Gender and publishing: why do women write fiction and men write literature?

Of course, they don’t. That’s balls. But it is true that men still far outnumber women in terms of publishing deals and book sales.

This article from The Atlantic discusses the issue, making particular reference to Jodi Picoult (and other ‘chick lit’ writers) and their llambasting of NYTimes book review bias.

Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, two writers whose work is often referred to as “chick lit,” have been tweeting and commenting in the press about Michiko Kukatani’s rave review of Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom; Piccoult mused that she’d love to see “the NYT rave about writers who aren’t white male literary darlings” and busted on Kakutani for using the word “lapidiary” in her review.  Weiner tweeted ”Carl Hiaasan doesn’t have to choose between getting aTimes review and being a bestseller.  Why should I?  Oh right #girlparts.”    

See also this article by Alison Flood at The Guardian.


Contacted by blog the NYT Picker, Picoult reaffirmed her view that “the Times favours white male authors. That isn’t to say someone else might get a good review – only that if you are white and male and living in Brooklyn you have better odds, or so it seems”.

"The NYT has long made it clear that they value literary fiction and disdain commercial fiction – and they disparage it regardless of race or gender of the author," said the author. "I’m not commenting on one specific critic or even on my own reviews (which are few and far between because I write commercial fiction). How else can the Times explain the fact that white male authors are ROUTINELY assigned reviews in both the Sunday review section AND the daily book review section (often both raves) while so many other writers go unnoticed by their critics?"


Very interesting reading. And it’s very much in my field, being both Gender-y and Literary-y. Cor, i’m eloquent today. Anyway, here’s what i think:
Whilst i lament as much as anyone (and, in fact, probably more) the sorry lack of venerated female authors in comparison to male authors, i can’t say that Jodi Picoult’s books are worth rave reviews (and certainly not in the order of Franzen’s). White or not, male or not, whoever Johnathan Franzen is (and yes i know he is white and male, but you can’t tell that from his writing ffs), his writing is stellar. It’s fucking fantastic. The Corrections is one of my all-time favourite novels and How to be Alone is fabulous critico-cultural commentary. He’s a great writer. Picoult just doesn’t compare…but nor does Dan Brown: it’s not because Picoult’s a woman that she doesn’t compare, it’s because her writing just isn’t very good. It may be entertaining, yes, and it may sell lots of copies, of course, but neither of those are markers of good writing so much as they are markers of popularity.

A metaphor: the publishing world is a college or high school. “The Academy” is the faculty; authors and the public are the students. Jodi Picoult may get voted Class President or even Student Body President—because those are popularity contests—but she would be overlooked for the Dean’s List and for Academic prizes because her work is not outstanding. Nothing to do with her gender. Whilst Franzen would be more of a teacher’s pet, so would Margaret Atwood or Jeanette Winterson or Virginia Woolf. 

I guess what’s i’m trying to say is that whilst it’s a terrible thing that men outnumber women in the world of books/publishing/literature, Jodi Picoult just isn’t any good. 

An analogy: Sports. In the sport world, men’s teams have far, far more publicity than women’s teams. Coverage of women’s events at the Olympics is far shorter than the coverage of men’s events. Salaries are less, usually [though, interestingly, at Wimbledon the men’s and women’s prizes are the same in terms of cash amount but the women players play fewer matches than the men]. 
But just because all that is true, and Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps, let’s say, are being honoured in the press for their achievements, that doesn’t mean that *my* not being similarly honoured—I am a lowly amateur runner who nonetheless raises hundreds of pounds for charity every year—reflects gender favouritism of the part of sports media. I’m not covered because i’m not very good. And whilst, yes, Paula Radcliffe may not get the same amount of column inches, and whilst there is an inherent sexism within the industry, it also does not mean that Bolt or Phelps should be attacked for favouritism as by any standard they are extremely talented athletes.

The gender inequality in publishing isn’t good. Of course it isn’t. But neither is Jodi Picoult—and it seems to me that for her this is less about the gender inequality than it is about her feeling sore for not getting on the Dean’s List. Popularity and talent are not the same thing.