This has been a very girly summer. It kicked off in May with Sex and the City 2, the latest installment in the chick-fueled power franchise, which managed to rake in nearly $300 million worldwide,href> despite widespread mockery and negative reviews. By the end of June, we had Twilight: Eclipse, another proven hit with women, which broke box-office recordshref> despite widespread mockery and middling-to-negative reviews. And now, as we head into the fall, there is the film adaptation of Eat, Pray, Love, which is also raking in a very respectable amount of cash, despite... Well. You get the picture.
All of these franchises are fueled by women's money, and women's interest, and all are massive cultural and economic forces. They sell movie tickets, books, and a truly impressive amount of tie-in merchandise. But the most important thing they have in common may be the derision and contempt they inspire in cultural commentators. They're about trivial stuff like shopping, boyfriends, trying to put the "sparkle" back in marriages; they're about pathetic stuff like heartbreak, divorce, loneliness, and menopause; they're about drippy stuff like self-love, family, and cuddly, soft-focus, Oprah-approved spirituality. In other words, they're about the very things that women are encouraged to be most interested in. And this alone may be enough to keep many people from taking them seriously.
If the recent blow-up around Jonathan Franzen's Freedom has done anything, it's opened up a conversation about how we value, or devalue, writers who express stereotypically feminine concerns in their work. For those who have somehow missed out on the much-blogged controversy,href> it went like this: Michiko Kakutani was pleased—very pleased!—by Franzen's book. Novelist Jodi Picoult read the review. She was not pleased—very not pleased!—with it. She then tweeted the following: "NYT raved about Franzen's new book. Is anyone shocked?" Well, no. More surprising, however: The fact that Picoult went on to allege that the New York Times privileged "white male" authors and ignored "books read by women," by which she meant commercial fiction, romance, and anything that fits under the label "chick-lit." Chick-lit author Jennifer Weiner chimed in to agree, also via Twitter, saying "NYT sexist, unfair, loves Gary Shteyngart, hates chick lit, ignores romance."
This is a simplistic argument. For example, one of the many female writers that the New York Times has failed to ignore is Jodi Picoult; a 2008 reviewhref> criticized her novel Change of Heart (reader, it revolves around a heart transplant) for its "vapidity," called it "her latest tear-jerker," and referred to her protagonist as "a wet hankie." It's hard to ignore the gendered tone here—oh, those silly, weepy women and their tear-jerkers, etcetera—but it's also impossible to imagine a contemporary novelist like Jennifer Egan or Hilary Mantel getting the same review. The New York Times privileges literary fiction, and it has the right to do so.
Still, the fact that being perceived as a writer of "women's fiction"—or just writing about traditionally female concerns like family, marriage, and romance—automatically lowers one's status and circumscribes one's audience is unavoidably true. One of the many authors who have encountered the problem is Jonathan Franzen. When Oprah Winfrey chose his last novel, The Corrections, for her book club, he reacted with what seemed like sheer panic.