When Does an Author’s Gender Matter?

As an English major, something every professor I ever had stressed, was that to accurately access a book you had to divorce the work from your knowledge of the author. This can be near to impossible to do. Somehow The Bell Jar isn’t the same without knowledge of Sylvia Plath’s suicide. It’s hard to not recognize the patterns in Pat Conroy’s books without surmising that he had a pretty rough upbringing. Now the author’s gender is coming to the forefront of literary discussions, especially when it comes to reception from elite book critics. Which has me wondering, are male and female authors treated differently?

Jodi Picoult, Jennifer Weiner, and Vida (an organization for women in the literary arts) all say yes. Vida make the most convincing argument through their annual counts of authors from each gender reviewed in the most respected book news outlets. Unfortunately outlets like The Atlantic, Harper’s Magazine, The New Republic and The New York Times often devote over 75 percent of their coverage to men. (Note: I got this from this Huffington Post article. I read somewhere else that this year 60% of NYT reviews where men).

Weiner makes a less convincing argument, and Picoult is the weakest of all. In a recent tweet she compares herself to Franzen stating they both focus on domestic issues but credits the difference in their treatment to their gender. Jeffery Eugenides dismissed this claim, touting the difference in the type of book the two authors write and offering up Zadie Smith and Alice Munro as female authors receiving deserved acclaim for their literary works. Eugenides’ recent book The Marriage Plot, also deals with what Huffington Post has termed “domestic issues” and perhaps that is why he is quick to defend Franzen. I think he understands that comments like Picoult’s will not raise the esteem of her and her cohort’s novels. Instead, the danger is that authors like Franzen and Munro, who write about family life, romantic relationships and what Munro famously (to someone who wrote her thesis on Alice Munro) termed “deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum” will be discredited in favor of the hyper masculine writers and writing styles that dominated the 20th century.

While I find the disproportionate representation unfortunate, and I am sure there are probably lots of fantastic female authors being overlooked, in this instance I kind of couldn’t agree with Eugenides more. In fact, Picoult being the author to make this claim weakens the argument and skews the issue. Something I think even Weiner would agree with based on her statement “Do I think I should be getting all the attention that Jonathan ‘Genius’ Franzen gets? Nope.”

I like all the authors I’ve mentioned in this post. There are many days I would rather read In Her Shoes than Middlesex. But there is no doubt in my mind, that from a literary standpoint Franzen, Eugenides and, yes, my hero Alice Munro are on a completely different level from Picoult and Weiner.

Interestingly, at the National Books Festival last weekend Tayari Jones addressed the issue with a completely different attitude. She said that being marginalized by these popular outlets, made women (particularly women of color) write for purer and truer reasons. She knows she isn’t a writer for the praise and positive reviews, and thinks this keeps her more connected with her readers and her craft.

I thought it was interesting that Jones eagerly exposed a silver lining, while Weiner and Picoult seemed intent on having their cake (extreme commercial success) and eating it too.

I don’t have an answer. But thought this was a pretty interesting discussion. It definitely got me examining my own biases and I found my own inclination to support Eugenides over Picoult pretty surprising. I’m still trying to synthesize my opinions, so please, let me know your thoughts.

8 thoughts on “When Does an Author’s Gender Matter?

  1. I’ve never been a huge Piccoult or Weiner fan, but I did once find myself in a screaming match with one of my male friends when he outwardly dismissed Meg Cabot and then said that he was “really in to Nick Hornby at the moment.”

    • Thanks for commenting! I think that is a totally fair reaction, because Meg Cabot is awesome. I do think (and Eugenides went on to say this) that perhaps books by male authors are marketed in a more serious way than female authors books. Which might cause some of the confusion when it comes to what is “literature”. If that makes sense.

      • Books by male authors are definitely marketed more seriously. This discussion came up at the beginning of summer with the dreaded “beach reading” label approaching. “Beach reading” almost exclusively consists of romance and other chick lit and is marketed as an escape from thinking, meaning that the books are fluffy and light.

        Hell, all you have to do to see the distinction between the marketing strategies for male authors v. female authors is look at the covers. This is especially apparent in YA lit. The ladies get covers with pretty ladies in dresses and passive poses, usually with obscured faces, and the men get badass actiony poses. There are exceptions obviously (Graceling and The Hunger Games come to mind, though they notably don’t have a picture of a character on the cover at all), but the trend is overwhelming. YA books by women are given the exact same cover over and over again no matter how different the plots are.

      • Thanks for posting Caitlin. You make a really good point. What I’m wondering is if the “beach read” label and covers with pretty dresses help make the books more popular?

        Maybe that is part of the reason they are marketed that way? I don’t know.

  2. On a side note of from literary works – there are male authors who write romance novels under assumed woman’s names because supposedly woman won’t buy romance novels written by men.
    Also, JK Rowling was advised to use her initials instead of her name because boys wouldn’t buy books written by a woman. Very interesting topic.

  3. There’s actually an interesting article response to this topic NPR posted yesterday, apparently the Piccoult quote was taken out of context and when you look at what she and Weiner actually said it makes Eugenides look pretty oblivious to the whole topic as Piccoult was actually agreeing she doesn’t write literary fiction and dealing with both literary and commercial fiction as different issues entirely. (Here’s the link if you’re interested: http://www.npr.org/blogs/monkeysee/2012/09/27/161885368/women-men-and-fiction-notes-on-how-not-to-answer-hard-questions)

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