By Sarah Seltzer
Thursday, December 23, 2010
In 2010 two female novelists spoke out about a male-centric book-review system and created some literary skirmishing. Coincidentally--or not--women of letters then went on to win more mention on publications' lists of the year's best books.
(WOMENSENEWS)--The year's biggest literary controversy was set off by two women who write "women's fiction:" Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner.
The two complained on Twitter and in a joint interview on the Huffington Post about a culture of "white male literary darlings" who mesmerize influential critics at publications such as The New York Times Book Review and leave female authors--particularly commercial ones-- out in the cold.
It started in August, when glowing reviews for Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom" in the Times daily paper and the Times book review (and on the cover of Time magazine) led Picoult to sound off on Twitter.
Weiner joined in. Under the hashtag-turned subject heading "Franzenfreude" (a hybrid of Franzen's name and the German word for taking pleasure in the misfortune of others) they began calling on readers to tout other authors on the social networking site.
A number of media outlets took interest. Editors at Slate's Double X, a blog focusing on women, crunched the numbers at the Times Book Review and determined that yes, literature by women does fetch far fewer reviews. Lorin Stein, editor of the Paris Review, branded (without naming them) Weiner and Picoult as "faux populists." Meghan O'Rourke of Slate wrote about unconscious gender bias that leads women to be unintentionally overlooked. Ruth Franklin of the New Republic called the Times' treatment of female writers shameful.
Jonathan Franzen jumped in too, taking the side of Picoult and Weiner. "The categories by which we value fiction are skewed male, and this creates a very destructive disconnect between the critical establishment and the predominantly female readership of novels," he told The Guardian.
The contention may have affected literary taste buds. We'll never know. But this year--by coincidence or not--women's names made it onto critics' year-end list of best books in impressive numbers. Here is a sample of some of them.
Emma Donoghue earned the year's second biggest helping of literary acclaim (after Franzen) with "Room," told by a boy imprisoned by his mother's rapist (and his father) in a tight, 11 feet by 11 feet, homemade dungeon, along with his mother. Donoghue, who made it onto the Times' and Salon's "best of 2010" lists among others, has been hailed for turning a horrifying situation into a fascinating exploration of the darkness and light in our lives and for the convincing voice she gives to her young protagonist.
The National Book Awards included four female finalists out of five.
The winner, Jaimy Gordon's "Lord of Misrule," a multi-perspective tale of life at the race track, was a surprise winner from a small press. Other female nominees included Nicole Krauss for her novel "Great House," narrated by four voices mysteriously connected by an antique desk; Lionel Shriver's "So Much for That," a satire of the American healthcare system, and Karen Tei Yamashit's "I Hotel," an epic of interlocked novellas moving forward through recent American history.
"The Long Song," by former Orange Prize award winner Andrea Levy (who won for 2004's "Small Island ") showed up on the Washington Post's expansive "best of 2010" compilation. It's a historical narrative set during Jamaica's early 19th-century slave rebellion and focuses on a slave woman's personal journey and the complex dynamics of her plantation.
Heidi W. Durrow also plumbed the issue of race--and also earned a mention in the Washington Post's list--with "Girl Who Fell from the Sky," the story of Rachel, a biracial child and the only survivor in her family who are killed in a fall from a rooftop. She starts her new life with her grandmother in a black Chicago neighborhood.
Sue Miller and Jane Smiley--two popular literary powerhouses--came out with new books this year.
Miller's "The Lake Shore Limited" follows a set of characters connected by the loss of a young man during the Sept. 11 attacks. Smiley's "Private Life" is a fictional biography about the inner life of a woman in the 1880s who leaves her small town for life with her scientist husband whose obsession with his work takes a sinister turn. Both got mentions in the Washington Posts' year-end list. Jennifer Egan's "A Visit from the Goon Squad," a novel about the popular music world, ended up on Salon's, the Times' and the Post's lists.
Ann Beattie's "The New Yorker Stories" is an anthology of the baby boomer writer's famously ironic and piercing short fiction published by the prominent weekly, and landed on the Times' list.
First-time novelist Helen Simonson, a mother of two, produced on of this year's most popular debuts. "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand" is a witty tale of the uptight widower who is the title character and the unintended consequences of his courtship of a local widow. Times critic Janet Maslin praised Simonson in her year-end list.
In the young adult category, Suzanne Collins delivered her final chapter in the wildly popular dystopian series "The Hunger Games," which has also captivated many adults. "Mockingjay" shot up bestseller lists and had its own "Twilight"-like release parties, as readers flocked into bookstores to finish the story of a young woman named Katniss living in a futuristic society whose government tortures citizens by having their children fight to the death on live TV. This finale concerns the heroine's participation in a final revolution against the ruling powers.
"Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation," is a new Seal Press anthology edited by Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman. Essays, stories and poetry evoke a reality in between gay and straight; male and female, where sexual and gender identities are fluid and outside conventional binaries.
In "Just Kids," poet and rock star Patti Smith's memoir of her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, explores the heady time the two spent in the 1960s and 1970s mingling in New York counterculture.
"Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women" is Rebecca Traister's gender analysis of the 2008 election. It explores how the candidacies of Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin and even Barack Obama changed our notions of men and women's roles in politics.
"The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration," by Isabel Wilkerson, is the product of over a decade of research. It tells the story of the millions of black Americans who left the South laws during the 20th century in reaction to Jim Crow laws. Hundreds of interviews with individuals who made the journey are included.
"Cleopatra: A Life," by Stacy Schiff, reexamines the legend away from the Hollywood portrayals, the epic works of literature and the sexist slander to prove that once there was a real queen. The biography by the Pulitzer-Prize winner delves gets close to her subject by delving through the classical-era writers who wrote about Cleopatra close to her own time. Plenty of melodrama and political intrigue keep the pages turning.
Jennifer Homans, a former dancer for several American companies, wrote "Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet" to provide a comprehensive history of the elegant and beloved--and controversial--art form.
Women's eNews contributors had a fruitful year in publishing. Gloria Feldt's "No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think about Power" urges and inspires women to seize the social equality that isn't given to them. Courtney M. Martin's "Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists" profiles eight young activists who struggle to instigate social change and find meaning in their lives--and offers a rebuke to those who say the younger generation isn't idealistic.
Jennifer Pozner's "Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV" analyzes the racist and sexist archetypes in reality TV shows and reveals the scripted formulas used by these shows producers.
Women's eNews Cartoonist Lisa Donnelly's "When Do They Serve the Wine?: The Folly, Flexibility, and Fun of Being a Woman" is a book of cartoons that gently poke fun at modern womanhood.
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Sarah Seltzer is a freelance writer in New York City. Her work is available at www.sarahmseltzer.com.
Room by Emma Donoghue
Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon
Great House by Nicole Krauss
So Much for That by Lionel Shriver
I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita
The Long Song by Andrea Levy
Small Island by Andrea Levy
Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow
Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation by Kate Bornstein
Just Kids by Patti Smith
Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women by Rebecca Traister
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson
Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff
Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet by Jennifer Homans
No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think about Power by Gloria Feldt
Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists by Courtney E Martin
Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV by Jennifer Pozner
When Do They Serve the Wine?: The Folly, Flexibility, and Fun of Being a Woman by Liza Donnelly