FRANZEN FEVER Mainstream arbiters of literary taste, like NPR, are gaga for the author of Freedom. But do they overlook his female colleagues?
In August 2010, the literary corner of the Internet seized in crisis. Editors wrote pained confessions; anonymous commenters called established writers "whiny bitches"; critics made grand pronouncements. One admitted that he couldn't remember the last book he'd read by a woman, while another declared, "[This] brings us to the edge of the precipice of having to re-evaluate what we think is worthwhile in literature."
The catalyst for all this was what appeared to be a rather mild observation shared on Twitter by the novelist Jodi Picoult: "Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren't white male literary darlings."
With fellow New York Times best-seller-list fixture Jennifer Weiner, Picoult had caught more than a whiff of sexism in the literary establishment's recent, near-unanimous canonization of Jonathan Franzen's latest novel. In a subsequent interview with the Huffington Post, the pair questioned why the New York Times rarely reviewed their own books positively — if at all — even as they perched atop its best-seller list.
They had a point. Following up on their allegations, Slate confirmed that over 60 percent of books reviewed in the New York Times in the preceding two years were written by men. What's more, when it came to the books reviewed in both the daily Times and the Sunday Book Review, 71 percent were written by men.
While the fracas abated eventually, the underlying problem never went away. Last week — more than a year after the initial controversy — Weiner posted an update to her blog. By her count, the coverage split still hovers around 60–40 in favor of men. While those books the Times reviewed twice saw a marked improvement to a 50–50 split in the past year, Téa Orbreht was the only woman among 10 men to earn the Times trifecta of two reviews and a profile.
My own research has turned up even more damaging statistics. To test Weiner's hypothesis, I turned to another literary gatekeeper: public radio. NPR is one of the few mass media outlets to devote regular coverage to books and novelists. According to their own Web site, 34 million people tune into NPR stations every week, and almost 27 million listen regularly to at least one NPR show. And NPR drives sales: as any bookseller will tell you, a guest spot on Fresh Air sends droves of right-minded Americans scurrying to their local independent.
Does NPR, arguably the most far-reaching book-review outlet in America, favor women or men? I tallied the genders of novelists reviewed or interviewed between August 1 and November 31, 2011, on the NPR shows Fresh Air, All Things Considered,Talk of the Nation, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition, and the WBUR shows On Point and Here and Now.
As it turns out, public media is worse than even the New York Times. Far worse. NPR and WBUR talked about male writers about 70 percent of the time. Of the roughly 60 works of fiction discussed on NPR, only about 20 were written by women. Of the six novelists featured on more than one program, all but Amy Waldman, author of The Submission, were men. Of the three novelists interviewed on more than one program, all were men. Terry Gross interviewed twice as many male as female novelists, and Morning Edition apparently dedicated no coverage at all to women fiction writers.