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.
"I had some hope of reaching a male audience," he said of the matter. He added that male readers had been saying things to him along the lines of, "I figure [Oprah's selected] books are for women. I would never touch it." Being too publicly aligned with women, and women's concerns, can wreck your reputation—even if you are a "white male literary darling" like Franzen, and even if your actual skill is not in question.
And yet, women are drawn to stories about these lesser, female matters, no matter how stigmatized they may be. Eat, Pray, Love, for example, succeeded in large part because it endows women's intimate lives with grand significance. You'll find plenty of people willing to call it "narcissistic," self-indulgent, trivial, or melodramatic. But Gilbert's descriptions of despair, emptiness and self-doubt following the wreckage of two important relationships do ring true for many women. Whatever else she's doing, she's communicating with people who are vulnerable and lonely. The story works because it gives those women the implicit permission to admit that yes, break-ups are a very big deal. You do deserve the time and space to heal from them; you are allowed to experience them as major losses and disappointments.