Sorry White Male Novelists, But Sexism in Publishing Is Still A Thing

Men are universal, women are not, and books about women are niche or genre novels, rather than being serious contenders for Next Great American Novel Status.
Publish date:
June 17, 2013
sexism, criticism, book publishing, publishing, reviews, the grey lady

Let’s talk about sexism in pop culture. Not sexist representations so much, although there are plenty of those, but the tremendous gendered imbalances in terms of who is creating pop culture, who is getting attention for it, and who is being heralded as a pop culture visionary. Because holy smackaroos, it’s a good time to talk about that right now.

NPR’s Linda Holmes, who runs the fabulous Monkey See blog, wrote a great piece on Friday about the absence of women from the movies. Not the audience -- the actual movies. She noted that 90% of the movies showing in her area on Friday were about men or groups of men with women only in supporting roles, and that’s in D.C., a large metropolitan area with considerable cinematic diversity.

That’s barely scratching the surface of an industry where there is a tremendous gender disparity in terms of who’s writing, directing, and producing. Women are in the definite minority; for example Hollywood only bothered to honor a woman director with one of its highest approbations in 2010, when it gave Kathryn Bigelow an Oscar for directing “The Hurt Locker.”

Earlier in the week, noted novelist Jonathan Franzen, clearly still nursing hurt feelings over 2010’s Franzengate (about which more in a moment), hit back hard in the letters to the editor page of the “New York Times” in response to Frank Bruni’s “Sexism’s Puzzling Stamina.” Bruni astutely noted that there’s a huge gender gap in literature in terms of what is reviewed and critically acclaimed, unwittingly stirring up a hornet’s nest. Because, you see, many big name male authors are very uncomfortable with this conversation.

Franzen tartly responded to Bruni’s piece with: “There may still be gender imbalances in the world of books, but very strong numbers of women are writing, editing, publishing and reviewing novels.” He declined, evidently, to provide any actual statistics on the numbers of women writing, editing, publishing, and reviewing novels; possibly because that might have undermined his implied claim, that women have nothing to worry about in publishing.

Getting numbers on women writing books is a bit challenging. Because a lot of books are published every year, as many of you may noticed. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that actually, more women than men are writing books -- this seems to be the general consensus among a lot of people who think about these issues. That does not, however, mean that the gender imbalance is by any means fixed.

While there may be more women authors, they’re more typically relegated to genre fiction like romance and mystery. And while evidence seems to suggest that women are highly active in editorial positions, that doesn’t mean higher ranks in publishing are female dominated (they aren’t) or that all female editors have equal acquisition powers (they don’t).

Moreover, Franzen is sidestepping the debate when he talks about women reviewing novels. In terms of reviews in major publications, critics actually do tend to be primarily male, including in the “Times,” since that seems to be the paper where this conversation is going on. But, moreover, most of the books they’re reviewing are by men. That’s an important data point that Franzen chose to slide right over, and no wonder, because it’s the very same data point that caused a huge furor in publishing in 2010.

It all started when well-known female author Jodi Picoult protested quite publicly about the extensive coverage of Franzen’s then-new novel, “Freedom.” She pointed out that the novel had received not one but two fawning reviews in the “Times” and challenged people to come up with examples of similar novels by women, noting that women had been writing novels about similar issues -- families, the collapse of the family, the experience of the American family -- for decades with almost no critical attention.

Those novels are the sort of thing many people refer to as “chick lit,” because they’re about women and women’s issues. As such, they are considered fundamentally uninteresting by the larger critical world and by society in general, which write them off as lesser. Men are universal, women are not, and books about women are niche or genre novels, rather than being serious contenders for Next Great American Novel Status.

Writing about “Freedom” and the idea of the Next Great American Novel at VIDA, Percival Everett noted that:

It has taken me a while to get to my real point, but here it is, rather abruptly. I do not believe that apparent authoritative literary voices of validation would ever make such a grand claim about a novel written by a woman. I say this because I believe there are many novels by women that are about the same sort of world as presented in Freedom. Sadly, the culture usually calls these books domestic or family sagas. Are the novels of Anne Tyler, Marilynne Robinson and Mona Simpson any less white and middle “American” than Franzen’s? They are certainly at least every bit as literary and arguably better written, whatever that means. And they do not suffer the needless verbosity of Freedom. Were a woman to use so many additional words, the prose would be called floral or poetic or maybe even excessive.

Books about women written by men receive critical acclaim, while books written by women on similar themes and in a similar style are tawdry domestic dramas. Critics go ga-ga when it's a dude, and ignore it utterly when it's a lady. This looming, often unspoken truth of publishing and reviews has been put under the microscope in the last few years, forcing the industry to do some serious reflection.

Jodi Picoult’s protest was joined by a number of other authors, including Jennifer Weiner, who can be very outspoken about sexism in literature and the dismissal of “chick lit.” People within and without publishing started talking about it, and things got very, very heated as the issue was cast as a feud: Franzen versus Picoult and Weiner.

It didn’t help that Franzen had a past history of being dismissive about women’s literature, or, to put it more accurately, literature that happens to be written by women. In 2002, he sneeringly derided Oprah’s Book Club when he heard his novel “The Corrections” was a potential selection, making it clear that he didn’t want to be associated with the kinds of books selected by Oprah, nor did he want to be featured on her show or as the sort of man who might be seen, well, keeping the company of women.

In response to the growing storm, the team at Double X did a little analysis of “New York Times” reviewing practices between 2008 and 2010. They found that: “The New York Times really does review more fiction by men than by women. Far more. Over about two years, from June 29, 2008 to August 27, 2010, the Times reviewed 545 works of fiction—338, or 62 percent, were by men. During that period, 101 books got the ‘one-two punch’ of a review in both the daily Times and the Sunday Book Review—72 of them were by men.”

Were men just writing better books? Many people believed this was not the case, arguing that sexism was obviously at work here. Such a radical imbalance indicated that something deeper was going on, and that something might be sexism, even if it was subconscious (though not always). It’s not that the editors of the “New York Times Review of Books” set out to promote men over women, making a conscious editorial choice. But they ended up doing it anyway, and since the NYTRB is kind of a big deal in literary circles, it obviously had a huge ripple effect.

People read it habitually every Sunday. They make decisions about what to buy on the basis of what’s covered in those pages. That, in turn, drives bestseller lists, larger decisions in the publishing industry, and, of course, the careers of individual authors. When women aren’t represented as evenly, or are treated primarily as niche and genre authors, that’s going to create a serious disadvantage for women in publishing.

Thus, this was a discussion that really mattered: why did the “Times” tend to focus on white men with master’s degrees from liberal arts colleges to the exclusion of women, authors of color, and authors from other backgrounds? Not because of individual actions on the part of any given author or editor (for the most part) but because of an overall culture of cultural superiority and hegemony -- white male authors are and must be the best authors, therefore their works deserve preferential treatment, and they can write about any subject they like without being dismissed.

This, then, brings us back to today, in 2013, where Franzen is once again informing us there’s no sexism in publishing and that women have far bigger things to worry about. Like many of his white male MFA-bearing compatriots, he seems to have invested a lot of energy in upholding his Literary Giant status, and in denying accusations of sexism within the industry, even when those accusations aren’t about him specifically, but about the world he moves in.

Franzen, like so many people who benefits from sexism, doesn’t want to give those benefits up by admitting it’s an issue and trying to tackle it.


Why is it so traumatizing to admit that sexism exists? Oh, right, because that means admitting that maybe your status is partly unearned, and that possibly you don’t entirely deserve everything that’s come your way.