Clearly, we’ve been remiss in our lack of commentary on what’s been dubbed “Franzenfreude”, or the running media flap about the fact that when men write novels, we call it literature — as opposed to, you know, when women write novels, we don’t.
So let’s catch up, shall we?
Jennifer Weiner, who wrote “Good in Bed” and other books that fell under the now-dismissive rubric of “chick lit”, coined the phrase as a Twitter hashtag in a fit of pique over the advance praise Jonathan Franzen’s new book, Freedom, had garnered from literary reviewers. It hadn’t even hit the shelves, in fact, before New York Times reviewers declared it a masterpiece. It might well be. But the point that Weiner and another best-selling writer, Jodi Picoult, emphasized, is that novels by women are not only unlikely to receive such rave reviews, but are less likely to be reviewed at all.
At least by, ahem, serious reviewers. According to a piece on Slate’s Double X:
Weiner and Picoult raise the following question: Is pop fiction written by men more likely to be lifted out of the “disposable” pile, becoming the kind of cultural objects august institutions like the New York Times feel compelled to pay attention to? And are the commercial genres most commonly associated with male writers and readers—science fiction, legal thriller—more likely to be taken seriously than their female equivalents (chick lit, romance novel)? Or as Weiner puts it, would certain male writers—Nick Hornby, Jonathan Tropper, Carl Hiaasen, or David Nicholls—”be considered chick lit writers if they were girls?”
Or, as Weiner told The New Republic:
“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.”
Just to be clear, I loved Jonathan Franzen’s last book, and can’t wait to read this one. (And, for the record, I also liked “Good in Bed”) But still, I’m pissed. Because Weiner makes a good point about the whole double standard business — God forbid, issues that reside on the XX side of the fence like feelings or families be taken seriously — that The Nation’s Katha Pollitt picks up this week (thus giving us a newspeg) and goes deep:
Do male writers have an edge in attracting serious critical attention? This question, so urgent to women writers, so tedious to male editors and pundits, is getting its latest workout thanks to the vigorous tweeting of bestselling popular novelists Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult about the accolades heaped upon Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom (two ecstatic New York Times reviews, the cover of Time and much, much more) and Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story. Weiner is a sharp and fearless observer of literary gender politics, and I think she is onto something. (I should mention that she used my collection of personal essays, Learning to Drive, to illustrate the double standard by which women autobiographers are slammed for revealing small weaknesses while men are praised as honest and bold for chronicling their addictions and wife-beating. And as long as we are on the subject, let me add that my shocked, shocked reviewers were women.) Plenty of women writers get excellent reviews, but it is very rare for them to get the kind of excited, rapturous high-cultural reception given to writers who are “white and male and living in Brooklyn” or, since Franzen lives on the Upper East Side, are named Jonathan. “Girl genius” is not a phrase in our language.
Pollitt offers a good helping of stats, courtesy of Double X (which employed some XY spread-sheet analysis) to back up her thesis. For example:
…over the past two years 62 percent of the fiction reviewed in the New York Times had male authors, as did 72 percent of the books that got both a daily and a Sunday review.
…The Atlantic, The New Republic and Slate itself review more fiction by men (if you include the reviews in the DoubleX blog, it’s 55 percent).
… A year’s worth of fiction coverage in The Nation clocked in at 75 percent male (!). Of course, it is possible that men write two-thirds of fiction or (more likely, but still improbable) two-thirds of the kinds of fiction high-end book editors assign—but those assigning decisions are themselves the product of a whole hierarchy of taste that has gender already built into it. What is a significant subject? Which writers get to ask the reader to work hard? Chris Jackson, an editor at Spiegel & Grau, for Chrissake, confessed on the Atlantic website that he hadn’t read any fiction by women in years, so he read some, and, hey, it was pretty good!
Pretty good?! Ach! That pretentious dweeb. Can’t you just feel his patronizing little pat on the head?
Thing is — and here comes the meta-message, which is why this whole discussion matters — though we’re talking about writing books here, we could probably substitute any one of a number of career areas where, when men and women do the same type of work, men tend to be taken more seriously, promoted more and paid more. And that is the point. And while some folks like to say that difference has a lot to do with the fact that women are more likely to take time out, or a less-than-killer job, or have their priorities elsewhere in order to raise their kids, there are studies out there that show that even when women don’t have a family — or even plan to have one — they are still seen as less promotable. Because, well, they might.
What it’s really about is the double standard. Families notwithstanding, we’re dismissed for being who we are. Period, end. Which brings us back, one last time, to Franzenfreude and Pollitt:
It’s often said that women’s writing is less valued because it takes up stereotypically feminine (i.e., narrower) subjects—family, children, love and becoming a woman (ho-hum, boring!)—while men’s books deal with rousing, Important Universal topics like war, politics and whaling, and becoming a man….When men write books about family life—John Updike, Jonathan Franzen—they are read as writing about America and the Human Condition. When women write books that are ambitious, political and engaged with the big world of ideas, they are seen as stories about the emotional lives of their characters.
As in lit, so in life? Really? Are we still paying the price for that extra X? I’m tempted to insert here — exactly what’s wrong with stories about the emotional lives of the characters? — but then, sigh, you might never take me seriously.
P.S. A free copy of our book if you can correctly guess who is pictured above.