This is What a Feminist Book Snob Looks Like
So there is this article, in which guy-author Jeffrey Eugenides accuses lady-author Jodi Picoult of “belly-aching” about the fact that she doesn’t get any love from the New York Times. I hate how soundbites are taken out of context, so here is the full quote, emphasis mine:
I didn’t really know why Jodi Picoult is complaining. She’s a huge best-seller and everyone reads her books, and she doesn’t seem starved for attention, in my mind — so I was surprised that she would be the one belly-aching. There’s plenty of extremely worthy novelists who are getting very little attention. I think they have more right to complain. And it usually has nothing to do with their gender, but just the marketplace.
Hmm, you mean she wants to be commercially successful AND respected? How dare she! Complainer! And really, does ANYTHING have “nothing to do with gender?” My feminist spidey-sense are tingling…
Then I read this Jezebel article. Jezebel has a feminist perspective, and I was ready to be righteously outraged… but I totally wasn’t. The author doesn’t deal with the fact that Eugenides writes literary fiction while Picoult writes commercial fiction, so all the ranting about how ladies aren’t taken seriously is moot because literary fiction is more deserving of publicity and attention… isn’t it? Maybe Eugenides is right, it’s all about the marketplace…
I was feeling very conflicted and icky. I didn’t expect to agree with a guy who accuses a woman of “belly-aching” because she demands the same sort of respect her peers are getting. But then, I don’t see a situation in which I would ever read a Jodi Picoult book on purpose. Jeffrey Eugenides is brilliant and wrote one of my favourite books, The Virgin Suicides. So am I sexist, a book snob, or both?
Then I read this article (tweeted by @jenniferweiner. Follow her.) The author takes the time to research the background, present some actual data, and break down the issues. There are a couple of things going on:
- Commercial fiction is not seen as important or worthy as literary fiction
- Female genre writers like Picoult are treated differently than male genre writers, like, say, Nick Hornby.
- Female genres like romance and YA are treated differently than male genres like horror and mystery.
The whole “belly aching” controversy seems like a smoke screen to distract from the real issues. Kind of like that whole “mom wars” silliness a few months ago. There is ABSOLUTELY sexism in publishing and in writing and in reading. I’ve been reading the classics for years, and it is a vast sea of dead white dudes. Think it’s not a problem today? Nearly all of the current New York Times hardcover bestsellers are by male authors. If you add e-books to the mix, suddenly half are by female authors – thanks to E.L. James are her ilk.
I’m trying to assuage my feminist guilt by stacking my Classics Club list in favour of female authors. I still only made it to 19/50 books, and that was difficult. Maybe I need to write a book.
Do you think the publishing industry is sexist? Do you make an effort to read female authors?
I wouldn’t say the publishing industry is too sexist, but too set in its ways. I hate the fact that people will buy books or give books great reviews based solely on who wrote it. I loved Eugenides’s first two books, but I’m scared to read his newest one. There have been so many authors, literary authors, who write books that just seem to deteriorate the longer they write, yet the reviewers (like the NYT) eat them up! I read them and wonder if we were reading the same book.
I also think that there are some feminine book authors who are treated equally, and some male book authors who aren’t treated equally.
But I mean, really, in the end, I don’t pay attention to the NYT reviews or anything. I rely on my gut and recommendations from friends, and try not to buy a book based solely on the name.
Does that make any sense? Great post, Laura!
Totally agree with everything you said here! It’s like it’s an old boy’s (or girl’s) club. Certain authors are “in” and everything they do is golden. Jonathan Franzen comes to mind… 🙂
I feel the same way about Eugenides’ new book. I don’t know why I’m hesitant to read it, but I am, even though I loved his other two. Felt that way before reading this article.
I bet a lot of people don’t pay attention to reviews. I think Picoult’s point is more just the validation of *being* reviewed and getting the space on the page, and I do see her point.
Firstly,”The Marriage Plot” is not a great read. I wrote about it a few months ago — http://www.thebookaweekproject.com/2012/05/review-marriage-plot-by-jeffrey.html.
That, to me, was evidence of sexism in the industry. Had “The Marriage Plot” been written by a woman it would have been advertised (and probably received) in a DRASTICALLY different way. As I wrote earlier, it seemed to me like a highfalutin WB show. Had it been the product of a female author the whole thing would be awash in pinks and purples, with frilly bows and rings in every nook and cranny.
As far as Picoult’s comments go, that whole mess seems a bit petty for my tastes. Complaining about a lack of critical claim is kind of like bitching about being passed over for homecoming queen, in my opinion. The only tangible importance of being critically acclaimed is that it gets you noticed and talked about, which gets you marketed, which sells books, which gets you readers. But Picoult already has more readers than most, so why should she even care?
It’s not like she’s talked about in the same conversations as Sophie Kinsella.
I love a good scathing review Nice job! Have you read his other stuff?
I disagree with you regarding the critical acclaim. On a personal, author by author level, it may all come back to money (though I’m sure there’s also a sense of pride in your work, etc), but in a larger sense, what gets talked about as serious literature, and therefor enters the canon, and becomes part of literary or just general culture, is important! And it’s important that there’s a serious under-representation of all sorts of groups, women included.
I don’t necessarily agree with Picoult that “commercial” fiction should be talked about the same way as “literary” fiction, but given that gender (arguably?) wrapped up in what gets classified as commercial or genre or “chick lit”, and given that classic and literary fiction is still very much white male dominated… yeah I think it’s important. It’s important to talk about it and ask questions and it’s important that people who ask questions are dismissed as belly aching or as home coming queen wannabes (sorry that really rubbed me the wrong way).
I mean “^This” of lauratfrey’s reply to Rick.
The weirdest thing about his rant to me was his obtuseness in not realizing Jodi Picoult’s critique wasn’t to address her individual problems but of systemic sexism in the industry. Maybe he’s so self-centered and everything he “complains” about is only designed to benefit him –and not say, injustice to another person, or a class of people– that he judged her based on that. A whole set of privilege-blinders in his entire rant.