Is the New York Times' book section really a boys' club?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Sept. 2 2010 4:53 PM

Fact-Checking the Franzenfreude

Is the New York Times' book section really a boys' club?

Jonathan Franzen. Click image to expand.
Jonathan Franzen

Two weeks ago, best-selling author Jodi Picoult sent a Tweet in a fit of pique. Upon reading Michiko Kakutani's glowing review of Jonathan Franzen's new novel Freedom in the New York Times, the lady novelist took to her keyboard and typed out the following:

NYT raved about Franzen's new book. Is anyone shocked? Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren't white male literary darlings.

Then fellow best-seller Jennifer Weiner revved up her Twitter account, too, and posted about the breathless critical love of Franzen, whose book was still not out yet. She invented the Twitter hashtag #franzenfreude, which she describes thusly: "Schadenfreude is taking pleasure in the pain in others. Franzenfreude is taking pain in the multiple and copious reviews being showered on Jonathan Franzen."

Weiner tweeted prolifically after starting the franzenfreude meme. "In summation: NYT sexist, unfair, loves Gary Shteyngart, hates chick lit, ignores romance. And now, to go weep into my royalty statement," she wrote on Aug. 19. Not everyone felt her pain. Paris Review editor in chief and former Farrar, Straus, and Giroux editor Lorin Stein responded to Weiner and Picoult's complaints on the Atlantic's Web site, slamming their desire for mass-market fiction to be reviewed by the Times as "fake populism" that "pretends to speak for women." After that,  Weiner and Picoult gave an interview to the Huffington Post, responding to Stein. Just a few days ago, Weiner and Times book review editor Sam Tanenhaus duked it out on NPR.

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The discussion is ongoing, especially now that Franzen's book has finally hit the general population. The bookish blogosphere continues to debate whether the New York Times—and, by extension, other cultural gatekeepers—really does give white male fiction writers preferential coverage over authors of the distaff and ethnicvariety.

Other groups have looked into the Times' record on reviewing political books (95 percent male) and crime novels (66 percent male). And there's a slightly older study from Brown that concluded that 72 percent of all books reviewed in the Times Book Review were written by men. (You can see the full Brown paper at this cached link here). But so far, no one's taken an extended look at the paper of record's general fiction coverage. So we decided to gather some statistics in order to determine whether the Times' book pages really are a boys' club.

Slate associate editor Chris Wilson got us started by putting together a spreadsheet listing every work of adult fiction that's been reviewed in the New York Times in the past two years.  

We compared men to women and then highlighted the authors whose books had been singled out for the one-two punch of a weekday review and a review in the Sunday Times Book Review.

Here's what we found.

Of the 545 books reviewed between June 29, 2008 and Aug. 27, 2010:
—338 were written by men (62 percent of the total)
—207 were written by women (38 percent of the total)

Of the 101 books that received two reviews in that period:
—72 were written by men (71 percent)
—29 were written by women (29 percent)

What does this tell us? These overall numbers pretty well line up with what other studies have found: Men are reviewed in the Times far more often than women. One crucial bit of information missing, of course, is the percentage of all published adult fiction that has been written by men vs. women. As for the double reviews, men seem to get them twice as often as women.

This still does not exactly answer the question Picoult and Weiner have raised. As far as we can tell, they were not complaining about the disparity of reviews allotted to all fiction writers but to the ones that fall in a hazy space somewhere between literary and commercial. "I don't write literary fiction," Weiner explains in an interview. "I write books that are entertaining, but are also, I hope, well-constructed and thoughtful and funny and have things to say about men and women and families and children and life in America today. Do I think I should be getting all of the attention that Jonathan 'Genius' Franzen gets? Nope. Would I like to be taken at least as seriously as a Jonathan Tropper or a Nick Hornby? Absolutely."

Weiner seems most concerned about how we, as a literary culture, draw the boundaries around a certain group of books. Let's call this category zeitgeist fiction—commercial fiction that is for some reason deemed worthy of serious analysis, either because of sales ( Twilight), cultural impact ( Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), or surprisingly spry writing ( High Fidelity). * Weiner and Picoult raise the following question: Is pop fiction written by men more likely to be lifted out of the "disposable" pile, becoming the kind of cultural objects august institutions like the New York Times feel compelled to pay attention to? And are the commercial genres most commonly associated with male writers and readers—science fiction, legal thriller—more likely to be taken seriously than their female equivalents (chick lit, romance novel)? Or as Weiner puts it, would certain male writers—Nick Hornby, Jonathan Tropper, Carl Hiaasen, or David Nicholls—"be considered chick lit writers if they were girls?"

Our tools are not fine-tuned enough to answer these questions. But we invite our readers who are as obsessed as Weiner and Picoult to comb through our list and categorize books by genre, picking out the zeitgeist fiction, and see what they come up with. The full Google doc is here. Anyone who received a double review is in orange print; everyone else is in black. Our hunch is that while Weiner and Picoult chose entirely the wrong targets—Franzen and Shteyngart having just written excellent novels—they might have a point about those chick-lit dudes.

Correction, Sept. 3, 2010: The original version of this article listed Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby as one of his works of fiction. It is nonfiction, so the example was replaced by his clever novel High Fidelity. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)

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