There’s an uproar among the dying book sections of dying media giants — bestselling authors Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner complained that bestselling author Jonathan Franzen was getting way too much coverage, mainly from the New York Times which reviewed his new novel Freedom twice, and this is because the Times and similar special marketing channels favor, the authors claim, white male authors who are declared literary.
Are they right? Probably a bit. If you lined up all the coverage the Times has done of male “literary” authors versus female “literary” authors in the last five-ten years, I’m sure the males outnumber the females substantially. And certainly, the non-white authors have a hard time in lily pale Anglo media getting as much coverage as their white counterparts, though some of them do. Certainly an effort is being made to counter this trend in these publications, but it’s at the usual slow, glacial pace.
But the real problem in this particular case is not that Franzen’s book is getting a lot of attention, which was only to be expected given his track record. The real problem is that the way publishers used to publicize books and print media used to review them — the imaginary social class system of literary versus commercial that was inherited from the 19th and early 20th centuries — is increasingly useless to people today. That system relies on perpetuating the statistically incorrect idea that the masses, being poorly educated and unsophisticated peasants, will buy commercial stories in droves, creating bestsellers, while the educated elite, the ones who read The New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker, keep literary works of fiction barely alive. Why would they do this? To sell books, both as racy “commercial” fare to those who think they are in the lower classes, and “you’ll look so smart” literary fare to those who think they are in the upper classes or want to be, and so will also read certain forms of “literary” print media. Everyone knows that whether a book is considered to be or marketed as literary or commercial has very little to do with whether it becomes a bestseller or not, but the genius in the gutter versus the hack in the mansion myth is still clung to with a strength that makes younger readers and critics shake their heads in puzzlement.
What Weiner and Picoult are actually facing is the old-fashioned view in publishing and among print media that only a tiny minority of women can be literary writers compared to men. When Helen Fielding wrote The Diary of Bridget Jones, a scathingly satiric, fun, cleverly structured literary novel, and it became a bestseller, publishers and the media did not instantly think, hey lets use this to show we’re in the age of interesting women writers. Instead, the media dubbed any contemporary novel written by a female about a female as “chick lit” — commercial and a passing fad, easily dismissed, and publishers obliged by slapping romance style pastel covers on any book they had that might fit, regardless of its content or the author’s writing style. And so Weiner, who writes contemporary satiric dramedies about women, and Picoult, who writes dramatic contemporary novels about controversial topics, find themselves largely locked out of the publicity channels reserved mainly for literary authors, male or female, such as the New York Times. (The other publicity channels are open to authors of all stripes.)
Is Franzen a more literary writer than Weiner and Picoult? That’s a subjective assessment and in the precarious world of social class, a potentially fragile one. Like Weiner and Picoult, Franzen’s The Corrections was a bestseller that then also became nominated for the National Book Award. Then the book got selected by Oprah Winfrey for her television book club. This threw Franzen into a panic because Oprah, getting her female viewers to buy various novels, would potentially make Franzen look too commercial, and he could then lose the NBA. So he announced he was thinking of declining the book club endorsement, which threw his publisher into a panic. Oprah got so angry that, even though she let a chastened Franzen on to her show, she shut down the book club altogether for new fiction for years. Franzen’s sales climbed further up the bestseller ranks with Oprah’s word of mouth, and he still managed to win the National Book Award — which also increased his sales. But the main point is that as long as books are declared unwelcome because their publisher gave them a pastel cover, their actual worth as literature is not really being assessed one way or another. And many, many books with pastel covers will never be bestsellers either.
In my view, Weiner and Picoult were wrong to use Franzen as their example of the problem, and the issues are bigger than simply male versus female writers. That doesn’t mean, though, that female authors aren’t still having to climb bigger hills than their male counterparts throughout the fiction world, (despite recent claims by some that females are taking over fiction publishing and fiction writing.) For instance, the British Fantasy Award — I was astonished to learn today that only one female writer has ever won the Award for Best Novel, Tanith Lee for Death’s Master in 1980. This oddity becomes even stranger when you look at the other winners of nearly thirty years of this award and discover that Ramsey Campbell won the award seven times, and that Stephen King, Michael Moorcock and Graham Joyce have all won it four times apiece. Over half the awards went to four white guys? Clearly the British Fantasy Award voters like their horror novels, and the difficulty of women to make much headway in horror up until recently is well known. But I find this statistic more disturbing than Franzen getting two New York Times book reviews.