeland.
Harper Perennial has put out a new edition of “The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook,” which was first issued in 1954. Toklas, most famously the companion of Gertrude Stein, wrote this cookbook in a casual narrative style and includes sections like “Dishes for Artists” and “Food in French Homes.” Stein and Toklas were part of France’s vibrant expat scene, which provided Toklas a chance to cook for friends such as Ernest Hemmingway, Pablo Picasso and Thornton Wilder.
In “After the Girls Club: How Teenaged Holocaust Survivors Built New Lives in America” (Lexington Books), women’s studies professor Carole Bell Ford has pieced together the life stories of a small group of orphaned teenagers who relocated to Brooklyn after surviving the Holocaust.