Thursday, August 26, 2010

Gender, Genre, and the Politics of Book Reviews

"As it stands, thrillers and mysteries and speculative fiction can get daily reviews, or considered in the NY Times Book Review 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?"
- Jennifer Weiner in a recent Huffington Post interview

There has been a lot of talk recently about whether or not female writers are getting the same respect and coverage as their male peers, especially when it comes to reputable media such as the New York Times, The Washington Post, or the Atlantic. While this has been brewing for ages (some might even say since writing was invented), the argument has been bumped to the foreground recently because of the New York Times' extensive coverage of Jonathan Franzen. With book review space so limited it caused an uproar when the New York Times Book Review (NYTBR) covered Franzen's new book, Freedom, twice in seven days. When he made the front cover of TIME the same week things blew up.

On the surface this seems to be an argument of whether or not certain books are considered Literary or Commercial. Literary novelists (such as Franzen, Foer, or Irving) get reviews, magazine spots, and advertising. Contrarily, commercial novelists (such as Picoult, Wiener, and Weisberger) don't get the critical attention, but they do get the sales. It can be argued that the more commercial writers just write populist fiction devoid of real substance, while the literary authors write fuller books that speak directly to the human condition. There's just one problem with that: the two overlap more than most acknowledge. And when the line gets drawn it is often drawn right between the genders.

It has been pointed out that if a man writes about family and work it is literary and cutting edge. Worthy of being lauded. Whereas if a woman does the same the book is called a "beach read" and doomed to the classification of chick-lit. This gets particularly sticky when you consider that the former books are getting hailed in the media while the latter are ignored entirely. Compound that with the fact that more women buy books than men and it becomes suspiciously sexist.

Do I, personally, think there is a sexist agenda at the NYTBR? No. Do I think there is some pretty serious gender inequality going on? You betcha.

I, for one, do not read chick-lit, romance, or beach reads (however you wish to define the boundaries). It should be noted that I also don't read books with the same themes, written by men, and classified as Literary. However, as both an academic and a reader of sci-fi and fantasy, I am sensitive to the shunning of genres as low-brow.

Weiner makes an excellent point when she points out that, "by willfully ignoring commercial women's fiction, the Times has made itself, as an institution, an unreliable narrator." When you chose to cover male dominated genres such as suspense and horror, but then chose to exclude female dominated genres such as romance, you are admitting your bias openly. You are saying that one type of genre writing is worth reading while another is not. And if the genre you are ignoring happens to be dominated by women, both authors and readers, you will be presenting a poor knowledge (if nothing else) of gender politics.

So what do you think? Should the NYTBR spend more time reviewing other genres, and give more attention to chick-lit writers? Should they even things out by ceasing to cover genres like horror and just stick to what is considered Literary fiction? Or is this whole thing one big miscommunication built on misperceptions? I for one vote for more book reviews overall so that every genre can get its day in the sun.

To read more about this visit this article on GalleyCat and read the full interview of Picoult and Weiner on the Huffington Post.

- t

1 comment:

  1. Totally thought provoking. Indeed, it does seem that only a certain "flavor" of book ever gets reviewed.

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