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.
Last month, The Sisterhood’s Elissa Strauss wrote post called “In Magazine Journalism, It’s Nowhere Near the End of Men,” using her own survey of magazines to show that male bylines still win out in terms of sheer numbers. And now there’s some serious research to back up her personal accounting. These numbers from VIDA, an organization that promotes women in literary arts, show that in essentially every single literary magazine, book review section or literarily inclined magazine, male bylines considerably trump female ones, as do reviews of books by men.
There’s been lots of excellent discussion of this on the Internet. Laura Miller essentially said that the problem is a matter of male readers not taking female writers seriously. Meanwhile Ruth Franklin of The New Republic crunched some more data to find that there are fewer books being published by women than by men. Even worse, publishing is an industry dominated by women. A friend of mine who works in the industry says she’s been banging her head against the wall all week in the face of these numbers.
So what gives?
The National Book Award finalists were announced yesterday. And for the first time ever, 13 of the 20 finalists were female. They included Lionel Shriver, (acclaimed Jewish novelist) Nicole Krauss, and most wonderfully, alternative punk rocker Patti Smith for her recently published memoir. Jonathan Franzen, subject of so much acclaim and backlash in recent weeks, was notably not on the list.
It’s wonderful to see the numbers looking so good. When the New Yorker announced its “20 Under 40” several months ago, half of that list was made up of women as well. Other year-end lists have been inching towards parity, too.
These changes can’t just be random. It’s my guess that some decision makers in the literary world have been listening to the stream of criticism coming from women for years. Let’s be clear; “Franzenfreude” was not the first outcry of its kind. Female authors have been up in arms time and time again reacting to one egregious slight or another, forced to explain why yet another lopsided list or impolitic remark is offensive and biased. But their voices are loud.
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?”