Jeffrey Eugenides is a wonderful writer. I loved, and love, Middlesex. But the recent interview he gave with Salon, specifically the bits about gender in the literary world, surprised and disappointed me. It’s not his ignorance of the issue so much that bothers me; it’s his denial of it, the dismissive tone of his response, the unwillingness to engage in an analysis of his privilege beyond an offhand “You know, it’s possible.” Yes, I know it’s possible. VIDA knows it’s possible. It’s more than possible. How could the person who wrote Middlesex –– a novel about the permeability, and the cultural centralization of, sex and gender –– not believe in gender bias?
Eugenides argued that Zadie Smith is as well-respected and reviewed as Jonathan Franzen and the Great (White) Male Writers of his ilk. I agree with him on that point… but that’s Zadie Smith. One author. Marie Curie discovered radium, but one wouldn’t look back on scientific history and claim that women were (or are) as respected or prominent in the field as male scientists. I could list a handful more women writers held in high literary esteem (Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Doris Lessing, Alice Walker) but the list would run out far, far sooner than the list of male authors regarded in the same light.
There’s a difference between the work that Franzen produces and that which Jodi Picoult produces, he said. I agree with him there, too. Picoult produces beach reads; Franzen produces heavy tomes about”the way we live now” (as Time famously hailed Freedom). Personally, I don’t enjoy either writer’s work, but there is a clear difference in their sentence, character, and plot construction. Franzen wins reviews; Picoult wins the “average” consumer. But Jodi Picoult, in the notorious tweet that launched Franzenfreude 2010, said nothing about Jodi Picoult. Nor did she say anything about the type of book that Jodi Picoult writes (nor the audience that reads them: typically cast as middle-aged, middle-class, and female, invariably mothers, belonging to a book club full of other mothers). Picoult was talking about the difference in general between the way men and women are received in the literary world. To misunderstand this as Picoult “bellyaching” about her own work’s designation of low culture versus Jonathan Franzen’s as high culture seems intentionally simplistic and irresponsible. It shrinks and delegitimizes Picoult’s point by ignoring her point.
Men write about divorce and it’s hailed as The Way We Live Now. Women write about divorce and it’s hailed as Women’s Fiction. Because why would someone who isn’t a woman want to read about them? “[I]t usually has nothing to do with their gender,” Eugenides said, “it’s just the marketplace.” But that’s exactly my point. The marketplace itself skews toward the historically most common reader demographic: white men. Work by writers of color is often expected to concern itself with their race or ethnicity, and when it does, it’s often marginalized –– if not by way of bookstore organization (e.g. “African-American Literature”), by way of cover art (Sociological Images has a good breakdown on this regarding work by writers of Asian descent). These stories are othered. We want to highlight the work, the idea goes, but we don’t see it as normative and don’t anticipate the author to receive a widespread American audience.
There are always exceptions –– Jhumpa Lahiri, for one –– but in my experience as a consumer that seems to be the case. We didn’t even read multicultural authors when I was in public school, now that I think about it. We read Harper Lee to learn about racism in the American South and Pearl S. Buck to learn about China. Of course, I can’t speak to everyone’s experience, only my own.
Women writers may not have a designated area of the bookstore, but their work is still discriminated against and marginalized in the way it is marketed. (Let alone how often it is reviewed, or even published.) Meg Wolitzer’s article in the New York Times, referenced by Eugenides in the interview, rings true and valid. Perhaps he should read it again.