The XXers have done what I was too lazy to do with respect to the NYTBR’s treatment of female writers, and the data supports Weiner’s position (at least on the more general point of whether the NYTBR gives proportionate attention to female writers) more powerfully than I would have guessed. It’s not just the raw numbers, which (as the article notes) could be the result of sexism at different stages of the publishing process, but this very useful list of books given reviews and, especially, double reviews. Looking at it, I know how I’d address this issue:
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?”
Authors given two reviews for a single book by the Times include the “commercial”* writers Steig Larrson, Scott Turow, Stephen King, John Irving, Nick Hornby, Elmore Leonard, John LeCarre, Christopher Buckley, and Stephen Carter, not to mention John Grisham(!) and Dan Brown(!!). There are some female equivalents, but many fewer, and Bushnell is the only one whose novels seem to clearly fit in a “chick lit” category. When you throw in the “literary” novelists whose status as major novelists is highly contestable (such as Moody and McInerney) and major novelists who few would consider at the peak of their form (such as DeLillo and Updike)…I think it’s hard to argue that the overrepresentation of men in the NYTRB is simply a question of what publishers make available or a product of not enough women meeting the NYTRB’s high standards (not that either of these were plausible explanations anyway.) Eyeballing the list I think that “literary” female authors are probably underrepresented too, but when it comes to popular writers Weiner’s criticisms seem especially well-supported. If — as Tannehaus says — the NYTRB’s goal is to “identify that fiction that really will endure,” the bar for creating allegedly enduring art seems to be a lot lower for men than women. I’m going to boldly predict that 100 years from now very few literary anthologies (in whatever form they take) will have sections devoted to the short stories of John Grisham.
*I emphasize that by “commercial” I do not mean “unworthy of attention” or “devoid of aesthetic merit” — I like several of the first set of authors — but the discussion seems to treat these writers as different than “literary” authors such as Mitchell or Morrison or Pynchon or Munro, whether the distinction is useful or not.
UPDATE: In comments, Farber notes that the NYTBR and the other book reviews in the Times are editorially independent. Fair enough, but in the context of this specific criticism I don’t think this gets the Times off the hook — what books both wings choose to cover is surely a relevant question even if the decisions aren’t coordinated. And while Tannehaus doesn’t bear personal responsibility for the double reviews, it remains the case that while he claims that he can’t cover what its detractors call “chick lit” because his review is dedicated to high literachoor that will stand the test of time, a quick perusal of the books he actually chooses to review indicates plenty of middlebrow fiction that straddles the blurry lines between “literature” and “entertainment,” genre fiction that sometimes ditto, the work of outright hacks, non-fiction of no discernible merit or cultural impact, etc.