From the Library: Great American Novel Sheds Light on Great American Sexism
But it is obvious that the values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex; naturally, this is so. Yet it is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are "important"; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes "trivial". And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room.
--Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own
Before Jonathan Franzen's most recent novel, Freedom, hit the shelves, TIME Magazine had already declared him the "Great American Novelist". The New York Times featured not one, but two enthusiastic reviews of the book. Even Barack Obama picked up an advance reader copy to read during a 10-day summer break at Martha's Vineyard.
While book reviewers raved and readers waited with great anticipation for the August 31st release date, authors Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner both saw all the hype as a platform from which to start asking questions about why books written by women don't get this kind of attention. They took their issues to Twitter, where the Franzenfreude climbed its way to trending topic-status.
This book sparked a really interesting conversation about how books written by men are praised much more heavily by reviewers than books written by women. There's been lots of talk about how when a woman writes about relationships, it's called chick-lit, but when a man does the same thing, it's called literature. Weiner recently 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...The only mention my books have ever gotten from the Times have been the occasional single sentence and, if I'm lucky, a dependent clause in a Janet Maslin flyover piece: "Look! Here's a bunch of books that have nothing in common but spring release dates and lady authors!" 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.
Slate figured out the numbers: Of all the works of fiction The New York Times reviewed between June 29, 2008 and Aug. 27, 2010, only 38 percent were written by women. And it's not just the NYT that disproportionately reviews men's work. Laura Lippman tallied up some numbers that exposed the fact that "Fresh Air" is also guilty of excessive man-loving: Of the 56 episodes she looked at, 14 segments were about writers, and only two were women. Does anyone else think that those sound like some numbers for the Guerrilla Girls?
In our recent Action Issue, Jonathan Frochtzwajg wrote "Prize Patrol—Can best-of book lists really ignore gender?", and discussed the fact that there were no female authors on Publishers Weekly's list of the top-10 books of 2009. Frochtzwajg wrote, "Are people in the publishing industry biased against female authors just because? Not likely. Is our culture, as a whole, systematically biased against feminine themes? Yes, indeed." He went on to explore some of the ways that feminists can work against the sexism that is inherent in the publishing industry.
Weiner and Picoult have done an excellent job of modeling the way that individuals can challenge and critique sexism not just within the publishing industry, but within our culture as a whole. Props, ladies!
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