The agony of the male novelist

Jennifer Weiner's new attack on the New York Times misses the point. In today's book world, men are disadvantaged

Topics: Fiction, Gender,

The agony of the male novelist (Credit: iStockphoto/srebrina)

Bestselling writer Jennifer Weiner revisited a favorite topic on her blog Tuesday, unearthing data on gender bias in New York Times book reviews. By her calculations, of the 254 novels reviewed by the Gray Lady in 2011 — both in the daily pages and the Sunday book review — only 41 percent were written by women.

This ratio is just a smidgen higher than it was in August 2010, when Weiner, along with fellow “commercial women’s fiction” writer Jodi Picoult, launched a broadside against the “literary” media machine that had luminously reviewed Jonathan Franzen twice in the Times, put him on the cover of Time, and decoded in his novel “Freedom” a viable cure for the common cold.

Their argument was that Franzen writes the same genre of books they do — indeed, Amazon categorizes “Freedom” as “Women’s Fiction > Domestic Life” — yet the publishing establishment hails him as a genius while paying less attention to women writers. (Weiner later slightly, and passive-aggressively, backpedaled in a Huffington Post interview, saying, “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.”)

Overlook the food-fight-at-Versailles vibe of the squabble — all parties involved are famous multimillionaires with lucrative film and TV deals — and some good came out of it. The debate, misnamed “Franzenfreude” (that would more accurately be described as taking pleasure in Franzen’s misery, not having envy over his success) got people talking about gender and the organization VIDA’s irrefutable evidence that serious book-reviewing outlets are heavily slanted toward covering male authors, with male reviewers.

What went underreported, however, was what Weiner hinted at in the final sentence of one of her tweets: “In summation: NYT sexist, unfair, loves Gary Shteyngart, hates chick lit, ignores romance. And now, to go weep into my royalty statement.” (It bears mentioning that the first sentence in her Twitter bio is #1 New York Times bestselling novelist.”)



Her boast, as much about genre as gender, suggests she may also recognize a truth that many writers of the opposite gender are painfully aware of: For the majority of male literary authors — excluding the upper echelon of Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides, Don DeLillo and their ilk, plus a few younger writers like Chad Harbach who have scored much-ballyhooed advances — it’s actually harder than it is for women to carve out a financially stable writing career.

As Weiner pointed out in the Huffington Post interview, “women are the major consumers of all fiction, commercial and literary.” She’s right. By just about every estimate, women buy around two-thirds of all books and 80 percent of fiction.

By a wide margin, women also belong more frequently to book clubs — and these clubs skew toward female writers writing about female experiences. (Never mind the criticism that, after 2004, Oprah didn’t select any female authors; in her club’s heyday, 1996–2001, before it slowed down to read only a handful of books per year, 33 of its 46 picks were by female authors.) The only all-male book club I’ve seen was the ill-fated two-member cabal attempting to read the ultra-masculine Cormac McCarthy in Noah Baumbach’s film “Kicking and Screaming.”

The publishing industry has noticed this trend in reading habits, and knows that word of mouth can spread much more easily through a dozen gregarious club members than through a solitary, likely introverted reader. And so the mainstream publishing paradigm has shifted from books the highbrow critics are buzzing about to books that these clubs will embrace. True, Franzen and a few other male authors make the cut, and sometimes challenging works by writers of either gender sneak in, especially among younger and more cosmopolitan groups. But by and large, book-club members are interested in feel-good fare like Kathryn Stockett’s “The Help.” The archetypal book-club novel is written by a woman, its characters are female-centric, and it contains a love story, sensitive coming-of-age tale, or mother-daughter narrative, perhaps set against a historical backdrop.

Yet the Franzen-Weiner-Picoult-Stockett universe is the literary 1 percent; they’re all doing just fine, male or female. If you’re upset that you’re deprived of two separate reviews and a profile in the Times, as Weiner evidently is, then, to quote Brad Pitt in “Moneyball,” you have “uptown problems, which aren’t really problems at all.” It’s in the midlist, that no-one-outside-of-Park-Slope-has-heard-of-you realm, where the gender gap widens. Midlist authors likely have part- or full-time day jobs or do adjunct teaching to supplement their writing careers. Their books may move a few thousand copies, but never ascend into the three-digit rankings on Amazon. (Weiner might argue that her sales make the midlist possible, but that’s not really true. Midlist advances are small; the big bestsellers, more likely, fund the lavish seven-figure advances that go to celebrity memoirs and novels “written” by famous people.)

In short, midlisters are middle-class professionals scraping out a living — and being a midlist male author who writes about males is a distinct financial disadvantage. Not only will you not get reviewed in the Times, but you won’t get reviewed in the women’s magazines that drive sales, like People and O, the Oprah Magazine. Book clubs will ignore you. Barnes & Noble will relegate you to the back shelves. Your publisher won’t give you much support — if it even publishes your book in the first place. As a book-editor friend once admitted to me, “When we buy a debut novel by a man, we view it as taking a real chance.”

Put another way, each year, several well-written short-story collections — the toughest sell in today’s market — by a young American-born debut author focusing on girls and young women receives a hardcover release by a major publisher and extensive media coverage. Deserving standouts in recent years include works from Suzanne Rivecca, Danielle Evans and Karen Russell, to name just a few. The only comparably acclaimed hardcovers by debut male authors — from Wells Tower, Donald Ray Pollock and Daniel Orozco — tend to ignore adolescence (and the writers themselves are much older). They also don’t sell anywhere near as well. Cast the net wider to novels, and perhaps the only coming-of-age male debuts to garner any substantive attention are Harbach’s “The Art of Fielding” and Justin Torres’ “We the Animals.”

Both male and female midlist authors, by definition, get shafted by the mainstream media. The female midlister, though, still has a shot at gaining a foothold in book clubs, on the B&N front tables, and in the newly powerful Target Club, whose authors are almost exclusively women. This is simply a reflection of the market; if men bought 80 percent of the novels, the reverse would hold true. Men have no one to blame but their own nonfiction-buying and sports-watching sex.

Well, boo-hoo for us guys, who dominated English literature for centuries and for whom the inconveniences of writing literary fiction are a brief interruption from our continued governance of the world. I fully allow that there are major upsides to being a male author. First, men with low sales but critical cachet snatch up a disproportionate number of plum faculty positions in academe. Moreover, there’s reverse affirmative-action at play. If, as a (white, especially) male, you’ve managed to publish a halfway-decent book, people assume you must be the second coming of James Joyce, and lavish praise accordingly. This admiration can be converted into remunerative awards and fellowships, speaking engagements, freelance assignments and translations (foreign publishers, perhaps possessing retrograde sexual politics, seem less scared off by testosterone). I didn’t come close to cracking any bestseller lists with my debut novel or even getting many print reviews (just one, in the Boston Globe), but I’ve reaped these other benefits. And, of course, had I not been afforded copious societal advantages from birth, there’s a good chance I never would have had the opportunity and encouragement to write a novel at all.

For the most part, however, male authors are somewhat like male porn stars: getting work, but outearned and outnumbered by their female counterparts, who are in far greater demand from the audience (for very different reasons). There are the superstar exceptions, the Jonathan Franzens and Ron Jeremys, who prove the rule. Nearly everyone — insecure writers most of all — thinks they deserve more than they have. I’d like to have a wider audience; any honest writer would tell you the same. But on balance, I have no complaints. Neither should Jennifer Weiner.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 22
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Talking Heads, 1977
    This was their first weekend as a foursome at CBGB’s, after adding Jerry Harrison, before they started recording the LP “Talking Heads: 77.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith, Bowery 1976
    Patti lit up by the Bowery streetlights. I tapped her on the shoulder, asked if I could do a picture, took two shots and everyone went back to what they were doing. 1/4 second at f/5.6 no tripod.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Blondie, 1977
    This was taken at the Punk Magazine Benefit show. According to Chris Stein (seated, on slide guitar), they were playing “Little Red Rooster.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    No Wave Punks, Bowery Summer 1978
    They were sitting just like this when I walked out of CBGB's. Me: “Don’t move” They didn’t. L to R: Harold Paris, Kristian Hoffman, Diego Cortez, Anya Phillips, Lydia Lunch, James Chance, Jim Sclavunos, Bradley Field, Liz Seidman.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell + Bob Quine, 1978
    Richard Hell and the Voidoids, playing CBGB's in 1978, with Richard’s peerless guitar player Robert Quine. Sorely missed, Quine died in 2004.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bathroom, 1977
    This photograph of mine was used to create the “replica” CBGB's bathroom in the Punk Couture show last summer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So I got into the Met with a bathroom photo.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Stiv Bators + Divine, 1978
    Stiv Bators, Divine and the Dead Boys at the Blitz Benefit show for injured Dead Boys drummer Johnny Blitz.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977
    “The kids are all hopped up and ready to go…” View from the unique "side stage" at CBGB's that you had to walk past to get to the basement bathrooms.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Klaus Nomi, Christopher Parker, Jim Jarmusch – Bowery 1978
    Jarmusch was still in film school, Parker was starring in Jim’s first film "Permanent Vacation" and Klaus just appeared out of nowhere.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Hilly Kristal, Bowery 1977
    When I used to show people this picture of owner Hilly Kristal, they would ask me “Why did you photograph that guy? He’s not a punk!” Now they know why. None of these pictures would have existed without Hilly Kristal.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Dictators, Bowery 1976
    Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators with his girlfriend Jody. I took this shot as a thank you for him returning the wallet I’d lost the night before at CBGB's. He doesn’t like that I tell people he returned it with everything in it.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Alex Chilton, Bowery 1977
    We were on the median strip on the Bowery shooting what became a 45 single sleeve for Alex’s “Bangkok.” A drop of rain landed on the camera lens by accident. Definitely a lucky night!

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery view, 1977
    The view from across the Bowery in the summer of 1977.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977 – never before printed
    I loved shooting The Ramones. They would play two sets a night, four nights a week at CBGB's, and I’d be there for all of them. This shot is notable for Johnny playing a Strat, rather than his usual Mosrite. Maybe he’d just broken a string. Love that hair.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell, Bowery 1977 – never before printed
    Richard exiting CBGB's with his guitar at 4am, about to step into a Bowery rainstorm. I’ve always printed the shots of him in the rain, but this one is a real standout to me now.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith + Ronnie Spector, 1979
    May 24th – Bob Dylan Birthday show – Patti “invited” everyone at that night’s Palladium show on 14th Street down to CBGB's to celebrate Bob Dylan’s birthday. Here, Patti and Ronnie are doing “Be My Baby.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Legs McNeil, 1977
    Legs, ready for his close-up, near the front door of CBGB's.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Suicide, 1977
    Rev and Alan Vega – I thought Alan was going to hit me with that chain. This was the Punk Magazine Benefit show.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ian Hunter and Fans, outside bathroom
    I always think of “All the Young Dudes” when I look at this shot. These fans had caught Ian Hunter in the CBGB's basement outside the bathrooms, and I just stepped in to record the moment.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Tommy Ramone, 1977
    Only at CBGB's could I have gotten this shot of Tommy Ramone seen through Johnny Ramones legs.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery 4am, 1977
    End of the night garbage run. Time to go home.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>