Posted by: roamingolivia | September 30, 2010

Discuss: Is publishing sexist, or do women write worse books?

This blog is going to be basically free association about a popular fad. Also the title is deliberately provocative.

Lots of people who read this will have already seen the phenomenon dubbed Franzenfreude. It started on Twitter (where it is still going), but it basically started because female writers (including Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult) started criticising how ubiquitous praise for Jonathan Franzen‘s new book Freedom has been.

It seems like the timing of the critique gave the trend/fad/discussion its name, rather than any real objection to Jonathan Franzen (indeed, many of the female writers criticising the hype say they like him).  Franzenfeude and the coverage of it was semi-ubiquitous itself, covered in NPR, the Guardian, the Nation, Jezebel, Slate, Globe and Mail – okay basically everyone).

The main points of the criticisms include:

  • the fact that women read (or at least buy) most of the books sold by the commercial publishing industry (stats at the Guardian article),
  • but they don’t get many “literary” reviews in the important publications (London Review of Books, New York Times, The Nation, etc. etc. – again, see Guardian stats, as well as Slate and others linked above)
  • because the books that males writer are somehow deemed inherently more “serious” – or are treated as such, even if their subject matter is relatively narrow.
  • Publishers market books by male using grand themes, but female-authored books are “about families”. (The NPR link above quotes Weiner, who notes that female authors who write good books about families, but “a Jonathan Franzen who writes a book about a family but we are told this is a book about America.”)

A blogger asks whether these criticisms of the reception of Franzen is actually a symbol of the anti-intellectualism of the US – i.e., that now we have to take romance as seriously as “real” literature (“literary fiction”) like Franzen. This might be the subject of the Time article about him, but I find the Time (TIME) website so annoying – you have to click about 10 times to read even a paragraph of text – that I can’t confirm this.

Anyway, as Jezebel points out (linked above), this is actually not the question. The question is why some semi-serious or even not-so-serious literature by men (e.g., Nick Hornby and others who write entertainingly about the “male” experience) is allowed into the modern cannon of acceptably semi-serious work (think of it as Things That Are Acceptable To Read On Public Transport). But female writing (friends say Weiner describes well the “female” experience)  is not allowed. Thus, we can take Franzen out of the picture , probably (I – shamefully – haven’t even read him so maybe he is only semi-serious…).

So the real battleground is over this middle space, which is admittedly a space I don’t read much in – female or male. I haven’t read Nick Hornby or … whoever else (one site mentioned Philip K. Dick)… and I haven’t read Jennifer Weiner. Mostly because no one has convinced me to do so, when I still need to read so many “classics” (male and female – have yet to read a Bronte novel, or even Brothers Karamazov (!)  – yes, I’m a fraud).

So partially, I just feel confused. Jennifer Weiner’s books are certainly marketed as “chick lit” – her covers have reviews that use this exact phrase!  – whereas Hornby, or others in this middle category,  get compared to Camus on Amazon. (No one is comparing Picoult to Camus.) So maybe Weiner should have a chat with her publisher about this first?  Presumably she could tell her publisher she doesn’t want her book to say it’s about pregnancy and family troubles – that she wants her book to say it is about the meaning of the family in modern times or the nature of truth in human relationships?

Meanwhile, I’ve noted that the serious category (or at least almost-serious, which is above semi-serious) has opened up maybe more than this middle space, accommodating, for example: Joan Didion (my current obsession), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigerian female writer), Toni Morrison (even though her books are technically often about families), Jhumpa Lahiri, Arundhati Roy, etc. etc. I guess I don’t know whether the publishers read their books and decided themselves that these are “serious” books, or whether the writer said, “Hey my book is Serious”. For the most famous of these, you can assume that they did not have to do the latter.

And then there’s this: a New Yorker blog post, which asks why there are so few men working in publishing (answer: it’s hard and doesn’t pay well). So women are doing this to themselves? Do women – and men but women as publishers – jus think women’s books are worse? Are they? Why the fury at Franzen? Obviously, I am trying to apply too much logic to an online Twitter flurry but …

One thing I definitely have learned, whatever I think about this middle ground of semi-serious fiction, is that I don’t really read many women writers. Of I think 26 books I have read this year, only 5 have been written by females – and these are mostly short stories (Alice Munro and Dorothy Parker), poems (Lucie Brock-Broido) and novellas (Marguerite Duras), plus a book club selection by Lan Samantha Chang. Is that because I learn most of what I need to read from Times Literary Supplement, London Review of Books, New York Times and others?

Very possibly.

So I’ll be taking recommendations for good books (that tend toward the more “serious” end of the spectrum). Any thoughts?

Anyway: This online discussion has been going on for more than a month, and I haven’t taken part, so I hope you’ve got some comments and/or thoughts readily digested that you can add. Look forward to hearing your thoughts, in email or in the comment space, or on our own blog.



  1. Nice post! Isn’t it just terribly surprising to find out that our society might tend towards vague misogyny and outright anti-intellectualism? The latter should be quite well-accepted by now, but I actually think the “woman question”, as they would have referred to it in the suffrage era, is the more interesting one. My first thought was that our society appears to have a rather nasty post-feminist hangover, in which boorish male behavior is roundly condemned and universally celebrated.

    This is dangerous because it has allowed us to take steps backwards (or at least sideways) without anyone really noticing; we can treat women as sex objects, yes, but they are “empowered” sex objects. TV shows today stereotype both men and women in ways that haven’t been seen since the ’50’s and ’60’s. Anyone who has seen a show from that era knows that simply laughing at the stupidity of stereotypical male behavior does nothing to slow its spread; rather, the use of humor strengthens our subconscious acceptance of it.

    The upshot of all of this is a noticeably more male-obsessed society in which real “art” is seen as a male pursuit. The only traces of our “enlightenment” are seen in the advancement of the idea that, you know, males can write good romances and stuff too.

    When combined with anti-intellectualism, we get a pretty potent combination in which the literary landscape is dominated by male voices and stock romances/vampire novels/quirky postmodern memoirs are legitimate works of literature.

    Oh, and in other news, teenagers today literally can’t read. Trust me; I’m a teacher.

    In other words, a literary apocalypse.


  2. awesome post. I actually think the emasculation of males and a blending of gender roles in other areas of society lead to a collective male reaction that results hyper-masculinity and mysogeny elsewhere- like on tv as chad notes above. i think the literary world only sees a small fraction of the imbalances in some other industries (magazines and music industry are 2 more obvious cases) but I think your observations of this subtlety in the literature world is well done. There are definitely nuances that differ in the literary world (you point them out), so it’s not exactly like the others, but I do think this is a part of a larger trend.

  3. btw this blog design looks exactly like a national parks brochure. which i like, i dont know if its on purpose though. google nps brochure

  4. I think that this discussion actually strayed far from the original question, in part because the people who first raised the question (Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult) would fall into your “middle space,” or even descend all the way into the depths of “chick lit.”

    I say that not having read either of them, so you can consider that a HUGE caveat.

    But they both certainly have the chick lit reputation, and as you point out, there are plenty of female writers who transcend that.

    But because of that reputation, an excellent point got sidetracked into a discussion about the various genres of literature. And the excellent point, in my opinion, has everything to do with Franzen, which is where it all started.

    Here’s the deal: I’m about halfway through FREEDOM. I like it. It’s what the blurbers would call “compulsively readable,” in that I can’t wait until I can steal a few minutes alone (two stops on the train, maybe) to pick it up and plunge in again.

    But, and here’s the nut: so far, I’m not seeing anything to send it into the stratosphere. Okay, that’s a matter of opinion. But Franzen is writing about family drama (so far – it could take off in a new direction – it’s a long book). He writes well, and with emotional depth and clarity. But I feel like I’ve read a hundred novels that deal with similar themes in a similar manner.

    But they were all written by women. And not one of those women was on the cover of TIME. Not one of those novels was touted as the Great American Novel.

    As I read it, I keep thinking, “If this was written by a woman, how would its reception have differed?”

    It’s a question that obviously can’t be answered definitively. But if you look at the stats for the “serious” prizes (Pulitzer, Booker, etc.), you’ll see a pattern. If you look at the books reviewed by the NYT book review, you’ll see a pattern.

    And yes, we do this to ourselves, all the time. I observe it in myself, this tendency to discount a female writer, on a near-unconscious level. We all grew up reading the same Dead White Male authors, we all internalized the idea that Women Can’t Write (an idea that was openly and repeatedly expressed in literature).

    But I think this very discussion can be part of helping that to change. And maybe our granddaughters can grow up seeing 50% or more of the Pulitzers for literature going to women writers, and disbelieving that there was a time when things were any different.

    It’s like that old riddle about a kid who’s hurt in an accident, is brought into surgery, and the surgeon says, “I can’t operate on him, he’s my son!” According to the riddle, the surgeon isn’t his father, so who is it? This was a real stumper when I was in elementary school, but if you try it on a young girl now, she’ll think you’re incredibly dim. It’s blindingly obvious – now.

  5. P.S. Sorry this was so long! Take it as respect for your excellent and thought-provoking post.

  6. Thanks all for your comments! I am happy to have more, but I LOVE talking about this, and all things literary but mostly this because my attitude of ignorance and my total unquestioning of what I’m being told to read was a great lesson to me, and I like being wrong on things like this.

    Will mull all of this over and may post more later.

  7. Doris Kearns one of the greatest historians ever.

  8. So on my birthday last month, I went to a Franzen reading/Q+A/book signing in Austin. (I told you about this in our chat, but if anyone ever reads this comment but you, they won’t know that).

    During the Q+A, one brave person asked Franzen what he thinks about the Weiner/Picoult kerfuffle. (A word that should be used with much greater frequency).

    His opinion was that he had no opinion; like most writers/rock stars/artists, they claim that they have no control over their reviews and try not to pay much attention to it.

    But he did go on further to discuss the issue, and essentially said that he agreed that many of his favorite books are by female authors that seem not to get any critical attention, and named a few examples. He doesn’t really know if it’s sexism or that he’s getting better publicity, but he acknowledged that there is some sort of imbalance in the universe.

    I tend to think that the “problem,” to the extent there is one, is one with a free market origin. Females of a particular demographic are the biggest consumers of books. Eat, Pray Love has probably sold more copies in the last few years than Franzen’s entire catalog ever will. Walk through a Barnes and Nobles and you will see that the majority of the novels on the premier shelf space are designed by their publishers to have certain colors, images, and splashy endorsements that virtually scream out “Chic lit! This is Eat Pray Love 2!”

    Meanwhile, the Great Dead White Male Cannon sits in a back corner, dusty, in cheapie paperback editions designed for high schoolers assigned to read Steinbeck.

    Which is a really longwinded way of saying: Bridget Jones sells more copies than Updike, and a lot of female authors are being marketed in ways that might turn off stuffy critics but that the publishers believe will sell more copies.

    Or I’m wrong, and reviewers are sexist, which is entirely possible too.

  9. […] 4. I think this article counts as an update to the Franzenfreude thing. […]

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