All the Sad Young Literary Women

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by Chris Jackson

I wanted to write a post this week about the future of the book or some such, but to be honest, as fascinating as the current changes are, there's not an awful lot to say about them that's interesting (also, I was supposed be staycationing this week, which would've allowed me to strike the proper Nostradomic posture, but instead have been in the office every day working feverishly on the future of one book in particular). 

I'm invested in the subject for professional and other reasons; for instance, my poor son: in addition to having a father whose salary is paid by a book publishing company, his mother owns a bookstore named after him.  The poor kid will really have no where to turn when the bookopalypse finally arrives, unless I figure it all out and guide him to safety, like Tom Cruise in "War of the Worlds."  So I'm working on it (btw this little NPR piece is a good primer on why it's so difficult to say something interesting or definitive about the future of the book).  So instead, I'm going to write about a more pressing question to the future of our culture:  Are New York Times book reviewers biased toward writers who are "white and male and live in Brooklyn"?

Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, two writers whose work is often referred to as "chick lit," have been tweeting and commenting in the press about Michiko Kukatani's rave review of Jonathan Franzen's new novel, Freedom; Piccoult mused that she'd love to see "the NYT rave about writers who aren't white male literary darlings" and busted on Kakutani for using the word "lapidiary" in her review.  Weiner tweeted "Carl Hiaasan doesn't have to choose between getting a Times review and being a bestseller.  Why should I?  Oh right #girlparts."    

Various people have chimed in agreeing with Piccoult or arguing that the Times coverage is more balanced than she claims.  Ironically, Kakutani has previously been accused of  taking special relish in pillorying white male authors. (Norman Mailer called her, in his typically subdued, politically correct style, a "one-woman kamikazee.  She disdains white male authors...she's a token.  And deep down, she probably knows it."  I feel dirty retyping that.)  And she recently sliced up the prototypical white male literary darling from Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem.  

But this whole controversy, such as it is, reminded me of a recent lunch I had with a fellow editor.  I was going on about some novel I was reading and loving and she cut me off and asked, when was the last time you read fiction by a woman?  And I honestly couldn't come up with anything for a few minutes.  It was a pretty shameful moment, in part, because I started wondering about early onset memory loss (I eventually remembered that I'd recently read the luminous and terribly titled Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing by Lydia Peele), but also because I've spent a lot of time advocating the reading of books outside of the reader's direct experience as a way of understanding the world (through the Ringshout organization, for instance) and apparently I've been ignoring the literary output of half the human population.  I can't speak to the specifics of the Piccoult/Times dispute but I can say that the frustration Piccoult expressed is shared by a lot of women (and men) who write or work in the literary world.  In my experience with by son's namesake bookstore, it's clear that women are willing to buy books by male writers, but men seem much more reluctant to buy books by women.  And while I've never seen it quantified in any way, there's definitely a feeling out there that men--even when writing about frivolous subjects--are taken more seriously as literary writers and are more likely to be presented to serious readers by the various literary gatekeepers.   

So I've been trying to balance my own reading--consciously trying to read at least one piece of fiction by a woman for every one I read by a man.  This sounds stupid, I know.  But what are the results of this small and recent experiment?  

It's been sort of fascinating.  After reading the well-reviewed-but-somewhat-disappointing (but still worth reading) Next by James Hynes, I read The Keep by Jennifer Egan, which was, like the Hynes, formally inventive, but also creepy and funny and knee-wobblingly suspenseful.  After reading Gary Shteyngart, I just turned to a book that's been on my queue for a while:  Chimamanda Adichie's achingly beautiful The Thing Around Your Neck, both books about immigrants and police states and love affairs, but from two vastly different, whiplash-inducing, perspectives (BTW, check out Adichie's fascinating TED talk, "The Danger of the Single Story" if you're interested in the art of storytelling).   Between chapters of The Book in the Renaissance, I've been dipping in and out of Patti Smith's Just Kids, which is an incredible evocation of a young woman's unruly interior, even if she was once picked up by Allen Ginsburg because he thought she was a boy.   

Anyway, there are ways that our reading is shaped and limited by the biases of the dominant literary gatekeepers--maybe without realizing it, we've only read books by people of a certain race, or who write in a certain language, or who follow the conventions of a certain genre (including the unnamed genre of Anglo-American Serious Fiction).  To some people this is the great opportunity in the coming bookquake, the chance to disintermediate some of those gatekeepers and their peculiar, ossified biases. But the real bias may be inside of us, as readers, and we might have to force ourselves out of them to take advantage of these new opportunities.  How exciting is it to consider that there are worlds of literature out there that you may not have tapped into, undiscovered countries of books to explore that might yet tell you something new in a new way?    

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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