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On Jonathan Franzen, the Times’ Book Review, and Why Women’s Fiction Gets Short Shrift

Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, “Freedom,” arrives this week with considerable fanfare, but also a little bit of backlash. Although the author is not a Jew, one of his characters is, and he has a place in the cool crowd of literary writers than includes many Jewish writers such as Michael Chabon, Jonathan Safran-Foer and more recently, Gary Shteyngart.

But the glowing reviews and attention the book garnered also provoked a little bit of anger, which Jewish writers have weighed in on both sides. It began when bestselling author Jodi Picoult criticized The New York Times Book Review for its undue attention to the aforementioned group of writers to the exclusion of more mainstream, popular titles — many of them written by women. She asks:

How else can the Times explain the fact that white male authors ROUTINELY are 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?”

She was soon joined in her protest by the always-witty, always-ready-to-assail-the-literary-establishment novelist Jennifer Weiner, who started the hashtag #Franzenfreude on twitter to promote “non-Franzen novels about love, identity, families, The Way We Live Now.” The books suggested as responses to her hashtag were mostly written by women and people of color. Weiner insisted she wasn’t anti Franzen, just anti Franzen-fawning. “You mean just picking up FREEDOM won’t chase the plaque off your teeth and the gray from your hair?” she joked.

She and Picoult even garnered a response from Lorin Stein, editor, of the Paris Review who dismissed their claims without naming them: “This fake populism pretends to speak for women (as if women weren’t the overwhelming consumers of serious fiction, whether written by women or men)” he wrote. Stein argued passionately for the artistic merits of contemporary literary fiction by both women and men.

“My populism is real and it’s spectacular,” the undaunted Weiner responded.

So what to make of this fracas, other than the already-known facts that Jennifer Weiner is hilarious and the Paris Review editor isn’t passionate about Chick Lit? Enough people love Jonathan Franzen to prove that he isn’t a fraud; he writes novels that are liked by readers as well as praised by critics. Is it possible that Franzen is a genuinely talented and deserving writer who nonetheless has likely benefited every step of the way from the advantage of being white and male, and is now part of an anointed and small group of mostly white people that gets hyped by the literary establishment? I certainly think so.

And does The New York Times’ book section, made up of elite authors and editors, tend to favor people from elite groups, whether social, literary or cultural? Absolutely. This recent NPR story picked up on studies by Fairness and Accuracy and Reporting really indicting the Book Review section for its overwhelming attention in the non-fiction realm to books written by white men. A few years ago, I wrote a story for Bitch magazine about the section’s recent trend of skewed treatment towards feminist authors by hiring known anti-feminists to review their books (a trend which has continued).

Clearly, the section has a ways to go in terms of equal representation. As for Picoult and Weiner’s complaints, the Times should by all means continue to review work with literary merit and ambition but it wouldn’t kill the Book Review folks to hire a critic who has genuine interest in, and love for, commercial women’s fiction, the way they have experts in mysteries and children’s novels. This person would be able to accurately and fairly evaluate writers within the parameters of that genre, without looking down his or her nose at every book with a pink or shiny cover.

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