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.
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.
Tags: andy ross, ask the agent, book critics, book publishing, female authors, jennifer weiner, jodi picoult, jonathan franzen, literary fiction., male authors, national book award, new york times book review, pulitzer prize, womens fiction, writing