Monkey See
11:47 am
Thu September 27, 2012

Women, Men And Fiction: Notes On How Not To Answer Hard Questions

Originally published on Thu September 27, 2012 12:32 pm

Nothing is more vexing than a question where 10 percent of the public discussion is spent trying to answer it and 90 percent is spent arguing about whether it matters.

Such is the question of why, in many major publications, far more books by men are reviewed than books by women. Probably the best-known set of statistics comes from an organization called VIDA, which has created a feature called "The Count." That feature consists of pie charts that track the number of women and men both doing the reviewing and being reviewed. For instance, in 2011, they found that The New York Review Of Books reviewed 71 female authors and 293 male authors. In The New York Times, it was 273 women and 520 men.

Now, this kind of thing could be happening for lots of reasons, and like a lot of really complicated problems, it likely doesn't involve anything that anybody is doing on purpose, and therefore it doesn't lend itself to easy solutions through simple resolve. How several hundred books make it into a publication in a given year is the result of countless conscious and unconscious choices by readers, by authors, by book publishers, by reviewing publications, by reviewers and editors — it's an incredibly complex and unwieldy problem to try to get your arms around. You don't have to believe anyone is out to get women writers in order to think it's important to ask the question of what the factors are that bring us to that point and to suggest that it's not a great place to be.

Nothing has brought this issue more chatter than two popular women writers, Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, who have been beating the drum about it since 2010. And despite all those pie charts and all those hard numbers, the headline of Salon's discussion with The Marriage Plot author Jeffrey Eugenides today is, "Jeffrey Eugenides: I don't know why Jodi Picoult is belly-aching."

The piece, by David Daley, begins in a rather complimentary fashion by mentioning that Eugenides possesses a gaze "that's both magnetic and searing." (Oh, my.) It turns to the issues of gender bias only at the end, and only briefly. But within this short discussion, it's surprising how many different ways Eugenides argues that the issue of gender bias in literary culture doesn't strike him as much of an issue, at least in the forms in which it's come up so far. And all of them are patterns you'll see over and over again as people grapple with what's important enough to take on and what isn't. It matters not so much because this one response to this question is important, but because it provides such good examples of the kind of rhetorical thicket you often have to get through to keep these discussions alive.

Limited Interest/Information: It doesn't matter enough for me to know very much about it; how could it really matter?

When Daley mentions that The Marriage Plot is part of this broader conversation about how books about relationships are received when they're by men and by women. Eugenides says, "I heard about that." That's a red flag. You usually don't want to ask anyone to respond in any depth to an argument he's "heard about."

Please Accept These Exceptions: It doesn't matter because it doesn't apply in every case.

Eugenides' first response to being asked about whether books by men and women are received differently is to name three women who write well-regarded literary fiction — Zadie Smith, Joyce Carol Oates, and Alice Munro. He's right, of course, that they're heavily covered and well-reviewed. But the argument has never been that there are no recognized women writers of literary fiction, so the existence of three isn't determinative. Both conscious and unconscious bias often don't lock a door completely as much as make it much harder to open. Those women would exist whether there was bias or not. That's why you can't answer a question about racial issues in Hollywood by putting your hands over your ears and yelling "WILL SMITH AND DENZEL WASHINGTON!"

The Telephone Game: It doesn't matter (what was it again?).

Eugenides says, "It seems to me that there's a difference between the kinds of books that Jonathan Franzen writes and Jodi Picoult writes — so it's not surprising to me that they're treated differently in terms of review coverage or literary coverage. I don't think that's based on gender."

This is where Eugenides feeds the concern that just as he said, he has "heard about" this debate and isn't as familiar as you might hope with the arguments that are involved. Picoult and Weiner, contrary to the narrative that emerged, have never argued that commercial fiction/genre fiction isn't distinguishable from literary fiction and therefore the reason they're not treated like Jonathan Franzen has to be sexism. But to know that, you have to read what they actually said, not what other people responded to.

Picoult indeed jumped into all this with a specific comment at the time Jonathan Franzen's Freedom was reviewed that The New York Times has an overwhelming fondness for "white male literary darlings." But she has maintained from the beginning that her beef about commercial fiction in the Times is more general and is not, in her opinion, the result of race and gender bias. In essence, she has argued that there are two problems: a bias in favor of white male authors, and a general, gender- and race-nonspecific bias against commercial fiction.

Picoult has made it clear that she doesn't believe her books would be making it into the New York Times no matter who she was. When she and Jennifer Weiner gave an interview about all this to The Huffington Post, Picoult said the Times doesn't do commercial fiction "whether you're a man, woman, white, black, purple or pink."

Weiner, on the other hand, takes the position that popular fiction aimed at men — say, crime fiction and thrillers — actually is reviewed far more often and taken far more seriously than popular fiction aimed at women. (While Weiner and Picoult have been lumped together, their critiques are actually a little different.) Says Weiner:

As it stands, thrillers and mysteries and speculative fiction can get daily reviews, or considered in the NYTBR round-ups. Chick lit gets ignored, unless it gores one of the paper's sacred cows (note to self: don't mess with Anna Wintour!). Romance gets ignored completely...and that, I think, is the most damning argument about gender bias at the Times. How can anyone claim the paper plays fair when genre fiction that men read gets reviewed but genre fiction that women read doesn't exist on the paper's review pages?

So neither of them made the argument Eugenides is quite correctly swatting away: that there's no difference between a Jodi Picoult book and a Jonathan Franzen book and so the reason one is reviewed and the other isn't can only be gender. In fact, they both explicitly acknowledge the difference by speaking in terms of commercial and literary fiction. Picoult is arguing that the reason one is reviewed and the other isn't implicates a bias against commercial fiction generally. Weiner is arguing it may implicate gender bias as to which kinds of commercial fiction are reviewed.

What Eugenides is saying here is probably correct, but it doesn't really address itself to the question.

Ambiguity: It doesn't matter because nobody's proved anything one way or the other.

Daley then asks whether The Marriage Plot would have had a different cover if it had been written by a woman. Eugenides first cites a New York Times essay that touches on this very point, written by Meg Wolitzer, with whom he says he says he's friendly. Wolitzer's piece takes the position that women authors get — per the VIDA numbers — "shockingly short shrift" both as reviewers and as the reviewed. Interestingly, it's fundamentally in sync with many of the points that Picoult and Weiner have raised. Wolitzer echoes their concerns about a very male sense of what's "serious," she criticizes marketing decisions that pigeonhole books, and — exactly contrary to Eugenides' argument that there is no gender bias affecting literary women writers like Zadie Smith — she says of the VIDA statistics that "women who write literary fiction frequently find themselves in an unjust world."

But just as he gets to this part, citing a piece of writing from someone he respects that full-throatedly argues that bias exists, he simply says of the cover design question and perhaps of bias more broadly, "You know, it's possible." If it's important and it's possible, of course, you keep asking. That's the beginning, not the end.

The Ad Hominem Argument: It doesn't matter because of who brought it up.

Right when he's getting into the piece from Wolitzer, when it seems he's piqued his own curiosity and proved that all this at least is worth thinking about, Eugenides switches his focus back to Picoult. "I didn't really know why Jodi Picoult is complaining," he says. His reason: she writes best-sellers. But it's not clear why sales are relevant, unless critiques of a system can only come from those it successfully impoverishes. It's hard to believe Eugenides would take Picoult's critique more seriously if it came from a commercial fiction writer who was not only writing genre fiction but unpopular genre fiction.

Impatience: It doesn't matter because even if the question is valid, it's petty.

Undoubtedly, Salon's favorite word in the interview is "bellyaching," because it's the most eyebrow-raising. "I was surprised that she would be the one belly-aching," he says. The use of the word "bellyaching" sort of implies that not only does he think bias in reviewing doesn't exist, but he thinks calling it out is sort of tiresome. "Bellyaching" is a word that calls to mind unimportant grievances raised by people determined to gripe, not just grievances about which people are perhaps mistaken. The implication here — as it was when her best-sellers were referenced — is that even if Picoult is right about what she's saying, she somehow shouldn't really be bringing it up.

Making It Personal: It doesn't matter because it's just axe-grinding.

Eugenides makes maybe his most regrettable move when he says Picoult has no reason to raise any of this, since it doesn't seem to him that she's "starved for attention." He almost certainly doesn't mean to blunder into the stereotype that dismisses assertiveness on the part of women as attention-seeking, but he does. And in doing so, he personalizes her complaint while depersonalizing his response. The implication is that Jodi Picoult's only conceivable and justifiable reason for calling out what she sees as systemic unfairness is to get attention for herself, but that he can critique literary culture objectively despite being utterly a creature of it.

If we assumed that she, as a writer, couldn't see that culture other than through its treatment of her, surely we would have to be equally suspicious that his feeling that all is well might be related to how the existing system works for him. It's wise to be cautious about casting the raising of a broad cultural question as personal but the decision not to engage it as intellectual.

When Geniuses Are Starving: It doesn't matter because I'm more invested in a different problem.

Eugenides goes on to say that there are "extremely worthy novelists" who aren't getting any attention. Agreed!

But he's presumably talking about literary novelists. If Picoult is right in her criticisms of major publications ignoring commercial fiction or Weiner is right that there's a gender bias in which kinds of commercial fiction are reviewed, they're exactly the right ones to make those arguments.

The fact that there exist literary novelists who toil in obscurity for reasons other than gender is a parallel but different problem that affects women and men both. It's not as if there's one complaint line to The Literary Establishment that only one person can call at a time.

Artists will always be overlooked, and they'll always complain about it, but if gender (or any other) bias can't be questioned until we have first mastered an otherwise perfect cultural meritocracy, we'll be waiting a while.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.