Yesterday morning, while the rest of the literary world was busy reading Michiko Kakutani's rave of the new Jonathan Franzen novel, NYT-bestselling author Jodi Picoult took to Twitter to denounce the review as yet another instance of the NYT's bias towards white males.
NYT raved about Franzen's new book. Is anyone shocked? Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren't white male literary darlings.
The NYTPicker contacted Picoult -- the 44-year-old fiction sensation whose bestsellers have, at times, been mercilessly picked apart in the NYT by daily critic Janet Maslin -- to see if she would explain her sentiments at greater length. This morning, we got this blistering email from Picoult.
"It is my personal opinion that yes, the Times favors white male authors.," Picoult told The NYTPicker. "That isn't to say someone else might get a good review -- only that if you are white and male and living in Brooklyn you have better odds, or so it seems."
In her Twitter comments yesterday, she made specific reference not only to what she perceived as the NYT's bias for Franzen, but also its rave reviews for the novelist Jonathan Lethem, a Brooklyn resident.
But according to Wikipedia, Franzen lives on the upper East Side of Manhattan. And it's worth noting that last October, Kakutani panned Lethem's latest novel, "Chronic City, as "lame and unsatisfying," and "nothing but a lot of pompous hot air."
In her comments to The NYTPicker, Picoult made it plain that her sensitivities derive from her own feelings of mistreatment by the NYT. In a 2008 review of "Change of Heart," Maslin said Picoult "seems to have written her latest tear-jerker on authorial autopilot."
Maslin went on: "When writers become this popular (Ms. Picoult’s books currently top both The New York Times’s hardcover and paperback best-seller lists), they can coast in ways not possible for the up-and-coming. The opportunity to be long-winded yet perfunctory, paradoxically daring yet formulaic, is available to only proven hit makers at the top of the heap."
"The NYT has long made it clear that they value literary fiction and disdain commercial fiction - and they disparage it regardless of race or gender of the author," Picoult said. "I'm not commenting on one specific critic or even on my own reviews (which are few and far between because I write commercial fiction). "
After that aside, Picoult returned to her point by contending that the NYT uses race and gender as a determining factor in deciding who gets a double dose of reviews, in the daily pages and Sunday NYT Book Review.
"How else can the Times explain the fact that white male authors ROUTINELY are assigned reviews in both the Sunday review section AND the daily book review section (often both raves)," Picoult asks, "while so many other writers go unnoticed by their critics?"
But even on Twitter, Picoult was challenged by readers over her undocumented accusations against the NYT.
"In all fairness to NYT, here are two such reviews re: Danticat & Diaz," wrote one follower, referring to recent rave NYT reviews for novelists Edwidge Danticat and Junot Diaz.
"True," Picoult tweeted back. "But did you know what 'lapidary' meant when you read it in Kakutani's review? I think reviewers just like to look smart."
And then: "Also - if you're the NYT, for every Danticat/Diaz review, there are ten Lethems and Franzens!"
Are there, really? That seems way off to us. But we're willing to put Picoult's claims out there as the statement of a prominent American novelist, and let readers weigh in with their own perceptions, or even statistics if they have them. Does the NYT dole out its reviews without regard to race or gender, or is it biased in favor of the white male establishment?
We've also emailed NYT culture editor Jonathan Landman for comment on Picoult's claims, and will update if/when he responds.