January 27, 2012

Genre or gender in literary bias?


Jennifer Weiner

The quarrel broke out in summer 2010, has just been reignited, and, unresolved, will no doubt rear its head again. Jennifer Weiner, alongside other women novelists including Jodi Picoult, has drawn attention to the paucity of women reviewers and reviews of books by women in the New York Times. Women novelists, she says, are less likely to receive critical acclaim for their work than their male counterparts. The example they use is Jonathan Franzen‘s Freedom—greeted by a creepily enrapt literary establishment with cries of ‘Genius!’, despite being deeply concerned with the domestic themes that often see fiction by women relegated to more trashy status (and, dare we say it, despite an unwieldy plot and a maddening tendency to name-drop). The question they’re really posing is: had Freedom been written by a woman, would it have received the attention it did?

Then came the riposte: Teddy Wayne in Salon admitted the truth in the complaint: women are doubtless under-represented in the high-minded literary pages. But, he says, the midlist is all theirs. If we ignore the Franzens and DeLillos, goes his argument, and consider the very many writers who can only ever dream of an NYT review, women very much have the upper hand:

The mainstream publishing paradigm has shifted from books the highbrow critics are buzzing about to books that [reading groups] will embrace. True, Franzen and a few other male authors make the cut, and sometimes challenging works by writers of either gender sneak in, especially among younger and more cosmopolitan groups. But by and large, book-club members are interested in feel-good fare like Kathryn Stockett‘s “The Help.” The archetypal book-club novel is written by a woman, its characters are female-centric, and it contains a love story, sensitive coming-of-age tale, or mother-daughter narrative, perhaps set against a historical backdrop.

I’d begrudgingly admit that there’s probably some truth in what he says: that there’s a particular and relatively lucrative section of the market in which women are the main buyers, and that, in that section, the prospects of a deal might be skewed in a woman’s favour.

There are two separate issues being treated here, though, and in conflating them we’re missing the crucial point, raised by Weiner: Does gender bias affect our ability to assign genre? Seriously: had Freedom been written by a woman, would more critical attention have been paid to the inconsistencies in Patty’s voice? Would this have been hailed the next Great American Novel, or seen as an often adroitly observed account of family life, with great aspirations it never quite fulfills?  Of course, it’s a test with no control, a question nobody can answer, but it strikes me that it’s at least worth considering, before we hush women writers on the grounds that they’re welcome to be wealthily middle-brow should they so desire.


Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.