This week has had some interesting controversy in the gender divide of publishing. Best-selling authors Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner expressed their irritation with the way the New York Times and other traditional news outlets were fawning over Jonathan Franzen and his forthcoming novel, Freedom. Yes, it’s the same book that President Obama took on his vacation and put Franzen on the cover of Time.
Most writers can feel at least a little twinge of envy at the treatment accorded Frantzen: after nine years, he finally has a follow up to The Corrections and the mainstream press can’t stop falling over themselves to declare him the best novelist in the country. Weiner and Picoult used Twitter to vent their frustration at the lionizing of a male lit fiction writer in contrast to the invisibility of women writers of popular fiction, using the hashtag #franzenfreude (if you’re not familiar with the term “schadenfreude” already, trust me, you’ll want to add it now!).
This controversy — and the overwhelming tide of readers who responded positively to it (after all, Frantzen was the guy who dissed Oprah) — led to an interview in the Huffington Post with Picoult and Weiner. The two make clear the scorn with which not only popular literature in general and romance in particular receive from outlets like the New York Times. While Weiner joked that she would “cry into her royalty checks” it is also clear that the dismissal of their hard work and skill and the neglect of their genre in the mainstream media proves frustrating — and not just for female romance writers. As Weiner says:
I’d love it if the Times actually “celebrated” my genre, but at this point I’d happily settle for the paper merely acknowledging it. 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? It would be as if the paper’s film critics only reviewed tiny independent fare and refused to see so much as a single frame of a romantic comedy, or if the music critics listened to Grizzly Bear and refused to acknowledge the existence of Katy Perry or Lady Gaga. How seriously would a reader take a critic like that?
The artificial split between “literary” fiction and “popular” fiction seems to be slowly eroding — back to what it used to be. A lot of these commercial genre divisions are of fairly recent vintage. Marketing teams convinced publishers and bookstores to stratify the market in order to make it easier for people to find “what they wanted” — but they assumed that people always wanted the same thing. Fortunately, that’s not true. Most people like some variety in their life and in their reading!