It started like so many controversies do these days, with 140 seemingly innocuous characters on Twitter: In 2010, bestselling novelist Jodi Picoult ( My Sister’s Keeper, The Tenth Circle) criticized The New York Times for publishing two rave reviews of Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom in the same week.
“Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren’t white male literary darlings,” she tweeted.
The responses were fast and frequently furious. Some, like fellow bestselling author Jennifer Weiner ( In Her Shoes, Good in Bed), jumped to Picoult’s defense, and accused the literary establishment of dismissing whole swaths of popular fiction by women with the derisive label “chick lit.”
Others, including Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jeffrey Eugenides ( Middlesex), accused Picoult of “belly-aching,” and wondered if her criticisms were just sour grapes from a writer who simply isn’t as talented as Franzen.
The plot thickened last year, after the novelist Claire Messud ( The Emperor’s Children, The Woman Upstairs) told an interviewer that she didn’t especially care if readers found her fictional characters “unlikable.” In a different interview, novelist Meg Wolitzer ( The Ten-Year Nap) bemoaned what she described as “slumber party fiction,” or “fiction about and by women who the reader is meant to feel ‘comfortable’ around.”
In response, Weiner published an article in Slate, titled “I Like Likable Characters,” in which she argued that “likable has become the latest code employed by literary authors to tell their bestselling brethren that their work sucks.”
She wrote, “When ... publications like Harper’s and The Atlantic review one woman for every four men, women writers should have better things to do than rolling their eyes at each other’s endeavors.”
Just a bunch of privileged, successful writers with perhaps too much time on their hands, arguing over matters the rest of us in the real world are much too busy to care about? Well, maybe.
But these same arguments are echoed elsewhere in contemporary culture and entertainment (a recent New York Times study showed that the men nominated for this year’s Best Actor prize appeared on screen an average of 85 minutes in their respective films, compared with 57 minutes for their Best Actress counterparts).
Why, more than a half-century since the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique gave birth to the modern feminist movement, is there still such grappling with gender equality issues in creative realms?
On Wednesday evening, both Messud and Wolitzer will appear at the Dallas Museum of Art as part of its Arts & Letters Live series. They will be reading from and taking questions about their current books, The Woman Upstairs and The Interestings, respectively — and not necessarily discussing such lofty topics as “The Place of Women in the Literary World.”
But their joint appearance here does offer the chance to consider these knotty questions.
“Women writers tend to get classified as writing ‘women’s fiction’ when they write about domestic lives, whereas men can do that without being pigeonholed,” says Louisa Ermelino, reviews director for the industry trade magazine Publishers Weekly. “Jonathan Franzen writes about families. So does Richard Russo, Russell Banks; no one puts them in a ghetto.”
In many respects, charges of gender bias in the literary world are backed by hard numbers. Despite the fact that women buy about 58 percent of the books sold in the United States each year, the majority of works published are by male authors.
Exact percentages are hard to assess, given the sheer volume of books turned out each year, but a 2011 survey by The New Republic showed that only about 30 percent of books published by major houses like Norton, Harper and Little, Brown were written by women.
For the past few years, an organization called VIDA: Women in Literary Arts has also undertaken an extensive survey of gender imbalance when it comes to which books are reviewed in major publications. In 2013, for instance, The New York Times Book Review reviewed 482 books by men, compared with 332 by women. The disparity is even wider for such august publications at The New Yorker (436 to 176) and Harper’s (49 to 19).
And while maybe all of this suggests that more men are simply writing books than women, the demographics of most undergraduate and graduate English programs would suggest otherwise. According to a Forbes 2010 survey, women outnumber men in literature and creative writing programs 2-to-1.
Most book review editors would insist that their coverage is not dictated by considerations of gender — only that they are trying to cover the biggest, buzziest books. “In our lists, we’re happy when there is a spread across many lines, not only gender, but we would not put a book on a list just because of gender, or any other bias,” says Publishers Weekly’s Ermelino.
Still, says Ermelino, “men are taken more seriously.” Pointing to two male writers who aren’t necessarily regarded as literary but who nonetheless get taken seriously by the literary establishment, she adds, “Dan Brown and Stephen King get the front page of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. Enough said.” (Picoult’s and Weiner’s books are rarely reviewed in the Times.)
As to the matter of whether female writers are being unnecessarily hard on one another — or betraying their fellow female writers by drawing distinctions between higher and lower forms of literature — that’s a bit more difficult to quantify.
Messud, for instance, agrees that “there is a sense that women are storytellers, women are populist, women aren’t serious in the same way that male writers are.” But she also believes that Weiner’s charges of elitism and gender betrayal are misplaced. “If someone is embarking on writing to make you comfortable, that’s not a question about gender — that’s a question of ‘what is art?’ ”
She adds, “I believe there is serious literature and non-serious literature, and I’m totally unapologetic about that.”
Messud and Wolitzer are known for challenging the patriarchal establishment themselves. In 2012, Wolitzer wrote her own much-talked-about essay for The New York Times, in which she asked whether Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot — about a book-loving young woman torn between two men — would have been as widely reviewed and praised if it had been written by a woman.
Does any of this really matter in the larger scheme of things? And is all of this in-fighting among female writers ultimately more about professional competitiveness than anything else?
Well, yes and no.
On the one hand, authors like Picoult and Weiner are already reaching wide audiences with their novels — a review in The New York Times or The New Yorker probably wouldn’t matter one way or the other. (“Writers that sell want validation and prizes; writers that win prizes want to sell,” points out Ermelino.)
And as underrepresented as women are, in terms of what’s getting published and reviewed, the bestseller list tends to divide pretty evenly along gender lines, with authors such as Janet Evanovich, Anna Quindlen and Arlington’s Sandra Brown regularly making appearances alongside Stephen King and Dan Brown. (It should also be noted that arguably the biggest breakout successes of the past few years — Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl — were all taken seriously in literary circles.)
On the other hand, society has a long history of dismissing and marginalizing the creative efforts of women. “Go back to the 19th century, where Charlotte Bronte had to apologize to the poet laureate of England for writing novels at all, and explain that she only took a little bit of time out of housework to write Jane Eyre,” says Sandra Gilbert, professor emerita of English at the University of California.
There is a long history, too, of women internalizing these dismissals and viewing each other as competitors instead of champions of each other’s work. Gilbert notes that Charlotte Bronte didn’t like Jane Austen, and that Sylvia Plath “acted as if there was room for only one famous female poet, and she felt very competitive with Adrienne Rich.”
In which case, perhaps the best prescription of all is to continue this sometimes prickly, but ultimately essential conversation — to acknowledge how far we’ve come, without forgetting that there are still considerable strides yet to be made.
Speaking of Picoult, Weiner, Messud and Wolitzer, Gilbert says, “These are all writers who are have professional reputations, and they are debating in major public forums, and that couldn’t have happened a hundred years ago.”
She adds, “While I think sisterhood is powerful, it may be that part of the power of sisterhood is for women to have the strength to disagree with each other, and to address serious issues”