Does the New York Times Dislike Female Authors?

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The New York Times is really taken with Jonathan Franzen's "galvanic new novel, 'Freedom.'" Michiko Kakutani wrote a glowing review last week. Two bestselling authors, Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, are mad. They think The New York Times has a soft spot for white males. As Alison Flood reports in The Guardian, Picoult and Weiner have had a field day on Twitter, Weiner tweeting that the "NYT loves its literary darlings, who tend to be dudes w/MFAs."

But is The New York Times (among other publications) really playing favorites? And if so, how so? Do influential outlets disdain female authors, or disdain popular fiction of any variety? Here are a variety of perspectives on the growing debate.

  • The Picoult-Weiner Position  Jason Pinter interviews Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult for The Huffington Post. Weiner complains of the "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." That said, she doesn't think she's writing Franzen-like, literary material. That said, "would I like to be taken at least as seriously as a Jonathan Tropper or a Nick Hornby? Absolutely." Picoult's point is slightly different: "I think," she says, "the New York Times reviews overall tend to overlook popular fiction, whether you're a man, woman, white, black, purple or pink."
  • I'll Go 'Weep Into My Royalty Statement,' tweeted Weiner, earlier The point is echoed by Michelle Dean at The Awl: "Both Picoult and Weiner are the kind of writers who, to use Saul Bellow's phrase, are free to stuff their ears with money if they don't like what they're hearing about their own books." Which is to say: "I have a hard time believing that in their heart of hearts, they envision themselves as even writing literary fiction, or at least that they aim their work at the same critical audience Franzen does."
  • Or to Rephrase: Does This Matter?  "One benefit of reviews in ... influential publications like Time and the New York Times," argues Lisa Solod Warren at The Huffington Post, "is to introduce readers to writers who may not be on the average reader's radar." Neither Weiner nor Picoult, along with other writers of popular fiction "need the press." This is partly because "their books are far 'easier' to read than Franzen."
  • The New York Times Does Its Fair Share of White Male Bashing, Actually, points out Chris Jackson The Atlantic, noting Michiko Kakutani's "special relish in pillorying white male authors" like  Norman Mailer and Jonathan Lethem. Jonathan Segura at Publishers Weekly digs up other examples:
I think it might be worth stepping back just a touch. Like, back to 2006, when Kakutani shredded Franzen’s The Discomfort Zone, calling it an "odious self-portrait of the artist as a young jackass: petulant, pompous, obsessive, selfish and overwhelmingly self-absorbed." A couple years later, Franzen struck back, calling Kakutani "The stupidest person in New York City."
  • That Said, Picoult and Weiner 'Do Have a Point,' muses Michelle Dean at The Awl. Chris Jackson concurs, with an interesting story:
This whole controversy ... 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 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. .... 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.
  • Dismissing by Using the 'Chick Lit' Label  Linda Holmes at NPR, jumping off from this debate, pens a thoughtful critique of the "chick lit" label. She thinks, more and more, people aren't distinguishing between "popular women's fiction" and the "much narrower category" of books about "designer shoes and bags" and a transparent romantic plot. "I don't know what 'chick lit' is anymore," she writes, "except books that are understood to be aimed at women, written by women, and not important. And I can't get behind that." She illustrates her point by looking at Jennifer Weiner:
If "chick lit" means it's about young, independent single women looking for love (which was what I understood to be the earliest definition, when I first heard it back in the Bridget Jones era), Jennifer Weiner doesn't qualify. If it means it's about finding a guy in general, she doesn't qualify. If it means the book isn't serious, she doesn't qualify. If it means it's about the centrality of men to the lives of women, she doesn't qualify, since most of the most important relationships she's written about in her career are relationships between women (sisters, friends, mothers and daughters).
  • A Perspective from George Eliot  The nineteenth-century novelist was, of course, also known as Mary Anne Evans. Christopher Shea of The Boston Globe looks at an essay of hers from 1856 entitled "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists." Shea notices that "Eliot's concerns are nearly the converse of Weiner's." Eliot found, at the time, that, in her words, "when a woman's talent is at zero, journalistic approbation is at the boiling pitch; when she attains mediocrity, it is already at no more than summer heat; and if ever she reaches excellence, critical enthusiasm drops to the freezing point."

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