Books / Women and Gender

War of the Words: Gender Feud Over Lack of Recognition for Women Writers

L-R: Jonathan Franzen, Jennifer Weiner, Jodi Picoult

I love to read; I’m an obsessive bibliophile.  I began working part-time at a bookstore 5 years ago for the obligatory discount to feed my addiction of nearly 400 books jammed into my tiny apartment.  Now, I readily admit that I’m a bit of a book snob.  No “chick lit” for me, many with shopping bags, shoes, wedding rings or baby rattles plastered on their pastel covers.  But god how that term makes me cringe.  Who was the asshat who created that melodious moniker?  Oh, that would be feminist novelist Cris Mazza. Seriously, I think I threw up a little in my mouth.

An interesting gender feud, labeled “Franzenfreude,” has been brewing between chick lit labeled novelists Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner and author Jonathan Franzen.  Picoult and Weiner shared their frustrations on Twitter that Franzen, whose book Freedom was just released this past Tuesday, graced the cover of Time and received two book reviews by The New York Times in one week, while many women and non-white authors don’t receive even one review.  Picoult and Weiner lament that female authors do not receive the same level of recognition as men do, even when they write about similar topics.  And they’re both right, they don’t.  Picoult sparked the debate when she tweeted,

“NYT raved about Franzen’s new book.  Is anyone shocked?  Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren’t white male literary darlings.”

 

Picoult and Weiner are right; The New York Times is biased towards male writers.  Slate studied their book reviews and “compared men to women and then highlighted the authors whose books had been singled out for the one-two punch of a weekday review and a review in the Sunday Times Book Review.” Their results:

Of the 545 books reviewed between June 29, 2008 and Aug. 27, 2010:
—338 were written by men (62 percent of the total)
—207 were written by women (38 percent of the total)

Of the 101 books that received two reviews in that period:
—72 were written by men (71 percent)
—29 were written by women (29 percent)

Part of the problem is that many critics deem women’s fiction frivolous chick lit.  The term is offensive; it debases women.  But what exactly is it?  Chick lit encompasses “female writers of fiction, which all deal with the issues of modern women humorously and lightheartedly.” When men write about a stereotypically chick lit topic such as relationships or broken families, it’s viewed as hilarious or perceptive.  When a woman writes the same, it’s dismissed as fluff.  Weiner told The Huffington Post,

 

“I think it’s a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that when a man writes about family and feelings, it’s literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it’s romance, or a beach book – in short, it’s something unworthy of a serious critic’s attention…I don’t write literary fiction – I write books that are entertaining, but are also, I hope, well-constructed and thoughtful and funny and have things to say about men and women and families and children and life in America today. Do I think I should be getting all of the attention that Jonathan “Genius” Franzen gets? Nope. Would I like to be taken at least as seriously as a Jonathan Tropper or a Nick Hornby? Absolutely.”

 

 

Elanie Showalter, feminist critic and author of A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx, echoes that sentiment in The Guardian:

“ ‘Writers can write about anything they want, any sex they want, any place they want,’ Annie Proulx has declared. But being free to write doesn’t mean that American women are equal in a literary marketplace still dominated by male precedents, male literary juries and male standards of greatness.”

Female writers like Margaret Atwood, Jhumpa Lahiri, Sarah Hall, Toni Morrison and Kate Atkinson are not considered chick lit.  So it’s not just that all women writers are tossed under the umbrella of the demeaning label.  The female novelists who write about women shopping and husband hunting certainly fit that category.  But then the boundaries begin to blur.  People call the books The Devil Wears Prada and The Nanny Diaries (which I really enjoyed) escapist chick lit, despite their perceptive commentaries on women’s roles at work, gender and career ambitions.  Beyond gender, there’s also bias between commercial and literary fiction.

One component of chick lit is humor.  But Atwood and Atkinson both write scathingly funny novels (Atkinson is one of the few authors that has actually made me belly laugh out loud).  Reviewers often call best-selling author Picoult’s work chick lit.  While she may write in a melodramatic manner, she doesn’t write lighthearted books; her themes often revolving around crime, courtroom cases, children’s disabilities, spousal abuse and strained familial bonds.  When you start to define what precisely chick lit is, an exorbitant number of books seem to NOT fit the confining label.  Some have even considered Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters as the original chick lit writers.  Self-proclaimed feminist Weiner wears the chick lit novelist crown and defends it.  Back in 2005, Weiner wrote on her blog:

“…The more I think about the increasingly angry divide between ladies who write literature and chicks who write chick lit, the more it seems like a grown-up version of the smart versus pretty games of years ago; like so much jockeying for position in the cafeteria and mocking the girls who are nerdier/sluttier/stupider than you to make yourself feel more secure about your own place in the pecking order. And while we’re performing the online equivalent of pulling each other’s hair and writing mean things about each other’s work on the virtual bathroom walls, men are still getting the majority of reviews in major papers and men are still penning the majority of the pieces in The New Yorker and influential magazines.”

Tina Jordan at Entertainment Weekly denounces the chick lit label, writing,

 

“It’s never failed to irritate me that the smart, funny, achingly real Good in Bed should be dismissed as “chick lit,” with all its dismissive, derogatory implications. This isn’t a novel about sex and shopping. Would we demean brash, action-packed adventure novels by calling them “dick lit”? No, we would not. (Although if the “chick lit” tag persists, maybe we should.)”

 

Hilarious…oh how people would be up in arms if we called it “dick lit!!”

In the writing world (as in many spheres), women do not receive the same amount of attention or respect as men.  As a writer (and reader), I’m so glad that both Picoult and Weiner expressed their frustrations.  Yet I can’t help but wish that two other female novelists had spoken out about this.  Perhaps Margaret Atwood or Jhumpa Lahiri.  Although it makes sense that Picoult and Weiner, who have both graced the New York Times bestsellers list and possess throngs of devoted fans, would speak out as they are the authors absent from many literary book reviews.  Does it make me a bad feminist that I’m reticent to read books labeled chick lit women’s commercial fiction?  Should I be embracing all women in art?  Yes and no.  I support Weiner and Picoult for increasing the dialogue around sexism in the writing industry.  But that doesn’t mean I must enjoy or laud every book or film simply because it was created by a female artist.

 

As I frequently write, women’s issues shouldn’t be confined to a merely female audience.  Nor should women’s voices be scoffed at and viewed as less salient than men’s stories.  I hope someday we will look past gender, reading and critiquing books based solely on merit, rather than dismissing books due to preconceived notions.  Maybe I should ignore the book snob in me and pick up a copy of Weiner’s Good in Bed or Sophie Kinsella’s Confessions of a Shopaholic.  Perhaps we should all listen to our mothers and indeed stop judging books by their proverbial covers.

Want to discuss sexism in the book industry in more depth, then check out my post “What Women Want: Marketing Books to Women & Revisiting the Women Writers Gender Feud.”

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37 thoughts on “War of the Words: Gender Feud Over Lack of Recognition for Women Writers

  1. As a fan of Jennifer Weiner, yes, you should ignore your inner snob and read “Good in Bed.” I’d also suggest “Little Earthquakes” and “The Guy Not Taken.” She’s a great writer and absolutely on par with Nick Hornby. I read her interview with HuffPo and found myself nodding the entire time. She made a good point with regards to women and genre fiction as well. If it’s “male” genre fiction (ie: James Patterson) it might get a mention, but if it’s romance? Nope. That’s silly lady business.

    One of The Atlantic Monthly’s bloggers wrote a few weeks ago about his decision to read one piece of fiction by a female writer for every piece he reads by a male. He started this project because he had a female colleague point out how often men don’t read books written by women (the opposite not being true at all). As a self-described feminist man and liberal do-gooder, he was surprised at how often he’d unconsciously disregarded a book because of some perception that it was a “girl” or “women’s” book. He’s been writing about it since and it’s been interesting. He’s been pretty surprised by his own shortcomings and biases.

  2. Thanks for the recommendations, Sarah!

    Chris Jackson! Yes, I read the initial article in The Atlantic too!! I almost included that fab article here but I was trying to reign in my verbose post. It was great to read a guy’s perspective on the topic. http://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2010/08/all-the-sad-young-literary-women/61821/

    I could not agree with you more…women’s issues are viewed as just that, belonging to women whereas men’s work is fit for everyone.

  3. I think it even extends to the blogosphere. There’s a certain amount of ghettoizing or fetishizing that happens, like with Slate’s Double X or even Gawker’s Jezebel. I know that I read both Slate and Double X but how many men read both? And Double X is the only place where Slate regularly covers abortion or legal issues like Lilly Ledbetter. I can never decide if the Powers That Be are being more insulting to their male readership or their female reporters, assigned to this ghetto.

  4. Oh come ON! This post has more red herrings than an Alaskan fishery! Let’s try to chase a few of them down, shall we?

    1: Slate’s breakdown of a year’s worth of Times reviews reminds me of that line about ‘lies, damn lies, and statistics’ – the 70-30 gender-split in reviews doesn’t reflect institutional bias at the paper (whose most powerful critic, last time I checked, was a woman), it reflects the publishing industry itself: the major houses publish more ‘serious’ work by men than by women. Is the Times supposed to go hunting in the shrubbery of vanity and academic presses to even the scales? No, because they’re reviewing books their readers might actually see and buy.

    2. Jennifer Weiner’s hope is misplaced: her books are not, in fact, well-constructed and thoughtful and funny – they’re bland, predictable, and stuffed with lazy slang and even lazier plotting. She says she’d like some of the respect Franzen gets, but she’s unwilling to do the work to earn that respect – and why should she be? She makes a hell of a lot more money than he does, doing a hell of a lot less work. She’s exactly Nick Hornby (and she’s taken just about as ‘seriously’): a derivative plotter of popcorn-books who long ago surrendered any artistic credibility in order to afford a beach house at Nag’s Head. When it comes to a discussion of literary respect, she should keep her modifier-dangling trap shut.

    3. That green-lettered ‘definition’ of chicklit is what’s called in debate circles a straw man: it’s designed to be knocked down. Here’s a more accurate definition of chicklit: “a sub-genre of fiction whose novels are populated almost exclusively by female characters, whose conflicts are exclusively familial and matrimonial, whose crises are almost always benign (stubbed toes, dropped phone service, etc), whose conclusions invariably involve hugging, and whose audience is obviously exclusively female.” Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner write exclusively chicklit. Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner – and their thousand sisters – CHOOSE to write exclusively chicklit, because it pays well. And:

    4. Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner – and their thousand sisters (among whom I’m NOT including Morrison, or Atwood, or Atkinson, or Lahiri – or A.S. Byatt, or Marilyn Robinson – or half a dozen others because although I don’t always like everything they write, they at least aren’t pandering hypocrites) COULDN’T WRITE ANYTHING BETTER. They’re timid, mediocre authors who got their lack of critical respect the old-fashioned way: they earned it.

    And boy! If I were the irritable sort, I’d sure be steamed by this whole subject! In case Weiner and her fellow whiners haven’t noticed, the canons of literature in the last three hundred years are absolutely foot-stompingly dominated by women. Of course we can never be certain, but I bet the first thing Jane Austen or Fanny Trollope or Emily Bronte or George Eliot or Virginia Woolf would do if they came alive again tomorrow would be to fetch Tina Jordan a great bit smack across her lazy, sloppily complaining pie-hole. Geez.

  5. @Steve, WOW…you wrote a dissertation! Thank you so much for your thoughts…you make many fantastic points. However, I take exception to a few and must make a rebuttal.

    1. I don’t think there’s anything shoddy with Slate’s stats. Yes, the publishing industry is biased too. And yes, Michiko Kakutani IS the most powerful reviewer at the Times. And I’m aware of the numerous complaints she’s received by male authors (Salman Rushdie, Norman Mailer and even Jonathan Franzen) that her critiques are too harsh on male writers. But that doesn’t mean that she’s automatically free of bias, simply because of her gender. There’s a great article & video on Bitch Magazine’s website about the sexist images The Huffington Post employs to garner more traffic. http://bitchmagazine.org/post/mad-world-the-huffington-posts-sexist-linkbait-strategy And HuffPo’s boss and creator is Arianna Huffington, a woman. Women may be perpetrators of sexism and bias too.

    2. Just because chick lit may include “benign conflicts” as you assert, doesn’t make them unfit for literary consumption. Numerous commercial and literary authors write about the day-to-day lives of “ordinary” people. The point is it that as soon as women become interested in something, it notoriously becomes unworthy, dumb or less important than men’s interests.

    3. I’m not defending Picoult or Weiner’s writing. As I’ve never read their books, I cannot make claims either way to the quality of their novels. But I DO defend what they both say regarding women writers in general not getting the attention they deserve, either positive or negative, in reviews. I’m glad you agree with my fave female authors. But they are the exceptions, not the norm. The fact that many women writers in previous centuries wrote under pseudonyms shows that women were aware that they wouldn’t be taken as seriously as their male counterparts. Currently, just because there are a handful of amazing, talented women writers who have achieved critical acclaim doesn’t mean that all’s fair and equal in the literary world. We still have a long way to go.

  6. very interesting blog post Megan. A few brief thoughts came to mind when reading it: 1- Arundhati Roy is an incredible female writer who deserves a shout out (although I believe “God of Small Things” is her only novel) 2 – Nicholas Sparks is as guilty of writing ‘chick lit’ as anyone else who’s derided for it and 3 – I don’t actually know how many people would bat an eye if they were to walk past a ‘dick lit’ table at B&N; parents maybe.

  7. @steve, read Picoult before you judge, mock, and demean her work. Otherwise, you give a great deal of credence to her claims.

  8. @steve, Even though I’ve read only one Jodi Picoult book so far (The Pact), it’s enough to to know that you don’t know what you’re saying about Picoult being exclusively chick-lit (as you defined the term). The Pact has family issues, yes, but I don’t see how that makes it chick-lit. It has suicide (or is it murder?), a criminal investigation, a credible love story, and a courtroom drama to boot. Plus it has a tragic ending (that admittedly might have involved hugging, but not the type that you’d expect) that started right at chapter 1. How’s that for intelligent plotting?

    Don’t be afraid to read Picoult sometime and be labelled a female-novelist reader by your inner circles…before dismissing the whole body of work by Jodi Picoult. So they mock you, but you wouldn’t care because you’d know you’ve read a good book.

    Unless, of course, you use the books you’ve read to prove that you’re a man. Then that’s another story… and would make you a hopeless case.

    Cheers!

  9. Hi Gianni,

    Like I’ve said I only read 1 book by Jodi Picoult. But sorry, I don’t have to trust you. He couldn’t have read that many Picoult books, certainly not “The Pact”. Otherwise, why would he described Picoult as exclusively chick-lit when she has written at least 1 book that didn’t fit his descriptions of chick-lit?

    I’ve also seen the film adaptation of “My Sister’s Keeper”. I know that doesn’t count as reading, but that story, too, doesn’t fit what he described as chick-lit, it certainly didn’t deal with just stubbed toe.

  10. @steve & @gianni (one in the same?)

    His definition of “chicklit” defies him: “Here’s a more accurate definition of chicklit: “a sub-genre of fiction whose novels are populated almost exclusively by female characters, whose conflicts are exclusively familial and matrimonial, whose crises are almost always benign (stubbed toes, dropped phone service, etc), whose conclusions invariably involve hugging, and whose audience is obviously exclusively female.” Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner write exclusively chicklit.”

    One need only visit her website — although reading before commenting would be nice too — to know Picoult’s works do not fit this “genre,” even by his definition. Rape, suicide, school shootings, sexual abuse, incest, and murder, just to name a few, do not qualify. Many of her central characters are men. More importantly, Picoult is known for (as reviewers have noted) characterizing societal ills in a manner that makes gray the issues that so many in our society view in black and white. And, she makes the reader feel connection and empathy with those they would typically merely judge.

    So it seems “almost” is the focus word in gianni’s definition of steve’s so-called “job.” He really should do better than “almost” reading Picoult.

  11. And, by “almost” I mean “practically” because that is “actually” the word gianni used. :-)

  12. Boy oh boy, what a picky-literal little knitting circle we’ve got here! OK, since some of us have a problem with playful exaggeration (or a fixation with literal toe-stubbing), let me strip my definition bare of it and stress: chicklit authors may put things like school shootings or heart transplants in their wretchedly undercooked books, but those things are strictly window-dressing for the books’ main crises, which always revolve around how that window-dressing affects the main female characters’ lives and how those female characters feel about it all. It’s all written with a kind of suffocating ‘dear diary’ insularity that would make the eruption of Vesuvius boring (“as the ash and pumice rained down on the villa where once she and Fulvia romped in innocent childhood games, Marcia felt a sudden, ineluctable sense of peace; volcanoes could destroy a garden, but best friends were forever”). Pile up all the pro forma police cases or courtroom scenes you like, but the ultimate point of all of it is to be safe.

    I have indeed read Picoult (and Weiner, and Kinsella, and half a dozen other of the aggrieved parties in this little debate)(although I can’t help but smile at the long-term survival of what has to be the oldest online tactic for discrediting somebody you don’t agree with – just accuse them of never having heard of what they’re talking about! Faux-earnestly urge them to READ the author in question BEFORE they talk about her! And oldie but a goodie, except for how juvenile it is), four novels, of course including her breakout book “The Pact” – and I utterly fail to see how anybody could say many of her central characters are men. It simply isn’t the case; in all four of the novels by her I’ve read, the men are hapless, broken, emotional eunuchs, and in all four of those cases, there’s a VERY palpable air of relish in that kind of depiction.

    This underscores the most emphatic part of my definition (hence, saved for last): that these books – this KIND of book – is written exclusively for women. In other words, these books are very consciously written to be enjoyed far more by female readers than male ones (glad we’re hearing here from a ‘male’ who’s read Picoult – although I can’t help but notice he could only stomach one – but if he’s honest, he’ll admit he saw what I’m talking about and had to concentrate AROUND it in order to like what he was reading). When a writer intentionally pitches their prose to only one segment of the general reading audience, that writer is intentionally ghettoizing their work. There’s nothing wrong with doing that – very lucrative careers are made that way – but ghetto-fiction is inherently inferior to non-ghetto fiction: it’s not as brave, it takes far fewer chances, and it’s tainted with pandering.

    Muriel Spark, Iris Murdoch, Mavis Gallant, Dawn Powell, Joyce Carol Oates, Penelope Fitzgerald, Mary Renault, Patricia Highsmith, Erica Jong, Doris Lessing, and many, many others – regardless of whether or not I happen to like their books – wrote what they NEEDED to write, and whether or not it ever found an audience came second. And whether or not that audience GOT it came third. Chicklit authors START with their loving, encouraging audience and write their way backwards. And again, there’s nothing wrong with that – it’s the essence of crowd-pleasing. But it isn’t anything more than that. For these writers to claim they aren’t getting enough critical respect is like the guy who sells taffy outside Ford’s Theater complaining that this Olivier guy got all the notices the next morning.

    • @steve
      “Boy oh boy, what a picky-literal little knitting circle we’ve got here! OK, since some of us have a problem with playful exaggeration (or a fixation with literal toe-stubbing), let me strip my definition bare of it and stress: chicklit authors may put things like school shootings or heart transplants in their wretchedly undercooked books, but those things are strictly window-dressing for the books’ main crises, which always revolve around how that window-dressing affects the main female characters’ lives and how those female characters feel about it all. It’s all written with a kind of suffocating ‘dear diary’ insularity that would make the eruption of Vesuvius boring (“as the ash and pumice rained down on the villa where once she and Fulvia romped in innocent childhood games, Marcia felt a sudden, ineluctable sense of peace; volcanoes could destroy a garden, but best friends were forever”). Pile up all the pro forma police cases or courtroom scenes you like, but the ultimate point of all of it is to be safe. ”

      This comment and the others you’ve made make no sense for several reasons. To begin with, the most feted, literarily respected male novelists are often far more self-absorbed, narrow-minded and narcissistic than almost anything you’ve mocked: John Updike, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, etc, often wrote, especially in their later years almost exclusively about decrepit old men having problems with their failing genitalia or about middlebrow, middle class white guys complaining about the state of the world and so on. (And not just in fiction; they often wrote essays or spoke up in interviews about how the world doesn’t read their novels anymore and that this is a sign of decreasing literacy and so on and so forth.)

      Also, genre fiction by men, even good genre fiction by men, almost always feature male protagonists who do the male equivalent of what you accuse the female characters in chick lit books do; ie, relate the devastating events happening around them in terms of their own insular existences. You always get wounded, psychologically tortured men-of-action interacting with women who are either madonnas or whores. Or you get wounded, psychologically tortured cops interacting with women who are either madonnas or whores. Or you get wounded, psychologically tortured detectives interacting with women who are either madonnas or whores. Or you get wounded, psychologically tortured ex-Vietnam vets who are now detectives/cops interacting with women who are either madonnas or whores. These kinds of books are given a great deal of respect literarily (especially books by pop authors like Michael Connelly, Lee Child, etc).

      It’s pretty clear that the distaste you have for those books by Picoult or Weiner have a source deeper than a lack of appreciation for any literary qualities they might have. In fact, I would suspect such overreactive distaste comes from the difficulties you yourself have in dealing with women in real life who resemble the characters they write about, and that when you read about them in fiction they elicit intense feelings of irritability in you for that reason. It just makes no sense that you would get into such a frazzle over something so trivial when male writers depict narcissistic characters all the time or write narcissistically.

  13. Two of my favorite authors are AM Homes & Jhumpa Lahiri.
    I have an incredibly limited attention span, yet both those women draw me into their work & never let me go.
    “Unacustomed Earth”, i thought, was incredible.
    Lahiri can break your heart, without being obvious.
    Lahiri finds those sorts of little things in her characters, that are relatable to the reader.
    It could be their experiences, or their difficulty fitting into their surroundings, or even their connections to each other.
    But she works her magic in such subtle, yet effective, ways.

    Picoult seems to be the type of writer that works from a formula (albeit a successful one).
    “Then the girl was diagnosed with terminal cancer…”
    Here is the section that will make her readers cry, etc.
    She’s savvy in that she knows her audience.

    I think Steve hit on the essence of good writing, when he mentioned that with some authors, the reader’s reaction is secondary.
    The writer has to write for themselves & from the heart, something that hopefully, if done well, people can pick up on.

    A lot of “Chick lit” is like going through Mcdonalds.
    It taste’s good, but ultimately, it’s just empty calories.

  14. I sense that steve is missing, while also proving the point raised by Ms. Weiner and Picoult.

    They are not saying that commercial lit is not recognized or criticized by the NYT. They are asserting that, when recognized or criticized, the work reviewed is nearly always authored by men. And, when women authors write about families and relationships, that work invariably and without analysis is categorized (with the intent to demean) as chick lit (and neither recognized or reviewed.)

    In any event, for our purposes here, it is more than enough for me that steve had to amend his definition of chick lit in order for Picoult’s work to fall within it. And, frankly, he tells us all we need to know about his inherent bias when he characterizes commenters who disagree with him as a “little knitting circle.”

    P.S. @steve, Picoult has 17 best sellers, not 4. Damning her entire body of work based upon a reading of less than 25% of it still qualifies as “practically”, not “actually” reading it — and, yes, whether, what, and how much you’ve read an author goes directly to the credibility of your opinion of that author’s work, however juvenile you may view that analysis.

  15. I’m 100% certain it’s ‘more than enough’ for you to get an amended definition of chicklit, since a) it’s fairly obvious you’re the type of ‘debater’ who’s fond of repeating “but you said” “but you said” ad infinitum, and b) achieving such easy satisfaction allows you to ignore the actual points I was making (the foremost of which is the Picoult’s fiction readily falls into my un-amended definition). If only all of us were so easily satisfied! Then we could ignore the points YOU’RE making! Alas, instead I need to point out a few things:

    1) the reason Picoult et al get excluded from serious critical evaluation isn’t because they write about families and relationships – it’s because they write about families and relationships for the enjoyment of a narrow slice of society – upper middle class white women and their snotty-ass daughters. The Tom Clancy/Ted Bell’s of the world – writing for upper middle class overweight white men who are cheating on their wives and once dreamed of joining the Navy – are also critically ignored, for the exact same reason: they’re ghetto writers, intent on enriching themselves by satisfying a small niche audience. But at least they don’t whine about it.

    2) The sheer lunacy of implying I need to slog through 17 – or 10, or even 5 – ‘bestsellers’ by Jodi Picoult in order to characterize her work is over-the-top even by Internet standards (although true to the zany logic of comments fields, you hurt yourself by the implication, since by your own admission, I’m four times better qualified to talk about Picoult than you are). ‘Bestsellers’ only GET that way by being intensely formulaic, and Julian has laid out the formula here pretty clearly. And with all due modesty, Gianni (who’s not me – he’s got much better hair) is right: I’ve been reading novels for a very, very long time – I no more need to read 17 books by one lazy, formulaic author in order to characterize her work than I need experience 17 different kinds of STDs to know they itch like crazy.

    3) I referred to this comments brou-ha-ha as a “knitting circle” because Megan, our Opinioness, is a girl — and it’s a well-known fact that all girls like to knit.

  16. At least with his number 3) I now know steve has a sense of humor…

    Reading skills and attention to detail matter. I am not the person asserting that I’ve read but one Picoult novel. Accordingly, comparing 4 to 1 and claiming the result to be “4 times greater,” however accurate the calculation may be, it doesn’t apply to me.

    Likewise, your prior claim that Picoult’s work serves the singular chick lit purpose — to feel good and be safe — simply is not borne out in her writing. And, asserting that there is but one single purpose in such diverse work is, in itself, proof of the prejudiced and dismissive attitude of “critics” when female authors write about families and relationships.

    Respectfully and with genuine admiration, steve, your writing bleeds your snobbery. That you feel the need to stereotype and insult Picoult’s readers, again, further supports the complaints lodged by commercial female writers.

    But, please do continue to misread and dismiss me… and Picoult. And, you will continue to prove our points.

  17. Having known Steve for several years, i can attest that he reads EVERYTHING and does so with an open mind.
    I’ve heard him discuss everything from Historical bio’s to teen fiction, and all points in between.
    He is a great resource, and he never dismisses anything until he’s actually read it.

    Steve is correct when he says these particular women, Picoult & Weiner, complain of being slighted by the Times or whomever, while at the same time they haven’t put forth the effort that Mr. Franzen has.

    I has nothing to do with them being women, but everything to do with content.
    If Weiner had penned Jonathan Lethem’s, “The Fortress of Solitude,” i’m sure she’d be applauded in literary circles.

    It’s the equivelent of Britney Spears complaining she’s not as respected by critics, as Bob Dylan.

    Having said that, Weiner & Picoult are savvy.
    They know their limits, and most importantly, they understand their audience.
    A large amount of women will always buy their books, because they know exactly what they are going to get.

  18. The problem with Weiner and Picoult does not stem from their writing talent (or lack thereof, depending on who’s talking). You don’t have to read any of their books to recognize that they have outstanding fans who will turn out every time a book by one of them is released. They’re top sellers, I get that. Even if I read the back of one of their dustjackets and say to myself “no, thanks” there are tons of people who will disagree with me, and go out and buy these books. The problem as far as I can tell is that Weiner and Picoult seem to think they are deserved of special favors because they make so much money for their genre. And you know what? Maybe it’s a little unfair for Time Magazine to disregard certain genres in favor of more upright unique fictions, but you know what? It’s their magazine and if they tend to implement what they call higher standards in regard to which books they focus upon, that’s their prerogative. It’s not dismissal of authors based on their gender. It’s dismissal of what they consider an inferior genre, that HAPPENS to have more female authors. That these women are extremely successful and powerful is not enough, being the female Pattersons or Browns or Sparkses. They could aspire to more if they really wanted, but there’s little paycheck in that.

    BTW, I read the Huffington Post interview with Picoult and Weiner, they came off as whiny rich girls who are used to getting what they want, and actually come out and say that they aren’t speaking for all women, just themselves. They don’t want more respect for female authors, they just want more themselves.

  19. The point is there are so many celebrated female writers like Joyce Carol Oates & Alice Munro, who do get critical acclaim & probablly always will.

    As Gianni just said, Piccoult & Weiner are turning this into an issue of gender, when it’s really about content.
    Some authors, regardless of sex, have the capability to pen brilliant books, while others have the ability to entertain only.

    This is the reason peole like Jhumpa Lahiri are separating themselves from the more inferior female writers, by not commenting on the gender issue.

  20. Julian is entirely right: I’m a RESOURCE! A precious resource, like a sultry mango swamp! and SOMEONE is my own personal BP oil spill! Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go swab my pelicans …

  21. YOU WROTE: “Oh, that would be feminist novelist Cris Mazza. Seriously, I think I threw up a little in my mouth.”

    Those sort of comments make it difficult for women writers who do not pen dimwitted entertainment books to get published and reviewed. Cris Mazza’s Chick Lit anthologies were one of the first to break the barrier between literary fiction written by men and literary fiction written by women. To simply categorize her as a “feminist” writer creates the same problem about which you blog.

    As a writer and publisher of fiction exploring and supporting the nuances of language and the human condition beyond styrofoam writing, your ignorance embarrasses me.

  22. Can’t believe you blame Cris Mazza for the current definition of “chick-lit.” Mazza edited two influential collections of what she terms “postfeminist fiction,” CHICK-LIT (1995) and CHICK-LIT 2 (1996), both published by the innovative publishing house FC2. The purpose of both volumes was to bring attention to “new and innovative voices in women’s fictioin” and to “contradict the myth that ‘women don’t write experimental fiction.’” Among the notable women writers included are Carole Maso, Stacey Levine, Carolyn Banks, Jonis Agee, Rikki Ducornet, Eurydice, and Ursule Molinaro–none of whom write the thin gruel you identify as “chick lit.” Of course, Mazza’s term has been highjacked and its original meaning totally distorted. But that doesn’t excuse your irresponsible attribution of that distortion to Mazza, whose own fiction in no way resembles what “chick lit” has come to signify. Before you blame Mazza, you should at least read her work and the two collections she edited.

  23. “I love to read; I’m an obsessive bibliophile.” If this were true, you would have read Mazza’s work before attacking her and would have been saved from both vomit and shame. Perhaps, you are less of a reader than you pretend.

  24. @Debra, @cbharri and @JLC, thank you for your comments. I call Cris Mazza a “feminist novelist” as she writes through a feminist lens. But it’s entirely possible that she doesn’t associate herself as a feminist. Also, “feminist” doesn’t mean one thing to all people; there are myriad feminist identities.

    I’m not insinuating that Cris Mazza is to blame for the course women’s commerical fiction has taken. But I AM blaming Cris Mazza for creating the offensive term “chick lit.” Yes, you are correct that the term has been warped from her original intention. I also recognize the notion of reclaiming words as words have power. But to refer to women by the debasing term “chicks,” even with the best of intentions, makes me indeed want to vomit, particularly as I had always assumed some misogynistic man had created it to objectify women, rather than someone whom I consider to be a feminist.

    I’m not sure you actually read my entire article though as I start off declaring myself a book snob and then admitting my own biases. My intention was to open up the dialogue of gender so while I disagree, I appreciate your insights.

  25. I just wrote about this same topic on the blog The Bird Sisters (run by Rebecca Rasmussen.) It’s a provocative topic, and there’s much to say about it.

    The ire being expressed by a few commenters above has to do with, as was explained by one of them, the fact that Mazza’s anthology dyad, “Chick-Lit” and “Chick-Lit 2,” were using the phrase Chick Lit in a wholly ironic way that has nothing to do with its current implications. In indie, experimental lit circles, it was widely held that most formal experimentation or avant-garde writing was coming from male writers, and Mazza’s anthologies helped FC2, an experimental press, highlight many of the important women writers who were taking innovative risks with form and content. Mazza did not mean “chick lit” to become a serious, all-encompassing term for women’s fiction, much less for the TYPE of women’s fiction it ended up denoting. She has been irritated for years about mainstream publishing’s co-opting of this term, and has in fact written about the topic a number of times clarifying her actual intent.

    The thing is, the phrases “the feminist novelist” and “chick lit” are so mutually exclusive at this point, from a marketing perspective, that it should be abundantly apparent that Mazza’s use of the term was ironic, at minimum, if her work is considered “feminist” by any in the critical establishment. True chick-lit, if there is such a thing, is focused on reinforcing a status quo for women, of shopping and finding Mr. Right and going on diets, and has nothing in common with literature that is “feminist” (itself probably as limiting a term in some ways as “chick lit,” as was pointed out above.) But to the extent that either of these terms have meaning, one certainly would fail to follow the other . . .

  26. @Gina, thank you very much for your thoughtful insights. As a feminist myself, I suppose I hadn’t realized that some in the publishing industry use the terms “chick lit” and “feminist” interchangeably. To me, feminist writing, while indeed a broad category, includes Betty Friedan, Jennifer Baumgardener, Margaret Atwood, Alice Walker, Susan Faludi, Toni Morrison, Naomi Wolf, which differs from stereotypical chick lit as you astutely point out. As I also state, the more people try to label books as chick lit (or as I prefer women’s commercial fiction), the harder it becomes. Many people lump women into one homogeneous category despite our variances.

  27. A few decades ago, when I kept journals in pencil in paper notebooks, and didn’t share my every thought with a cast of acquaintences, I bemoaned the fact that there was this thing called “women’s fiction,” but no parallel category, “men’s fiction.” Since before I ever edited the Chick-Lit anthologies (1995 & 1996), I was saying that the literary establishment’s view was simply: Men write about what’s important, and women write about what’s important … to women. Which seems exactly what you’re lamenting in your post. The problem we have in overcoming this *is* marketing movements (some would call them “opportunities”) like the chick-lit feeding frenzy. The truth of it is that once the media successfully highlighted the first few seemingly alike books with the brand-name, a formula was born, and, alas, too many women were more-than-willing to follow the recipe and cash in. Then the sheer plethora of these books — with the sameness of their appearance, marketing, content and characters — solidified and publically validated the already existent condescension about writing by women. So some of “us” helped make “our” problem bigger … and if my part of the blame is that 1995 avant-garde, non-commercial, ironically-titled book, Chick-Lit: Postfeminist Fiction, than I guess I’ll take my lumps now.

  28. @Cris, thank you for commenting on the discussion! I know I emailed you this but you are truly a gracious person. While I may be upset with the terminology, I completely agree with you that whenever women write about a topic, it almost automatically becomes relegated to the sphere of “women’s issues.” I know my big mouth sparked debate here but rather than blame, how do we move forward in garnering equality for women writers?

  29. I don’t think equality is an issue.
    There are brilliant female writers & brilliant male writers.
    I’ve never assumed that all women authors subscribe to the “chick lit” formula, and i doubt most people do.
    Good writing is good writing, and the majority of people recognize that.

    There are so many successful & respected women writers.
    The perception that there is this great divide between the sexes, in literary circles, is something i honestly don’t see.

  30. Pingback: What Women Want: Marketing Books to Women & Revisiting the Women Writers Gender Feud « Opinioness of the World

  31. Especially for ‘writer couple’, females tend to be overshadowed by their husbands. I mean, Nicole Krauss is perhaps not the best example here because she is pretty famous, but even at that! I personally like her writings much better than Jonathan Safran Foer, but he’s the one getting all the awards! I think her excellence is definitely overshadowed by Foer. (Though I’m sure they love each other)

  32. Pingback: Splinister | Oddments and Oddities by Maura McHugh

  33. Pingback: The Nervous Breakdown

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