Thursday, August 26, 2010

Gender bias?

by Jessica

Apropos of Miriam’s post on the euphoric reception to Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, at least two novelists have cried foul. Not about Franzen’s book per se, but the case, advanced by Jodi Picoult and seconded by Jennifer Weiner, that the NYT Book Review favors writers who are “white and male and live in Brooklyn.” Good news for this fairly sizeable demographic; Brooklyn boys with literary leanings can now rest easier knowing that their eventual literary efforts will receive proper critical attention.

I’ve followed the ensuing discussion over the last week with interest. In the Atlantic, Spiegel and Grau editor Chris Jackson weighed in with “All the Sad Young Literary Women.” A female colleague asked him to name some female novelists whose work he had read recently, and he confessed that for a moment, he couldn’t think of any (turns out, however, that he had read at least one). This prompted me to go through my own recent reads, seeing how I measure up.

I tend to read plenty of books by women authors, but I’ve never bothered to quantify or implement a quota system. In the last couple of weeks I’ve been in something of a Y chromosome rut, reading Evelyn Waugh, whose books, aside from Scoop, I’ve not read before—Brideshead Revisited, his World War II Trilogy. Fine writer, that Waugh, but something of a snob. I did, however attempt to balance the scales by reading some Muriel Spark, in order to get a female perspective on the foibles of British bluestockings.

How about you? What do you think of Picoult’s charge? How does your own reading compare?


  1. I'm surprised, since I did a blog post not long ago when I realized that my reading— which is mostly literary fiction— is fairly well-divided between the genders. Looking at the stack of to-be-read novels on my coffee table, I see an even split. There is Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, Herta Müller, Virginia Woolf, Audrey Niffenegger, Robin Black, Yiyun Li, Hilary Mantel, Doris Lessing, and Louise Erdrich.

    If a reader of literary fiction is not reading many women writers, they're doing it deliberately. And missing some great writing.

  2. I don't tend to read books by gender, but by content. I do think it's a problem if in the professional world, there aren't enough female writers being recognized for what male writers are being recognized for. There should be equal opportunity in that department, and reviewers should recognize the influence they may have on the industry and on readers.

  3. I admit, I do gender balance my reading - as well as ethnicity, try some translations, different time periods...I guess I feel in the current *ahem* political climate (maybe, make that last 10 years' worth of political/cultural climate), I feel the need to push my reading a little...dammit, I can't stop any wars, but I can at least be a "peacemonger," in my reading...

  4. Picoult and Weiner have a point. The problem is "women's fiction" sells better than "literary fiction" so women's books are often marketed that way when they're just as literary as the works of Y-chromosome persons from Brooklyn.

    I wonder if today Muriel Spark wouldn't be dismissed as "chick lit" because she employed so much irony and humor. And Evelyn Waugh certainly wrote some funny books. I doubt a female Waugh living today would ever be taken seriously. They'd slap on a pink cover and a cartoon girl in a flapper dress--if any agent would even take it on. Smart, funny books by women are pretty much considered toxic, aren't they?

  5. Oi oi oi. I've been following the arguments, but all I've gotten out of it is that I really need to open a couple of issues of the NYT and see what the balance is.

    Re: my own reading, I do read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, which is dominated by male authors. However, there are a lot of great women writing in those fields as well, and a lot of my more mainstream reading is evenly divided between male and female authors. The current book and the last several I've read are by men, but the next few I plan to read are all by women. (I'm moderating the fantasy panel for a local literary festival next year, and all of the authors I've gotten for it are female as well! And the SF and graphic novel panels I helped plan are pretty evenly split between the genders, which is awesome.)

    I agree with a lot of Picoult's and Weiner's, and Anne R. Allen's above me, points. Fiction by women does seem like it has to work harder to "prove" itself, and seem more disposable in the long run; the ones that become classics seem to much more often be written by men. Without pulling up any actual data to back up my perceptions, it seems that women will read more authors of both genders, but fewer men frequently read books by women unless they've become huge sellers.

  6. I think it's interesting that when a man writes a book about a family it's called sociocultural and millennial and when a woman writes a book about a family it's called domestic and miniaturist.


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