“Here’s an idea,” Linda Holmes says in an op-ed piece on NPR. “If you’re going to try to report on the fact that a couple of women who write books have tried to start a discussions of whether the mega-response to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom is symptomatic of a too-narrow view of interesting fiction, it might be a good idea to stay away from the formless and dismissive term ‘chick lit’ in discussing them.” As she says, all too often womens’ books about family and relationship are dismissed as “chick lit.” But men who write novels about the same kinds of subjects are accorded much more respect.
The “chick lit” debate has been raging for some time now, of course. This time around it was stoked by Jodi Picoult, who — upon reading the New York Times‘ rave review of Freedom — tweeted, “NYT raved about Franzen’s new book. Is anyone shocked? Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren’t white male literary darlings.” Jennifer Weiner then joined the fray (tweeting under the hashtag “franzenfreude”); the Times responded snarkily that anyone who thought she was right “should meet in front of Jennifer’s TV during “Oprah.” (Why is that? Because women sit around in the afternoon and eat bonbons and watch Oprah?) Weiner told Huffpo, “Do I think I should be getting all of the attention that Jonathan ‘Genius’ Franzen gets? Nope. Would I like to be taken at least as seriously as a Jonathan Tropper or a Nick Hornby? Absolutely.”
There’s a couple of issues here. I’ve weighed in on most of them before. As far as the Times goes, Weiner and Picoult are correct: The newspaper absolutely does have a bias towards white male authors (if you doubt this, go do some counting yourself). Look and see how many men in the last year got both daily and Sunday reviews — and then compare how many women were accorded that honor. Check the number of mentions Gary Shteyngart has gotten in the last month, and then do the same for Mona Simpson, a novelist of equal literary acclaim. (Their most recent works came out at roughly the same time this summer.) Simpson did get a profile, it’s true. Of course, it ran in the Style section, not the Arts section.
The chick lit issue is equally bothersome. It’s never failed to irritate me that the smart, funny, achingly real Good in Bed should be dismissed as “chick lit,” with all its dismissive, derogatory implications. This isn’t a novel about sex and shopping. Would we demean brash, action-packed adventure novels by calling them “dick lit”? No, we would not. (Although if the “chick lit” tag persists, maybe we should.)
All right, everyone: Weigh in, please. Do you think there’s a bias — in the Times or elsewhere — against women writers? What do you think of the “chick lit” debate?