A Moment of Jen
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Saturday, March 31, 2012
posted by Jen at 3/31/2012 10:30:00 AM

In which two New York Times Book Review editors discuss their female trouble....

Editor One: So, you’re not going to like this, but I really think we need to talk about the sexism situation.

Editor Two (whining): Didn’t we talk about some lady book last week?

One: No, last week we talked about Mark Leyner.

Two: Oh. (Happily). I like Mark Leyner.

One: So do we all. But here’s the deal: there’s this evidence, and it’s pretty overwhelming, that women’s literary work is perceived, reviewed, purchased and read much differently than similar work by men.

Two: And this is our problem because….?

One: Because people are talking. And noticing. And counting how many women’s books the Times reviews and how many women reviewers we hire. It’s making us look bad. It might even be making people not read us. So the next time we write about Chad Harbach, or Mark Leyner's sugar-frosted nut sack, or one of the Jonathans….

Two: Please. We’re the only game in town. People are going to read what we say, no matter what. (Excited). Let's write about Chad Harbach again!

One: You do this, or I’m telling everyone how long you spent in the bathroom with that Wall Street Journal piece about James Patterson's Palm Beach estate.

Two (shocked): You wouldn’t!

One: I would. And this won’t be so bad. Here’s my plan: we find some Times-approved woman writer and let her write an essay about the problem.

Two: Not one of those icky commercial writers? The ones who were making all that fuss about Franzen?

One: No, no, no. Don’t be silly. You know we don’t mention those ladies except on the bestseller list. We’ll find an acceptable lady writer. Someone who’s sophisticated. Genteel. Someone who writes about families and marriages and relationships and motherhood, preferably as experienced by wealthy New Yorkers.

Two: I don’t know. That still kind of sounds like chick lit. Or women’s fiction.

One: Can't be chick lit if it’s written by a critically-respected midlist author whose books the Times reviews.

Two: Ah! Gotcha. Okay, so Elinor Lipman? Kathryn Harrison? Cathleen Schine?

One: I was thinking Meg Wolitzer.

Two: Huh. Didn’t she once write an essay about reading a Sophie Kinsella book and not finding it completely odious?

One: That was a long time ago. Probably no one remembers.

Two: I don’t know. She had a scene in THE TEN YEAR NAP where a lady breast-fed another woman’s baby. (Shudders). I don’t like breast-feeding. Or babies. Or books about mothers who breast-feed their babies. That would never happen in a Jonathan Franzen book.

One: I know.

Two: In a Jonathan Franzen book, the character would have to dig through a turd to find a wedding ring. That’s literature.

One: The piece really isn't that bad. She uses the word “relegated” twice in the first sentence. Then she announces that she’s not going to be discussing about popular women’s fiction, but “literature that happens to be written by women.”

Two: So “popular” can’t be “literature.” I like where this is going.

One: Then she quotes Jane Smiley, who complains about not making Jodi Picoult-style coin or getting Franzen-style respect.

Two (fondly): Ladies. Always with the claws out.

One: She does mention the VIDA stats. Says women get “shockingly short shrift as reviewers and reviewees in most prestigious publications.”

Two: She called us prestigious? I like her better and better.

One: And she bitches about lady book jackets. “Laundry hanging on a line. A little girl in a field of wildflowers. A pair of shoes on a beach.”

Two: Well, girls do like their pretty things.

One: She does make one point that concerns me. She says that in the seventies and eighties, things were better. “There was Atwood, there was Morrison. Stories, long and short, and often about women’s lives, suddenly mattered to the cultural conversation. Men were actively interested in reading about the inner lives of women (or maybe some just pretended they were) and received moral kudos for doing so. Whereas before that a lone woman might be allowed on the so-called men’s team, literary women began achieving critical mass and becoming more than anomalies. But though this wave of prominent authors helped the women who followed, as time passed it seemed harder for literary women to go the distance.

Two: But she doesn’t say that maybe the shift has something to do with the way literary women treat their best-selling commercial sisters? Like Jennifer Egan winning the Pulitzer and dissing women she saw as writing lesser books? Or Maureen Dowd printing a conversation with Leon Wieseltier about how those books with pink covers are ruining literature, and complaining about log-rolling, which never, ever happens anywhere else in the literary world?

One: Nope. She also doesn't seem to think that women in her position have an obligation to help the next generation of young literary writers, with blurbs, or giveaways, or joint readings, or supporting one another in public or on social media the way commercial women writers do.

Two: Well, as long as she's not throwing the New York Times under the bus, I don't care who she blames, or doesn't blame. You go on with your bad self. I'm going to be in the bathroom for the next ten minutes or so.

One: Tell James Patterson's loggia I say 'hi.'
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