Do male writers have an edge in attracting serious critical attention? This question, so urgent to women writers, so tedious to male editors and pundits, is getting its latest workout thanks to the vigorous tweeting of bestselling popular novelists Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult about the accolades heaped upon Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom (two ecstatic New York Times reviews, the cover of Time and much, much more) and Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story. Weiner is a sharp and fearless observer of literary gender politics, and I think she is onto something. (I should mention that she used my collection of personal essays, Learning to Drive, to illustrate the double standard by which women autobiographers are slammed for revealing small weaknesses while men are praised as honest and bold for chronicling their addictions and wife-beating. And as long as we are on the subject, let me add that my shocked, shocked reviewers were women.) Plenty of women writers get excellent reviews, but it is very rare for them to get the kind of excited, rapturous high-cultural reception given to writers who are "white and male and living in Brooklyn" or, since Franzen lives on the Upper East Side, are named Jonathan. "Girl genius" is not a phrase in our language.
Indeed, men get more reviews, period. The editors of DoubleX, Slate’s women’s blog, found that over the past two years 62 percent of the fiction reviewed in the New York Times had male authors, as did 72 percent of the books that got both a daily and a Sunday review. (Actually it’s worse than those numbers imply: women’s books are more likely to land in the NYTBR "Fiction Chronicle" columns, where books are reviewed in brief—so women not only got fewer reviews, they were more likely than men to get shorter, less significant reviews.) And the Times is not alone: The Atlantic, The New Republic and Slate itself review more fiction by men (if you include the reviews in the DoubleX blog, it’s 55 percent). A year’s worth of fiction coverage in The Nation clocked in at 75 percent male (!). Of course, it is possible that men write two-thirds of fiction or (more likely, but still improbable) two-thirds of the kinds of fiction high-end book editors assign—but those assigning decisions are themselves the product of a whole hierarchy of taste that has gender already built into it. What is a significant subject? Which writers get to ask the reader to work hard? Chris Jackson, an editor at Spiegel & Grau, for Chrissake, confessed on the Atlantic website that he hadn’t read any fiction by women in years, so he read some, and, hey, it was pretty good! There are lots of important women editors, as some have noted in trying to dismiss charges of sexism in the book world, but I doubt there’s a single one who reads only fiction by women. But don’t take my womanly word for it. When Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air suggested to Franzen that some other writers resented his success, he replied, "It seems like there’s a different critique. It’s a feminist critique. And it’s about the quality of attention that writing by women gets, compared to the quality of attention [to] male writers. I actually have a lot of those feelings myself." Well, all right!
It’s often said that women’s writing is less valued because it takes up stereotypically feminine (i.e., narrower) subjects—family, children, love and becoming a woman (ho-hum, boring!)—while men’s books deal with rousing, Important Universal topics like war, politics and whaling, and becoming a man. There may be some truth in this picture, but most serious novels are not so easily pigeonholed. It’s more accurate to say that the way we read a novel is colored by our awareness of the author’s sex—hence, students who describe a story differently according to whether they think Flannery O’Connor was male or female (and that famous study of teachers who gave the same paper a higher grade when it was ascribed to a boy). We have different expectations of male and female writers; we put them in different categories and different frames—and Great American Novelist is a frame that is coded male. When men write books about family life—John Updike, Jonathan Franzen—they are read as writing about America and the Human Condition. When women write books that are ambitious, political and engaged with the big world of ideas, they are seen as stories about the emotional lives of their characters. I’m thinking, for example, of Sigrid Nunez’s fifth novel, The Last of Her Kind, a dark, brilliant tale centered on two college classmates in the 1960s, one of whom becomes a kind of hybrid of Kathy Boudin and Simone Weil. Or Jennifer Egan’s second novel, Look at Me, set in a near future when public cameras record virtually everything, and featuring the parallel stories of a terrorist sleeper and a fashion model whose face is radically altered after an accident. Or Dana Spiotta’s second, Eat the Document, about former Weathermen on the run decades later. Any of these inventive, original, bold and brilliantly written books could have gotten if not the Franzen treatment, the Gary Shteyngart or the Jonathan Lethem treatment (and don’t get me wrong, I loved Motherless Brooklyn). But they didn’t. The reviews were good-to-wonderful—Spiotta even got a smart rave from Michiko Kakutani and a profile in the daily Times, plus a slightly clueless review in the NYTBR, but not the kind of fanfare that puts a writer in the center of the literary map, even the literary map of Brooklyn.
Granted, the book world is huge, and tastes differ and Jonathan Franzen is a terrific writer whether or not he would have gotten star treatment as Joanna. There are counterexamples like Jhumpa Lahiri, whose sly, delicate fiction gets man-sized attention. But it would be strange if literary taste-making was the one place in American life where gender expectations and assumptions played no role, wouldn’t it?