A Moment of Jen
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Friday, December 13, 2013
posted by Jen at 12/13/2013 10:26:00 AM

While this is, of course, the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, it is also the time I typically spend counting and grumbling.

I count the number of books reviewed that were written by women, and the number of women writers profiled in the Times, and then I grumble when those numbers turn out to be significantly lower than the number of male authors whose works and selves got that consideration.

It's interesting that this willingness to count and to talk about the results means that I just might be, in the eyes of no less venerated an institution than The Nation, the "most aggrieved of the bestselling novelist" in all the land.

So, the breakdown: railing against social media and Amazon and name-checking fellow novelists for having "succumbed" to Twitter? A-okay! Pointing out that there are gaping inequities between the number of men and the number of women getting published and reviewed? Bitch, bitch, bitch.

In the three years since individuals and organizations have been doing the count-and-grumble, not much has improved. I’m sure I could run the numbers right now and come up with predictably grim tallies…but this was a year where a lot of things went right.

Under the leadership of Pamela Paul, who took over last April, the New York Times Book Review has become a more inclusive, more embracing, more interesting place.

Interspersed with the typical big-boy heavy hitters whose tastes are probed and recommendations sought in the “By the Book” feature are pop-culture figures from Penn, of Penn and Teller, to Sting. Popular writers like Mary Higgins Clark and James Patterson alternate with Tom Perrotta and Jhumpa Lahiri.

Bestselling authors have gotten the cover treatment. Hey, there’s Stephen King! Look, it’s Elizabeth Gilbert!

Paul’s Book Review has even found room for the kind of commercial fiction whose presence has long been limited to the bestseller list. Each week, the Book Review publishes "The Short List," capsule reviews of books grouped by subject or genre…which means that if you’re a woman who writes genre fiction that isn’t mysteries (those are still covered by Marilyn Stasio’s column,) you’ve got a chance at getting some notice.

As a whole, 2013 was a good year for ladies at the Times. Women wrote big books, and they got the kind of two-reviews-and-a-profile attention that’s long been lavished on the Jonathans (Franzen, Lethem, Safran-Foer).

This year, Meg Wolitzer, Claire Messud, Kate Atkinson, Elizabeth Gilbert and Donna Tartt all joined the two-reviews-plus club. Of the paper’s five best novels of 2013, four were written by women.

Predictably, Paul’s revamp prompted a certain amount of hand-wringing and pearl-clutching literary quarters.

A woman whose debut novel got scads of press (and two NYT reviews) fretted that it just wasn’t fair that commercial fiction, which already gets all the readers, would “dominate” the book review section, too.

Other literary ladies sniffed that they simply couldn’t find the energy to get worked up over questions of who gets covered, and how, and where, while one book publicist memorably tweeting that she was too busy selling books to waste time on “literary fueds.”

Many of the got-no-time-for-it ladies, big surprise, are the ones who are currently reviewed by the Times, published in the New Yorker and, in one case, short-listed for the women-only Orange Prize (it takes a special kind of chutzpah to declare yourself above the gender fray while you’re happily collecting accolades and cash that are only available because other women pointed out inequities and fought for ways to address them).

Other defenders of the status quo worried that if commercial writers succeeded in getting coverage in the NYTBR, it would result in the total absence of gatekeepers, a lowering of the what-deserves-attention bar so radical that anything could clear it, resulting in a boring book review.

It's early days but, so far, none of the worst-case scenarios have come to pass.

Boring, of course, is in the eye of the beholder...but I'd submit that brilliant book plus smart reviewer does not always equal a great piece of criticism. Too often, what you end up with is lengthy, tendentious criticism in which the critic unloads every literary reference and four-syllable word in his or her arsenal in an attempt to prove that he or she is as smart as the author under consideration.

Nor has a page’s worth of capsule reviews once a week in the Times meant that serious writers of fiction are no longer getting their due. That worried debut novelist, for example, hasn't had any trouble getting the Times to publish her beer preferences in the Sunday Magazine.

As for the fear of a world without gatekeepers, at The New York Review of Books and The Paris Review have proved themselves more than capable of distinguishing between a big, important novel and a piece of self-published Wookie erotica.

The New Yorker is still publishing Lionel Shriver and Jeffrey Eugenides. The Paris Review is still publishing Lydia Davis and Rachel Cusk. The New York Times might do capsule reviews of best sellers, but it is still spending more of its resources calling attention to quieter, less accessible fare that might otherwise be overlooked.

None of this is new...and all of it's okay. Sure, the VIDA numbers at these publications are nothing short of appalling, and literary magazine could do a better job of actively seeking out and encouraging young women writers to submit their work...but, as long as People and Entertainment Weekly cover popular fiction, editors at The Paris Review and The New Yorker are welcome to confine their attention to highbrow books.

Three years after the start of a conversation about why the Times was writing so many stories about Jonathan Franzen while giving literary women writers short shrift, ignoring commercial women writers completely and implicitly telling readers of romance and chick lit that they weren't welcome, the Times has shown that it is, in fact, capable of changing.

Most readers make room on their shelves for a variety of books -- capital-L literature, graphic novels, science fiction, mysteries and beach reads and beloved childhood favorites. It's been great -- and gratifying -- to watch The New York Times make room on its pages for a similar bounty.

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