A Moment of Jen
THE NEXT BEST THING — In Stores July 3rd!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010
posted by Jen at 9/21/2010 06:01:00 PM

Back in August, when Jodi Picoult tweeted about the New York Times’ predilection for reviewing the fiction of white men, people wondered: is this true?

A few weeks after the #franzenfreude conversation began, the bloggers at Slate’s DoubleX.com ran the numbers…and found that they’re even worse than regular readers of the paper might have guessed.

Of all of the fiction the New York Times reviewed last year, only 38 percent was written by women.

Of all the novels that got the coveted double reviews, 72 percent were written by men.

When you consider popular fiction, the numbers get even worse.

According to blogger Scott Lemieux, in the time period Slate considered, eleven best-selling male authors, including Stephen King, John Grisham and Dan Brown, got the double whammy of the daily and the Sunday review. Only one woman writing what’s considered commercial fiction – NYC’s own Candace Bushnell -- was reviewed twice in the Times.

Where, wondered Ruth Franklin of The New Republic, is the outrage? Where’s the letter from the public editor? When is this going to change?

While it’s certainly fun to imagine the Times’ public editor harrumphing through the halls, banging his cane against the radiator and demanding justice, or to picture book review editor Sam Tanenhaus pawing through stacks of galleys, desperately searching for a debut rom-com by a lesbian of color to review tomorrow if not sooner, I strongly suspect that the answer’s probably never (I imagine this in my best David Spade voice – how’s never? Is never good for you?)

I say this because, the day after Franklin’s blog post ran, the Grey Lady, which had already published two reviews and a half-dozen news stories and columns about FREEDOM, gave us her answer.

It sent a reporter to cover Jonathan Franzen’s book party.

It was, by Liesl Schillinger’s account, a magical night, what with the glittering literati all gussied up for the coronation and having themselves a good old Manhattan laugh at the “detractors” who dared to “grouse” at their golden boy’s good fortune.

"After Time magazine put Mr. Franzen on its Aug. 23 cover, with the tagline “Great American Novelist,” the author Jennifer Weiner created the Twitter hashtag @Franzenfreude (sic), defining the word as “taking pain in the multiple and copious reviews being showered on Jonathan Franzen.”

Emerging from a conversation with Lorin Stein, the new editor of The Paris Review, Jonathan Galassi, the president of Farrar Straus Giroux, publisher of “Freedom,” rejected Ms. Weiner’s word, as defined. In German, he pointed out, “freude” means “joy.” “This,” he said extending his arm to indicate the revelers —“is Franzenfreude” — Joy in Franzen.

Had Schillinger asked me for a quote, I would have told her that “your made-up German compound noun is incorrect” is not a satisfactory response to “your paper does not cover women’s work fairly.”

I would have explained how hashtags work. Then I would have said that of course it’s “joy of Franzen.” When you’ve got the nation’s most important paper acting as your personal PR firm, what could possibly cause you pain? The schaden part – the pain of the writers whose work goes unreviewed and unreported-on, the pain of readers who watch in frustration as the Times devotes thousands of words to its boy of the hour while ignoring the books that they read and enjoy and talk about – that’s as silent, as invisible as it’s always been to the people who run the Times.

Of course, franzenfreude was never just about Jonathan Franzen. It’s about the way the Times and the media works, piling praise and attention on a certain kind of boy writing a certain kind of book while refusing to ever consider a woman for that Great American Novelist chair. Meghan O’Rourke in Slate and Katha Pollitt in The Nation both said this more smartly than I could. Even Franzen himself, in an interview with Terri Gross on Fresh Air (which, is turns out, has female trouble of its own), acknowledged that the discussion was never primarily about of him or his book, but a feminist critique of which novels get covered, and how often, and where.

I don’t have much to add, except that it’s been amusing to watch the big boy editors and some of the quote-unquote literary novelists circle the wagons, repeating shrilly, almost hysterically, that there’s no problem with their policies, insisting that, even in the face of hard data proving otherwise, there’s nothing to see here except a pair of inexplicably discontented lady writers piling on poor Jonathan.

They’ve called me and Jodi Picoult names (in English and French). They’ve accused us of being fake populists, mean-spirited hacks just jealous of Franzen’s chops, or leeches trying to latch on to his success and tear down the distinction between high art and pop art. Most of all, they've pretended that this was a Jen-and-Jodi versus Jonathan fight -- Franzen versus "Franzen detractors," -- a conversation that wasn't really about review policies or about anything, really, except bitterness and bad attitudes...that it was personal, because with women, it's always personal, right?

Of course, there’s nothing new here.

In 2003, Stephen King was awarded the National Book Foundation’s medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, and got the same kind of blowback for daring to suggest that maybe critics should give popular fiction its due. It’s the same stuff, recycled, only this time the criticism comes coated with a lovely layer of sexism, a delightfully dismissive tone of, "Oh, you girls. What will you think you deserve next?"

It’s worth considering what King said back then, in accepting his prize: “…[G]iving an award like this to a guy like me suggests that in the future things don't have to be the way they've always been. Bridges can be built between the so-called popular fiction and the so-called literary fiction. The first gainers in such a widening of interest would be the readers, of course, which is us because writers are almost always readers and listeners first. You have been very good and patient listeners and I'm going to let you go soon but I'd like to say one more thing before I do.

Tokenism is not allowed. You can't sit back, give a self satisfied sigh and say, "Ah, that takes care of the troublesome pop lit question. In another twenty years or perhaps thirty, we'll give this award to another writer who sells enough books to make the best seller lists." It's not good enough. Nor do I have any patience with or use for those who make a point of pride in saying they've never read anything by John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Mary Higgins Clark or any other popular writer.

What do you think? You get social or academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your own culture? Never in life, as Capt. Lucky Jack Aubrey would say….There's a great deal of good stuff out there and not all of it is being done by writers whose work is regularly reviewed in the Sunday New York Times Book Review. I believe the time comes when you must be inclusive rather than exclusive.

That said, I accept this award on behalf of such disparate writers as Elmore Leonard, Peter Straub, Nora Lofts, Jack Ketchum, whose real name is Dallas Mayr, Jodi Picoult, Greg Iles, John Grisham, Dennis Lehane, Michael Connolly, Pete Hamill and a dozen more. I hope that the National Book Award judges, past, present and future, will read these writers and that the books will open their eyes to a whole new realm of American literature. You don't have to vote for them, just read them.”


Readers, and some writers (most eloquently Tess Gerritsen), ask: why does the Times matter any more? Writers like you and Jodi Picoult have managed to find an audience without the paper’s approval. Who cares what they say, or don’t say, about you?

On the one hand, yes. It’s perfectly possible to have a wonderful career, devoted readers, a very happy life (and a very happy publisher) without the Times ever taking notice.

On the other hand, we’re talking about the paper of record, a paper that’s wonderfully inclusive in its coverage of the creative arts, a paper that reviews opera and orchestras and Justin Bieber concerts and “Paul Blart: Mall Cop," a paper that takes as its mission to reflect the culture, not just instruct on what it thinks the culture should be, but somehow gets the icks when it comes to ladybooks.

If all you read was the Times, you’d be excused for thinking that FREEDOM was the only book published in the past few weeks. That wasn’t the case. On September 7, Terry McMillan published GETTING TO HAPPY, the sequel to her 1992 novel WAITING TO EXHALE.

McMillan’s tale of four upper-middle-class black women and their search for love was a game-changer. It became a huge word-of-mouth bestseller and eventually, a smash movie. Its success it opened doors for other authors by showing publishers that there was an enormous audience eager for stories about minorities who weren’t living in poverty, working as domestics, or coping with rape, abuse or illiteracy.

HAPPY's publication was big news in the mainstream press. Time and Entertainment Weekly ran profiles and Q and A’s. The Washington Post published a day-of-publication review, "Good Morning America" did an interview.

And the Times? Said nothing. The paper published not one review, not one news story, not one profile. Nothing. HAPPY debuted at number four on the Times’ bestseller list, which finally landed McMillan her first mention – a single paragraph in the book review’s chatty TBR column, which mentioned the author’s “bruising and very public” divorce, and concluded with a recycled quote from the Raleigh News & Observer.

I suppose the paper could say that Tanenhaus made on NPR: “we cover literature,” and, presumably, GETTING TO HAPPY doesn’t qualify. It could say that McMillan’s readers had plenty of other places to get information about the book….but neither of those arguments kept the Times from lavishing attention on Steig Larsson’s bestselling Millennium trilogy.

The message: McMillan's book doesn’t really matter. Her readers aren’t worth talking to.

And when the paper of record tells its readers, through silence and omission, that some stories, some writers, some readers matter more than others and some stories, some writers, some readers, don’t matter at all, then yes, I’ve got a problem with that.

Maybe it’s because I used to be a newspaper reporter, and continue to cling to the belief that newspapers matter. Maybe it’s because I’ve got daughters, and if either of them is lucky or cursed enough to be a writer, I’d like to think that their books won't have to clear the hurdles of built-in assumptions about the value of women's work.

Or maybe it’s the way gay couples felt when the Times started including their photographs and wedding announcement in the Sunday Styles section. Yes, their unions were legitimate and binding even without the paper’s coverage, and yes, their friends and loved ones always knew the truth about their commitment, but it’s nice to be seen as part of the official record, to have no less an entity than the New York Times say, “You know what? You’re part of the story. You belong here, too.”


So what happens now? Given the inequities, and the Times’ reluctance to address them, is there anything individual readers and writers can do?

I’ve been thinking about how there has to be a way to use whatever influence I’ve got, or have gained during this tempest, to help get the word out about great books that are never going to inspire a Franzen-level frenzy.

Tomorrow I'll be posting a Q and A with Emma Donoghue, author of the brilliant and much-celebrated ROOM, which has earned a ton of praise (including the double-review from the Times) and deserves every accolade it's gotten. She'll talk about her influences (FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC, anyone?), her research, the challenges of writing with small children and what makes ROOM a big book.

If you buy ROOM between now and Saturday morning and send your receipt to jen@jenniferweiner.com, I'll pick ten winners to get a signed copy of whichever one of my books they like.

Finally, come back next week for an announcement about what I'll be doing going forward to make try to keep the spotlight on the books the Times ignores.

I think this could be the start of a great conversation. I hope you'll join me.
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