You may have heard of the novelist Jonathan Franzen, who always seems to be in the news about something. In 2001, he dissed Oprah — Oprah! — for having “schmaltzy” taste after she chose his novel, The Corrections, for her book club and then she rescinded the offer. His latest novel, Freedom, has already grabbed headlines after President Obama purchased a copy for his summer vacation reading. High brow, this one is.
Now Jonathan Franzen is at the center of yet another media s**tstorm after the author Jodi Picoult tweeted a pissy comment about his latest review in The New York Times Book Review. “NYT raved about Franzen’s new book,” Picoult tweeted. “Is anyone shocked? Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren’t white male literary darlings.” Later she pointed out how Franzen’s book actually received two reviews in the Times. “[I] just used that review as an example of what the NYT seems to gravitate toward for review coverage (and frankly, the fact that Freedom is getting two reviews in the same week supports my statement),” she tweeted. “Even if it is the best book ever created, it would be nice for the NYT to use some of its review space to cover authors they haven’t covered mere days before.”
Picoult later expounded on her thoughts to the blog NYT Picker, which covers the goings-on within the Times. “It is my personal opinion that yes, the Times favors white male authors,” she said. “That isn’t to say someone else might get a good review — only that if you are white and male and living in Brooklyn you have better odds, or so it seems.”
Let’s clear up two things first: I personally don’t have the figures in front of me that would prove Picoult’s hunch that white male authors get their books reviewed more often, as she tweeted,”If you’re the NYT, for every [Edwidge] Dandicat/ [Juno] Diaz, there are ten [Jonathan] Lethems and Franzens.” Obviously, someone would need to go through The New York Times Book Review and do a count. And of course, readers can choose to read a book by whatever gender and race they want. (I mostly read books written by white women, actually, because “female” tends to be the gender of the author of books sent to The Frisky’s office.)
But we’re not talking about numbers necessarily; we’re talking about a whole culture. It must be frustrating for a successful author like Jodi Picoult to see the same half-dozen men popping up all over the place, all the time. Her use of the word “darlings” had a bite to it for a reason. Literary culture that divvies up books (generally-speaking) as “serious books by men” and “not so serious books by women.” Jodi Picoult — deservedly or not — tends to get lumped in the category of fluffy reading alongside Stephenie Meyer, Candace Bushnell, Jane Green and even J.K. Rowling. Obviously, there are tons of exceptions, but these are some of the brand-name writers who get famous and none of them are “serious.”
But if you read a lot about books and current book-reading culture, like me, you do see the same names popping up again and again in articles about the generation-defining writers right now. These are the brand-name writers and they are all “serious”: Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Lethem, Gary Schteyngart, Dave Eggers, Junot Diaz, and Michael Chabon. As I said before, there are some well-regarded “serious” women, too — like Nicola Krauss, Ayelet Waldman and Zadie Smith— but it’s mostly men. And they’re mostly white. And they mostly live in NYC or San Francisco or Berkeley.
It would be too easy to say Jodi Picoult is just jealous she’s not included in that elite group — and indeed, that’s the opinion of internet commenters hiding behind their anonymity. But Jodi Picoult has no reason to be jealous: she’s a bestselling author whose even had her book, My Sister’s Keeper, turned into a movie. She’s not jealous; she’s bitter at the lack of respect she gets. And she has every reason to be. I would imagine Jodi Picoult is bitter that she’s successful, but she’s not getting the respect of being regarded as generation-defining. And she likely never will get that respect, because it just doesn’t fit the mold.
I hope this recent controversy regarding Jodi Picoult isn’t just brushed off as an author feud. It’s really just one drop in a bucket of a whole bunch of issues about gender and book publishing, which also includes the well-worn “chick lit” debate and the question of candy-coated book covers. That’s why it’s too easy to say, “Jodi Picoult should write more serious, less formulaic books. Problem solved!” (Although, let’s face it, that would certainly help.) A bigger and better question would be to ask why white men from NYC, San Francisco and Berkeley seem to have an easier time coming up the pipeline as “serious” writers.