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.

 The initial tweet

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!

Related Article:
O is for the Other Things She Gave Me—Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections and contemporary women's fiction [Bitch]

Bitch Media publishes the award-winning quarterly magazine, Bitch:Feminist Response to Pop Culture. Pitch in to support feminist media: Subscribe today

Subscribe to Bitch


Comments

10 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Yes. Yes, yes, yes.

Once again, thank you Bitch for putting to words the exact idea that I could heretofore only vocalize in frustrated grunts.
Additionally, I live in Utah, which I believe to be the center of the Stephanie-Meyer-movement. Certainly, she and her counterparts (and J.K. Rowling, who I don't despise) get as much or more attention for releasing books. And this is usually the response I get when saying that female writers are still marginalized. This is obviously hugely frustrating - these women are acclaimed for basically writing children's books and romance novels; a long-time accepted occupation for the subservient huswif.

Very true.

I've been interestedly watching this saga unfold, and you've summed it up quite well here. Can you imagine if, say, John Irving were a woman? His books would have perfectly "feminized," curly-lettered covers and not be taken seriously by the masses, not because they're not good -- they are, if you ask me -- but because they often focus on relationships and families. I don't dislike Franzen either, but I would love to see a woman get that kind of praise; the buzz around Nicole Krauss' upcoming book is refreshing, but not nearly on the same scale.

It's really too bad a better

It's really too bad a better writer, such as Toni Morrison, didn't bring this issue to the forefront, though. Because from an outside perspective, it really would be more pertinent. When a mediocre writer complains about the attention a better writer is getting, it sounds more like jealousy than a timely and considered criticism. Jodi Picoult? Really? Please. But at least it wasn't Stephanie Meyers.

The simple fact is that women really didn't gain any sort of serious consideration in the literary world until at least the last half of the twentieth century. We're still catching up to the William Faulkners and John Miltons. There are two hundred years of predominance for us to catch up on, and that's a big precedent to break. But there are writers (like Morrison) who are just too breathtaking to ignore. Yes, we still tend to have to be twice as good as a man to get half the attention, but the scales are adjusting. Print-on-demand and other technologies are going to work to our advantage as publishers have to take less of a "risk" to put our words in print (or, with a little smart marketing, we can do it ourselves). And as WE begin to control words more, the paradigm will shift. We just have to be smart and use the technologies to our advantage.

Maybe someday as people start reading women even more, they will also begin to recognize the ones that have passed us by in history as well, like H.D., and wonder what the hell they were missing before. One can hope.

I actually think it's

I actually think it's important to hear these critiques coming from women who write within a genre that is undervalued by mainstream literary culture because it's so gendered female. I haven't read any of their books, but I feel that their criticisms of the sexist ways of the publishing industry have been very intelligent and articulate. I would LOVE to hear Toni Morrison's thoughts on this matter, but Picoult and Weiner deserve to be paid attention to as well.

Ashley McAllister, Library Coordinator
Did someone say Comments Policy?

Ashley McAllister, Outreach Coordinator

As an aspiring (genre)

As an aspiring (genre) author I've come across many blogs/sites covering this topic and have found myself pondering the same questions as many others too many for individual enumeration):
1. While Ms. Picoult & Ms. Weiner have a valid point, neither seems to recognize the inherent privilege extended to members of the dominant racial (read: white) culture.
2. Would these same authors be singing a different tune if their work was categorized/compared/contrasted/measured against/with the denigrated/ghettoized realm of genre fiction - primarily the routinely dissed & dismissed category: romance?

I've only seen 2 authors

I've only seen 2 authors speak in person. Both of them were women. Both wrote books that were more than mere "chick lit". Laurie Halse Anderson, a graduate from the High School I went to, wrote "Speak" about a girl who takes a stand against her attacker after a night of high school partying.

Sara Gruen, whose book "Ape House" was recently published, wrote "Water for Elephants" a historical fiction story set during the depression, about a veterinary student who falls in love at a circus, with a woman caught in an abusive and binding relationship.

While yes, I agree that female authors may not be taken as seriously by critics as male authors, I don't agree that they're not as prominent. In regards to what the masses will pick up at a book store, female authors certainly can and do write more than chic lit. J.K Rowling, Alice Sebold, Sara Gruen, and Anderson have all written books that not only are beloved by many, but also have been made (or are being made) into feature length films.

Not only that, but one could argue that Anne Rice's literature led to a "vampire renaissance" in film, literature and television, in how they're more than just blood sucking monsters but actual beings with feelings, if not hearts.

There's also Suzanne Collins, whose trilogy "The Hunger Games" is not just for girls. While I have not yet picked up any of her books, my younger brother, a jock and otherwise obnoxious teenage boy, loves them and has gone through nearly the entire trilogy for school required summer reading and enjoyed it and the adventures of its female protagonist.

So yes, women may not be as highly regarded as authors such as Franzen or Irving, but in the last 20 years, they've made strides in literature. Their books may not be reviewed in magazines or by prominent critics, but as far as what the average person reads, women are making a bigger impact than what people may think.

Don't forget Joan Didion! I

Don't forget Joan Didion! I adore her even though I don't necessarily agree with her views (she is, after all, five decades my senior), she's so cranky.

But back to the original article, very good point. And it's not as though all women writers (e.g. Didion) write about what is typically dismissed as "chick lit" either. Pulp fiction has its place but there are plenty of serious writers.

This morning I was thinking about how Mary Anne Evans (a.k.a. George Eliot) took up that penname, I can only imagine how controversial that would be today. But I do wonder. Someone should try it, as a social experiment, if they can withstand being a target of controversy after their identity is inevitably revealed. Things change, but not fast enough.

Woops, addendum. I meant to

Woops, addendum. I meant to include trashy supermarket romance, crime, and mystery novels, "beach reading", and other light and slightly controversial but ultimately fluffy entertainment fair in with "pulp fiction" though it's not really the same genre. You get what I'm getting at though, right?

I do, definitely. And women

I do, definitely. And women also have a lot more influence in young adult/teen literature than men (I don't think many students liked being assigned Steinbeck or Hemingway as much as they may have claimed to), but I wasn't sure how that comment would be taken

An American thing

A part of me feels this problem is more distinct in America. Here in Canada, Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro would be getting as much attention in major publications as male authors would. While the Booker Prize seems to have a more even distribution of male and female authors than the Pulitzer Prize.