The Unasked Question in the Franzen-Picoult Fracas

It seems nothing good can ever happen to anyone these days without someone quickly making a demographic calculation and launching allegations of bias.  And, even when these allegations themselves clearly have merit, the evidence, arguments, and ideology behind them often do not.

Such is the case of Jodi Picoult‘s poorly substantiated — but likely correct! — assertion that the New York Times treats white male writers with more respect than others.

The thing about accusations of irrational, unfair bias like this: they might be 100 percent accurate, yet the arguments propping them up can still be equally irrational, unfair, and biased.

For example, author Jennifer Weiner adds this little bit of weirdness to the debate:

I think it’s a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that when a man writes about family and feelings, it’s literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it’s romance, or a beach book – in short, it’s something unworthy of a serious critic’s attention.

So, when men break out of traditional male concerns and expand the boundaries of men’s writing, this should be on equal footing with women remaining safely inside traditional female concerns and entrenching the clichés of women’s writing ever deeper?

This is akin to asking why Straight Pride parades aren’t given the same respect as Gay Pride parades.  The historical context is central to any realistic discussion of discrimination.   There is a biased history of men and woman being considered experts on different matters, with women having “family and feelings” in their portfolio.

When addressing this gender-based division of expertise, many people tend to forget that the discrimination there cuts both ways.  Even now, in 2010, it’s a very different thing for men to write about “family and feelings” than for women.  The sexism Weiner is looking for is actually embedded in her bizarre argument, and it’s pointed opposite the direction she thinks it is.

The Elephant in the Room

This odd inability to understand how the same subject matter means very different things under the pens of different writers, raises the question of how this subject matter relates to different readers, beyond questions of the biases of a specific newspaper’s discussion of one category (literary) of a one form (fiction) of writing.

After all, if there’s a general reason why writing by women tends to get less attention than writing by men, it would have application in all cases, not just the New York Times book review.

For example, when Chris Jackson of The Atlantic offers the following reasoning, he’s expanding the case to encompass all writing: “Apparently I’ve been ignoring the literary output of half the human population … It’s clear that women are willing to buy books by male writers, but men seem much more reluctant to buy books by women.”

Never mind the absurd 50/50 quota system Jackson implicitly endorses as the solution to his reading heresies, he’s glossing over the fact that the literary equation involves both what readers are reading and what writers are writing.

Is the real difference here about what male readers are “reluctant” to read, or about what female writers tend not to write?  Are men ignoring half of the writers because those writers are ignoring half of the readers?

The assumption behind a lot of this talk is that both male and female writers write equally to both male and female readers.  I’m not so sure this is generally true. At the very least, it deserves serious consideration as an explanation.

Two Cases For Examination

Let’s take two iconic best-sellers so engaging that they were adapted for the big screen starring A-list Hollywood talent: Dan Brown’s action thriller, The Da Vinci Code, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s self-discovery memoir Eat, Pray, Love.

(If you think there’s a better parallel of successful, engaging books, considering the gender of the writers rather than readers, please speak up.)

Yes, there’s a lot of “traditionally male” grunt-and-swagger in Brown’s book, but there’s a pro-female storyline absolutely essential to the plot.  In fact, without its gynocentric theme, there is no Da Vinci Code.  Brown did not write Code just for the dudes.

Would it be unreasonable to say that other male writers are similarly not addressing their books solely to a male audience?  Is Brown a bad example of the male writer? Is he an anomaly, or a good representative?

On the other hand, how many men are going to want to read a book like Gilbert’s, about a woman who abandons her husband simply because she’s no longer happy, and then goes traipsing around the world on what is essentially an extended holiday of food, flaky spirituality, and sleeping with other men?

Or, phrased another way: Would a woman want to read the same story in reverse, about a guy who walks away from his wife to travel the world and hook up with foreign hotties?  Women would complain, correctly, that such a plot-line objectifies and reduces women to mere instruments in the male narrator’s voyage of self-discovery … or self-indulgence, depending on your point-of-view.

There’s really not much in a story like that for the opposite sex.

How unreasonable would it be to wonder whether Gilbert, and many other women writers, focus primarily on female readers?  Given that women are historically a poorly addressed literary audience, there’s nothing accusatory in this.   But, there is something explanatory in it.

After all, Jennifer Weiner doesn’t ask why women who write about topics traditionally considered “for male readers” aren’t given equal time with men who write about topics traditionally considered “for female readers.”  She simply focuses on men who write about “family and feelings” as if that’s all that matters.

And yes, for good or ill, most of us do still tend to read according to those traditional male-female stereotypes, but the typical male reader is invisible to Weiner’s argument.  The typical male reader is also, I would argue, invisible to a lot of the writing Weiner nevertheless expects them to read and take seriously.

Maybe Chris Jackson is going to artificially stack his reading list with books not written for him, to avoid even the merest appearance of sexism, but I doubt many men are self-loathing enough to join him.

I certainly wouldn’t expect women to read books written almost primarily for men, and I think we can all agree that it is inexcusable that they had to for so long.  So why is the reverse, men reading books geared largely toward women, a reasonable expectation?

In short: it’s not.

In Closing

I am the last person to claim that sexism is a relic of the past.  Far from it.  But, as a foregone conclusion in any situation where women and men don’t come out 50/50, treadworn indictments of bias are hypocritical: merely a bias toward seeing bias wherever it’s convenient to see it.

And, to flip a maxim on its back: just because someone really is out to get you doesn’t mean that you’re not suffering from paranoia.  Sure, the Times is probably biased toward white male writers, but that doesn’t mean every distinction is a double standard, that a given female writer’s obscurity relevant to a given male writer isn’t deserved, or that male readers are chauvinistically “reluctant” to read female writers.

In the scuffle between the Picoult camp and the Times — as always — while it’s certainly impossible for both sides to be right, it is quite possible for both sides to be wrong.

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  1. Well said. There’s an awful lot of misandry in writing by women, in my experience, and I wouldn’t care for it any more than I do for Saul Bellow’s misogynistic stuff. But I would still read Saul Bellow anyway because he could write, whereas Wiener and Picoult are mere literary hacks. And that is really the point of all this, and the one the genre hacks, who haven’t got the literary sense to even know they are hacks, don’t get.

  2. “Women readers” are not a single block any more than “women” are. I am a woman and would have no interest in reading a book described as you describe “Eat, Pray, Love” because I have no interest in selfish, indulgent characters, male or female, but not because I am incapable of immersing myself in a character that is not my own gender. I think men and boys miss out terribly by not reading books that aren’t about characters that they could be cast to play in the movie of the book, because they never develop the skill of utterly disappearing and just experiencing the life of another character, whatever their gender or culture. It’s why I think women actually gained from those “inexcusable” years of mostly-male writers.

  3. Good points, but I never really implied that women readers (or men readers) were a single block. I said “most of us” not all of us “tend” to read according to stereotype. I don’t believe that even those who do read according to stereotype always do.

    And, I completely agree that people benefit from experiencing characters outside their perceived identities. But, that’s not really the sort of thing I’m talking about. There’s a huge gap between story-telling about X and story-telling that is openly hostile to and/or dismissive of the interests of Y. For example, I don’t avoid Lifetime channel movies because the MC’s are women; I avoid them because they often slander and distort men.

    So, while I agree that both men and woman gain from reading each other’s stuff (I’ll take Emily’s poetry over Walt’s any day of the week) I don’t believe that this virtue extends to lit that reduces the Other to objects of desire, disdain, or dismissal.

    However, this point could have been better illustrated if I had cited a recent block-buster best-seller, written by a man, that is openly negative about the role of women in men’s lives. Can anyone think of a good example?

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