The Beam in My Own Reading Eye

In the summer of 2010, the New York Times penchant for Great White Male Novelists was a major topic of discussion, spurred by vocal criticism from Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult, among others, of the tendency for the Times to review certain types of writers over other types—men over women in general, but even within the “literary over commercial” framework, when the Times deigned to notice commercial fiction, it was almost overwhelmingly male-written. I’ve written about the Times‘ rebuttal to the data, which was Sam Tanenhaus’s insistence that his section is focused on “that fiction that really will endure,” and why I find that rationale less than compelling; I’ve also written about why I think what types of books get review coverage matters, along with the ways that coverage is handled.

So, in early 2012, Jennifer Weiner decided to look at the Times book coverage for 2011, to see what changes the paper might have made in its handling of women writers. The needle moved slightly; while 38 percent of the fiction covered between July 2008 and August 2010 was written by women, in the 2011 calendar year, women could now claim nearly 41 percent of the coverage. Unfortunately, when it came to the writers upon whom the Times chooses to dwell, designating them as culturally significant by virtue of coverage in both the daily arts section and the Sunday book review magazine plus some sort of profile, only one out of the eleven so blessed was a woman.

(Outside the scope of Jennifer’s analysis, but perhaps worth mentioning: Only one of those writers, Haruki Murakami, was of non-“white” ethnicity.)

The reaction to Jennifer’s statistical breakdown was predictable. Salon wrote a particularly insipid article about how male “midlist” novelists were the real victims—this article was seriously so terrible that I’m not going to give it the benefit of a link; instead, you can read John Scalzi’s explanation of why it’s “the most incoherent piece of enviously fumbly writer spew” he’d seen in some time. Later, when the Huffington Post picked up on Jennifer’s story, an anonymous female staffer at The New Republic used the book section’s Twitter account to accuse Jennifer of “[making] mountains out of molehills” and condescendingly ask if she was calling for “affirmative action” in the book pages. She then went on to declare, “Literary criticism can’t fall victim to numbers games. A review section should be a well-rounded meritocracy.” She further dismissed Jennifer’s statistics as “an anecdotal barometer, [and] not a measure of the state of criticism,” then, when I entered the debate, informed me that “evaluating the numbers is a silly way to get at the complicated business of literary crit.”

My basic point in that back-and-forth, which she first refused to acknowledge and then declared was “a much larger question than I can answer,” was that book critics, like everybody else, have culturally embedded biases which, when left unchecked, tend to reinforce the status quo. In this case, no matter how often prominent figures in the world of literary criticism insist gender plays no role in their decisions about what to review, male writers consistently get the better deal. And we’re not just talking about The New York Times—according to a Boston Phoenix article, NPR’s book coverage is even more imbalanced. As Eugenia Williamson writes:

“The truth is that major publishers put out more books written by men than women. Print publications write more about books written by men. NPR discusses more books written by men. Unsurprisingly, the best seller list is dominated by books written by men: men outnumbered women 25 to 11 on last year’s number-one-best-seller fiction charts. And to be honest, I’m not innocent of this either—in the last calendar year, of the 76 books I wrote about, 42 were by men and only 34 were by women.

Clearly, female novelists have neither the cultural capital nor the financial capital that male novelists do. When will people face up to that? And when will it change?”


27 January 2012 | theory |

How I’m Celebrating Social Media Week

On Wednesday, February 15, I’ll be participating in “Getting Published & Beyond in the 21st Century,” a panel discussion sponsored by Pubslush Press. The final lineup is still being assembled, but I’m looking forward to sharing the stage with the author Emma Straub and Amanda Pritzker, a senior publicist at Penguin’s Portfolio imprint. (There are some other folks I’m pretty sure are coming, but I don’t want to say anything before it’s official!)

In my previous role as the director of e-marketing strategy at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and in the consulting work I do for authors and publishers today, I’ve encouraged writers to familiarize themselves with the major social media tools and pick the ones that resonate most closely not just with their publicity goals, but with their comfort in being online. I’m not one of those people who thinks you have to be everywhere and do everything to promote yourself successfully online; in fact, I think one of the first and biggest problems many authors face when they try to do their own social media marketing is that they spread themselves too thin too fast. What I was hearing from a lot of authors, though, was that while they were being told that they needed to go out onto the Internet and promote themselves, they weren’t always being given much practical advice on how to go about doing that.

So a big part of my message to the audience at Wix Lounge that evening is going to be that even though social media marketing is a lot of work, it doesn’t have to be a lot of hard work. Ultimately, I don’t believe that you should be out there “selling product” to people. Instead, you want to be yourself—admittedly, a somewhat streamlined version of yourself—and make a connection with the readers to whom your work is most likely to be valuable, whether that’s because of the information you share or the entertainment you provide. And you demonstrate to those people, day in and day out, that you are an interesting person who, from time to time, has a book out they might want to read.

I’m thinking back to a keynote speech I saw YA novelist John Green give in late 2011 at’s Publishing App Expo. “We did not market anything, ever,” Green said about the video blogs he’s filmed with his brother, Hank, which have accrued more than half a million fans in less than five years. (Maybe closer to a million, depending on the yardstick you’re using to measure Green’s popularity.) “It isn’t like YouTube exists so I can share my books with you.” When he does mention a new book or some other project, he says, “it’s because I’m thinking about it, not because I’m desperate to sell it.”

Okay, I think it’s hyperbolic of Green to say “I’ve never, ever, ever done marketing,” but I see where he’s coming from—I’m just a firm believer in the Seth Godin school of permission marketing, or “the privilege (not the right) of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them,” and of the idea that every aspect of your public presence is, in effect, a subtle form of “marketing” yourself to others.

(By the way, if you haven’t read Green’s latest, The Fault in Our Stars, yet, you really should. It’s got one of the best first-person voices I’ve seen in a long time, maybe since Matthew Quick’s The Silver Linings Playbook, which is a book it reminds me of in other, emotionally resonant ways.)

21 January 2012 | events |

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