As summer comes to an end, I’m struck how literary heroine Lisbeth Salander dominated the season. She’s a cunning kick-ass survivor penned by the late Stieg Larsson. Each of the three books in the Millennium Trilogy eclipsed other books on best-seller lists. While I too fell under the mesmerizing lure of Lisbeth, I can’t help but wonder…would The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo have become such an international phenomenon if it were written by a woman? This question inevitably brings me back to the issue of women writers not receiving the same recognition as men.
As a budding writer and blogger, I was blown away when my blog experienced a surge of views and comments after I wrote about the controversial gender feud between novelists Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner versus author Jonathan Franzen and the New York Times. (Although sometimes I wonder if it’s just my mom clicking links over and over!) For those of you who missed it, Picoult and Weiner lamented the NY Times lavishing attention on Franzen’s new book, another white male writer and ignoring countless other female and ethnically diverse authors. As this stirred up a fiery frenzy of opinions, it’s clearly a topic people feel passionate about…so let’s talk more about it!
I sparked some controversy of my own due to my vitriol over the creation of the term “chick lit,” coined by author Cris Mazza. Sometimes my big mouth gets me in trouble…and sometimes, it comes in handy! As a result, I received a lovely and gracious email from Mazza herself. She explained how her creation of the term had been co-opted and warped by the media and publishing industry. And while it still makes me cringe that a fab feminist would have used the term “chick,” I have nothing but the utmost respect for Mazza. She could have dismissed my words or sent me an angry email. Instead, she took the opportunity to open up dialogue, paving the way for mutual understanding. Her classy example shows that we all need to be open-minded.
A polemic topic, some rallied to Picoult and Weiner’s defense, while others tore apart their writing. But the issue here isn’t really about the content of what both women write in their novels but rather what they’re saying about women writers in general. Now no one is saying there aren’t famous and acclaimed female novelists. And women novelists achieve success; Picoult and Weiner clearly prove there are with their best-selling books. But women don’t receive the same level of recognition that men do. Some people have chalked this up to women writing “chick lit” novels as opposed to serious literary fiction so of course the NY Times won’t give some women writers a second look. But things are not that black and white.
Of course the writing itself matters and there’s a sharp divide between literary and commercial fiction. While the NY Times DOES review some commercial fiction (Carl Hiassen, Nick Hornby and even Picoult herself to name a few), it overwhelmingly reviews literary fiction. Again, that’s understandable considering their audience; they’re a highbrow paper with highbrow readers. But they are in a position of power in the literary world. There’s an exorbitant amount of books to be read. And unlike films which have short trailers, people may not have the attention span to browse book shelves. Reading is an investment of your time. So many people turn to magazines, newspapers and blogs for reviews to help them select their books. Of course people may turn to other venues such as Oprah’s book club. But many people rely on the NY Times. A study conducted by Stanford Business School found that many book buyers do indeed use the NY Times as a barometer for what to purchase. But the authors who fare the best by NY Times coverage are obscure or relative unknown writers rather than best-selling novelists. So when a dominant structure in pop culture like the NY Times fails to review women writers or dismiss what they deem “women’s interests” (relationships, women’s friendships), it’s a problem.
But the esteemed paper doesn’t just exclude female fiction writers. As Roxann MtJoy at Change.org points out,
“According to a study conducted by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting between January 2009 to February 2010, only a tiny 13% of American political books in reviewed in The New York Times Book Review had women authors (only 5% were by non-white authors). Even worse, the percentage of women actually doing the reviewing was even smaller.”
Picoult and Weiner aren’t alone in their crusade. Best-selling literary author Lionel Shriver agrees with them, echoing their concerns. In the Guardian, she writes,
“…Picoult has a point. A female novelist would never enjoy a Franzen-scale frenzy of adulation in America, which maintains two distinct tiers in fiction. The heavy hitters – cultural icons who often produce great doorstop novels that no one ever argues are under-edited – are exclusively male. Rising literati like Rick Moody and Jonathan Franzen efficiently assume the spots left unoccupied by John Updike and Norman Mailer, like a rigged game of musical chairs. Then there’s everybody else – including a raft of female writers who keep the publishing industry afloat by selling to its primary consumers: women.”
Shriver also discusses the problem of marketing to women. She shared her problems with the title of her latest book So Much for That, which she originally wanted to call Time and Money, viewed by the publishers as too direct and aggressive for a female audience. In her 4th novel Game Control, the premise consists of two men who plot to kill billions of people. Shriver reveals how her publisher sent her a mock-up cover with a wistful woman staring at a field, all awash in pastel colors. Her idea had been to have a photo of elephant carcasses; an idea that didn’t go over well with them as they said women would never pick up a book with dead animals on the cover. She battled with the publishers and their assumptions about women as writers and as an audience. Women are not some monolithic homogeneous force; we are nuanced and varied. Shriver asserts,
“Publishing’s notion of what “women want” is dated and condescending. In the era of Venus Williams, girliness and goo isn’t the way to every woman’s heart. Yet publishers presume that women only buy a book that looks soft and that appears to be all about women, even if it isn’t. Yet women, unlike men, buy books by and about both sexes.”
In The Atlantic, Chris Jackson responded to the Picoult/Weiner feud and the lack of women writers reviewed by the NY Times. He talks about his own biases of not reading books written by women. Jackson writes,
“…There are ways that our reading is shaped and limited by the biases of the dominant literary gatekeepers–maybe without realizing it, we’ve only read books by people of a certain race, or who write in a certain language, or who follow the conventions of a certain genre (including the unnamed genre of Anglo-American Serious Fiction)…But the real bias may be inside of us, as readers, and we might have to force ourselves out of them to take advantage of these new opportunities.”
So why is it that women read what men AND women write but men only seem to read what other men write? My fave blogger Melissa Silverstein wrote in her article “If Women Like It, It Must Be Stupid” about the pervasive problem of demeaning women’s writing, particularly regarding the film adaptation of the memoir Eat, Pray, Love. She argues that books and films women enjoy are automatically dismissed as frivolous and meaningless. Why are men allowed variety in entertainment yet if women enjoy something…a book, a film…it’s regarded as a lesser version? It’s ridiculous and problematic to view things as inherently mindless just because a portion of the population enjoys it.
I would like to think that readers would still connect with Lisbeth Salander whether she was written by a man or a woman. But I’m not sure that’s so. Books written by men and those with male characters equate “serious issues.” As soon as a book is written by a woman, it’s held to a different standard. And if it contains women’s relationships with other women, it often becomes trivialized or diminished in the eyes of many. While we shouldn’t be lauding female novelists merely because of their gender, they also shouldn’t be stifled because of it, nor should their content by automatically dismissed. Comprised of a mosaic of stories, women’s voices need to be heard.
Read my post that sparked the debate: “War of the Words: Gender Feud Over Lack of Recognition for Women Writers.”