The whole Jodi Picoult/Jennifer Weiner vs. The New York Times episode has raised some fascinating questions about the way books are reviewed, where they’re reviewed, and which authors are among the lucky chosen few.
In case you’ve just returned from vacation on Mars and haven’t heard about the uproar, the initial cause of Jodi Picoult’s protest was the extraordinary attention The Times has given to Jonathan Franzen’s new book. Weiner quickly joined in the complaint that The Times devotes a lot of space to literary novels by “white male writers” and little to works of popular fiction written by women.
After Jason Pinter interviewed Picoult and Weiner for the Huffington Post, the comments left by readers were even more provocative than what the writers had to say. For example, one person said, “Franzen is a writer. These two women are great storytellers. There’s a difference.” A debate raged over the relative value of popular and literary fiction, men’s writing and women’s writing, and it all sounded sadly familiar. The increasingly dire shortage of review venues is what gives the discussion a fresh twist.
One thing is clear: authors in every genre and subgenre see themselves as victims in these days of shrinking review space. Writers of bestsellers believe that precious space should be devoted to “the books people actually read” – their books. Authors of literary fiction say bestsellers don’t need any help and reviewers have a duty to tell readers about books that might otherwise go unnoticed. Crime fiction writers feel marginalized. Mainstream and literary writers, on the other hand, think crime fiction gets more review space than it deserves. And women authors in all genres feel they’re often treated as second-class.
I can’t speak with any knowledge about the comparative figures for reviews of all fiction, but I know for certain that The Times and most other publications review significantly more crime fiction written by men than by women. Sisters in Crime’s Review Monitoring Project has documented inequity in review numbers for many years. According to Julianne Balmain, chair of the Monitoring Project, 66% of the mystery/thriller/suspense novels reviewed in The Times in 2009 were written by men. In 2010 so far, books by men make up 72% of the crime fiction reviewed in The Times. (The overall number of crime novels published each year tends to be almost evenly split between male and female authors, with men having a very slight edge.)
How do you feel about all this?
With space for reviews in newspapers and magazines constantly shrinking, how should those valuable column inches be used?
Should reviewers concentrate on books that appeal to the most readers?
Should reviewers spotlight literary novels and nonfiction on important topics instead of giving space to books that will be bestsellers in any case?
Do reviewers have a duty to call attention to new writers?
Do you feel there’s any particular genre or subgenre that deserves more review space?
Do you believe publications should ensure that books by women are given adequate review space?
Do you think print reviews have lost their importance? Do you look to the internet more often than to newspapers and magazines for book news and reviews?
Do book reviews of any kind influence your decision to buy a novel? If not, what does?