Battle of the (Literary Fiction) Sexes

Novelist Teddy Wayne wrote a great piece in  Salon   yesterday  talking about the issue of whether male or female writers have the advantage in the world of literary fiction.

As an agent, I think about this a lot. When I’m  looking at submissions  of  literary or “upmarket” commercial fiction, this question is always setting off sparks on the left side of my brain. Of course the big question for me is whether the book is sucking me into an immersive  trancelike vortex that makes me want to stay up all night and turn the pages. But I keep having these intrusive thoughts in my mind: “Who’s the audience? Will women relate to this? Do I really understand what women want anyway?”

So far most of the novels that I have taken on are by women authors and from the point of view of  women characters.  I am completely smitten by all of my novels. Haunted really. Obsessed even. And I know they   must appeal to women as well as men. How do I know? Because I ask  my wife Leslie to read them.  And if she stays up all night, quid erat demonstratum. (For the record, I have represented male authors as well and I am as smitten with them as with  my female authors.)

Pretty much every estimate and survey shows that  women are the audience for a vast majority of this kind of fiction. Actually, 60% of all books, fiction and non-fiction, are bought by women.  Men read relatively little fiction and overwhelmingly what they read is genre fiction, action, thrillers, and suspense. Men primarily read non-fiction – manly subjects like golf tips, right wing screeds, and “how to make ten minute meals”.  Ok. That’s a  cheap shot.

Jodi Picoult

Jennifer Weiner

Last year Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult threw down their gage at the literary fiction establishment and  led an assault on the almost universal critical raves of  Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. He was hailed as a genius and his work a masterpiece. Weiner and Picoult, whose books have sold millions, pointed out that fiction by women tends to be dismissed as “commercial” or “women’s” fiction. There was a great interview of them in The Huffington Post where they discussed this issue.

Weiner brought up the subject  again yesterday in her blog. She went through all the book reviews in The New York Times in 2011. She counted150 reviews of books by men and only 104 by women.  She also pointed out that of the books that were reviewed twice and had profiles of the author, 10 were of men and only 1 was of  a woman.

Weiner didn’t count the gender of the winners of the major literary awards, but  I did and the statistics there are even more damning. Of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction since 1984, 17 of the winners were men and only 11 were women. Of the National Book Award for fiction since 1984, 19 of the winners were men and only 7 were women.

What these statistics tell me is that Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult are right to be concerned. One of the conclusions you could draw from this is that men are more brilliant writers of imaginative literature than women. That’s  a pretty odious thought. The other conclusion that you could draw is that sexism is alive and kicking in the critical literary world.

I’m grateful to Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult for having the courage to point this out.

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2 Responses to “Battle of the (Literary Fiction) Sexes”

  1. Kimberly Perry Says:

    I am confused about what women’s fiction really is. Is Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones women’s fiction? What about Anita Shreve’s A Change in Altitude?

    • andyrossagency Says:

      Kimberly. I’m a little confused about it as well. It is a term of art that is being thrown around publishing a lot. It usually means novels that are written by woman about women that will appeal to an audience primarily of women readers. That said, about 80% of all readers of literary fiction are women. When I read a novel, I can usually tell if it is appropriate to call women’s fiction, but it is a little hard to define. It is also hard to define the difference between literary and commercial fiction. It really is more of a continuum. There is no bright line test.

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