When Weiner and Picoult initially pointed out gender bias in the New York Times, people reacted very strongly in wildly opposing ways. While many critics supported their contentions, a fair number deflected attention from the underlying problem by attacking the two women.
A common tactic was to dismiss Picoult, Weiner, and other popular women writers for writing "commercial fiction." In the Huffington Post, Lisa Solod Warren sneered that Picoult and Weiner should quit whining, since their commercial success obviates the need for Times reviews:
"One benefit of reviews in mainstream, influential publications like Time and the New York Times is to introduce readers to writers who may not be on the average reader's radar," Warren wrote. "Weiner and Picoult, among others, don't need it either: they sell and sell and sell. And one reason, I argue, is that their books are far 'easier' to read than Franzen or a host of other more literary writers like Paul Auster, Philip Roth, Marilynne Robinson, or Margaret Atwood."
Warren utterly missed the fact that Roth, Robinson, Auster, et al. are all best sellers, and that Franzen certainly didn't need the New York Times Book Review — not exactly a popularizer of underground literature — to get his name out to the masses.
Warren's confusion brings to light a deep and longstanding anxiety in the world of letters about the miscegenation of literature and commerce. Worthy books, the reasoning goes, don't sell at airports — never mind that every airport bookstore in America and beyond carried copies of Freedom. In the opinion of those of Warren's ilk, women write easily digestible works of commercial fiction, while serious male writers — and some smart cookies like Atwood — write challenging, worthy books that a guileless public could never encounter without the help of resourceful critics. Never mind that Franzen has said in interviews that he tries to write entertaining, easy-to-follow books in order to compete with television, or that Atwood's books are regularly found in the young-adult section of libraries.
The truth of the matter is that Franzen and Atwood and Auster — even writers the literary establishment has deemed experimental, like Ben Marcus and Tom McCarthy— write commercial novels by virtue of the fact that they are published by international corporations driven by the bottom line. If Bertelsmann AG didn't think McCarthy's last novel, C, had any sales potential, they simply wouldn't publish it.
Late last week, male writer Teddy Wayne wrote an article for Salon called "The Agony of the Male Novelist," in which he argued that, although commercial women writers don't get a fair shake in the New Yorker, they get more column inches in glossy supermarket magazines.
"For the most part . . . male authors are somewhat like male porn stars: getting work, but outearned and outnumbered by their female counterparts, who are in far greater demand from the audience (for very different reasons)," he wrote. "There are the superstar exceptions, the Jonathan Franzens and Ron Jeremys, who prove the rule."
Unfortunately, Wayne doesn't seem to have done the research to back up his argument. In fact, of the roughly 350 adult trade novels published between August 1 and December 1 of 2011 by the major houses — Simon and Schuster, MacMillan, Random House, Hachette, and the Penguin Group — about 60 percent were written by men.