Tuesday, August 17, 2010

NYT #1 Bestselling Author Jodi Picoult Blasts NYT For Giving Rave Book Reviews To "White Male Literary Darlings."

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.

Picoult wrote:

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."

Ouch!

"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.

47 comments:

Anonymous said...

Who?

Anonymous said...

Best-selling novelist Jennifer Weiner has made some similar comments to Picoult on her Twitter feed (http://twitter.com/jenniferweiner) today.

Sam said...

Are New York-based fiction novelists just a bunch of whiny bitches? My God.

Anonymous said...

re:"white males who live in Brooklyn" ... without being accused of anti-Semitism, can we add "Jewish" to the desiderata of NYTimes editor and reviewers when filling their columns? And if an author was not Jewish, but was persecuted by the Nazis, that's almost as good. I mean, look at the mania over Irene Nemirovsky. They treated her re-discovered work like the Dead Sea Scrolls. A new Jewish martyr, yay! (Too bad she denied her own roots and tried to assimilate to a France which sent her to the gas chambers, but now claims her as their own). And when is the last time the Times wrote about a British author, I mean the whole friggin canon of British literature for 400 years, and barely a peep in the NYTimes. Its like they can't handle Jane Austen and Dickens, because they make Manhattan's current darling Wunderkind novelists look so trivial and incompetent.

Anonymous said...

Dear Nytpickers:

Can you clarify please?

Only comments 4 and 9 seem like they're trying to actually contribute in any meaningful way to the discussion.

Does nytpicker allow simply anything to be posted? I'm not suggesting you adopt the New York Times' ridiculous policies, but most of these comments are just hateful noise.

Anonymous said...

This is a stupid non-story about some low-brow author's sour grapes. Give us more NYT insights, not random whining. "The NYT has long made it clear that they value literary fiction and disdain commercial fiction" -- and that's a problem, why? I don't think the NYT demographic wants to read reviews of beach blockbusters, and people who do want to read those reviews are well-serviced elswehere. So I'd call this post a NYTpicker fail (a minor one, but still).

Anonymous said...

Literature of quality has no place in the NYT.

Why? Because of the high contrast it would generate when juxtaposed next to average voices.

Never threaten an editor's manhood.

Anonymous said...

I think NYTpicker has a problem if Junot Diaz's 2007 review is referred to as an example of a recent review of a 'non-white' writer. That was, um, not so recent. Dandicat's "Brother, I'm Dying" was also 2007.

Anonymous said...

So, could someone please figure out how many books are put out there by non-white males or women in general? Maybe that has something to do with it.

Susan Wingate said...

At least Picoult had the balls to post her own name when she wrote her comment. How about a little less anonymity to all those anonymous folks complaining and posting here about a not-so-low-brow author, in fact a fabulous author, stating her real concern.
Talk about snivelers. You guys reek of it!

Anonymous said...

Susan: You said exactly what I was thinking.

People who hide behind "anonymous" to make snide comments are telling more about themselves than they are contributing anything useful.

Maya Reynolds said...

Okay, now. I clicked on "Name/URL" and still came up anonymous in my previous post.

Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez said...

Picoult is 100 percent correct. I would add that they only cover authors "of color" when such authors write about barrios, ghettos or magical thinking. Junot Diaz is their darling because his novel was about a smart kid from the barrio, and this idea, to NYTimes editors and other assorted NY literati, is so wonderfully guilt-provoking and fascinating it cannot be ignored. This is all a big part of the reason the NY Times is dying.

Christine said...

I agree with Picoult. The NYT needs to understand that they have to review books for everyone, not just the demographic they're trying to reach, which I'm guessing is white males. There's a reason why Picoult and Weiner have best-selling novels and they should be recognized for that.

Anonymous said...

I think it's very interesting that she pans Lethem as a literary writer when in the biz we all consider him a genre writer. Unfortunately, I locked horns with my boss when he expressed the belief that New York editors are not interested in anything about Latino or Black culture, so I think this is a bigger problem than just the New York Times.

MaNiC MoMMy™ said...

All the anonymous posters who say rude things about women probably don't even know who the male writers are anyway. Bunch of idiots. Good for Jodi (and Jen for that matter) and it's a sharm that NYTs doesn't give more authors a shot at reviews, no matter their race or gender.

Anonymous said...

Funny how you don't mind anonymity when it's the editors cleaning up your work, or the ghostwriters writing the work, or the anonymous donors funding the arts.


Funny, but your sense of humor is probably warped.

Anonymous said...

i just hate that a vast majority of the fiction writers they review write about new york city. black, white, male, female, the provincialism is astonishing.

Anonymous said...

Excuse me, i didn't sign in to this comment to be treated as WHITE NOISE.

Does this read like invisible ink?

Is it unmeaningful to learn why the bias is what it is through paraphrasing of actual calculated policy, actual attitude?


The sun shines at night you just happen to be elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

You know what? Here's my suspicions: Some (fill in the group or groups you want: black, white, male, female, gay, lesbian, Hispanic, Nebraskan, vegan, etc.) writers are terrible and get gushing, fervent, rave reviews from New York Times reviewers.

Why? Because some people (that includes reviewers) have lousy taste in books. They have no business being in the business, but by combination of luck, connections, influence, etc., they are there to stay, like a terrible skin disease that can't be scratched away, no matter how much steel wool you have.

And yes, I'm willing to bet that if someone took the time to do an Excel sheet on it, some of the Times' reviewers could be shown to have a streak of favoritism toward white males or black females or biracial transgendered persons.

But until someone actually bothers doing that spreadsheet, this whole thing is little more than the equivalent of a shouting match at a fishmonger's stall. If someone has evidence, present it. Otherwise, will everyone please stop being so outraged about how something may or may not be happening at the Times and how the Times may or may not be responding to this event or non-event?

There. I've said it. Do with me what you will!

And yes, I'm staying anonymous. Why? Because one thing I've learned is that in journalism, when you actually speak truth to journalists, quite a few of them get a tight, brittle little smile, and they make sure that one day, they fix you for actually pointing out that they were acting like assholes.

Anonymous said...

True that!

And how grudge-holders fix you is by trashing your candidate, misleading your army, spreading misinformation, harboring your enemy, cheapening your product.

And what can you do?

AALBC.com said...

Picoult thinks she has it bad; at least the NY Times is reviewing her books. I bet 99.999% of the authors out there would pay to be in her position.

"nytpicker" love the name.

julianne balmain said...

I may be uniquely positioned to help quantify this discussion, at least in part. Sisters in Crime, a group dedicated to furthering the careers of women writing crime fiction, has been monitoring reviews of mystery novels (broadly defined to include thrillers and traditional mysteries) in national media for more than 20 years. As chair of the monitoring project, I can offer a few facts to consider:

In 2009, 66% of the mystery novels reviewed in the New York Times were written by men (the books, not the reviews). In 2008, that number was 61%.

With half of 2010’s numbers recorded so far, the New York Times has reviewed a total of 64 mystery novels, 72% of which were written by men.

Across the 46 publications monitored in 2009, male writers earned 67% of reviews, up from 63% in 2008. Only three publications reviewed more books by women than by men (down from six in 2008).

Based on submissions for the 2010 Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar awards, the overall split in mystery novels published by men and women in 2009 was nearly equal, with approximately 51% of published mystery novels written by men. (The split goes up to about 56% male authors if you count only original hardcovers.)

These numbers refer only to books in the mystery and thriller genre, arguably commercial fiction by definition, and can therefore contribute only so much to the conversation. As review pages shrink and publishers consolidate assets behind big-ticket authors, one can’t help wonder if the diminishing resources will be equitably distributed among worthy writers regardless of sex. The Sisters in Crime monitoring project is one of the few ways to quantify and track that distribution.

--Julianne Balmain

Sarah Sarai said...

What's the value in posting anonymous' racist and sexist comments. They add nothing intellectual to the discussion. Really, don't give racism a voice.

Sheilah Vance said...

So that's why the Times doesn't review my books! I thought it was just because they're published by an independent publisher, not the big 5 NYC publishers. Thank God for other review outlets!

Anonymous said...

Au contraire.

Nothing like depicting racist and sexist characters, in overt fiction, to turn us off from them. To see them as human beings, to understand how they got that way. Blah blah... Why aren't there intelligent women characters in fiction? I know many many such women in reality, why are they not represented in fiction? In cinema? On the tube? Is it, perhaps, because they might awaken the bubble nation? Upset the dicks? They're not fuckable enough if they speak?

You tell us.

Anonymous said...

The whole Junot Diaz phenomenon baffles me. He is promoted as an ethnic, Dominican author. I love Caribbean fiction and so I tried to read his book for some local color and cross-cultural insights. Big mistake. All I got was a headache from the commercialistic, materialistic New York ghetto narrative. Its like it was written to be easily turned into a screenplay with tons of product placement already installed. Having lived three years in the Dominican republic, I can affirm that Diaz says NOTHING about Dominican life and culture as experienced in their native country. He's all about the immigrant experience, which is basically the same myth and meme, whether you're Jewish, Italian, Russian, Mexican. I think this explains the Times loving his work. Its safe, a feel-good success story. It doesnt address the violence, corruption, sensuality, religious and economic paradixes of the REAL Dominican Republic.

R. D. Charleston said...

For Picoult to accuse the NYT of this is like Jon Stewart feeling the need to publicly embarrass Jim Cramer on "The Daily Show"— somewhat accurate but so filled with hubris and the accusers self-exceptionalizing opinion that I don't care.

Picoult isn't a good writer— she writes potato chip novels— so what does her opinion matter anyway?

though there are many Franzen non-fans, there aren't many of the informed who would say he is terribly untalented at writing. I think most would agree that Picoult is in no way the literary/writing equivelant of Franzen, and that her singling out of him is especially myopic of her. Ethnic/international/feminist/queer lit is horribly underrepresented in bookstores and in publishing houses— which just makes it clear that she doesn't know much about these places, only about what she reads in the New York Times.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I rarely read fiction. And when I do, it is a classic, or a master piece. Never empty commercial airport fare.

But I do read other stuff.

And that reading list, has its own parasitic observers, who I've been observing for some time. They're not necessarily writers, they're the kind who idealize sit on the ass to be fed grapes life for themselves only.

They go bonanza into a frenzy every time they illegally intrude to see what's being read.

I'd like to eliminate them. Having tallied up their comings and goings, I might add that the world would be a better place if the leaches were directly told that the leaching is over. Get over it. Not worth the penalty.

Anonymous said...

The key to success is to keep an infinite distance from the illuminated.

Anonymous said...

The miscorrespondence between supply and demand
is worth adressing to remain relevant and redressing to stay alive.

Drew said...

Frankly, I completely agree with Picoult's remarks. The NYT Book Review consistently goes after the same type of book and author.

As someone who works in the industry, is a white male, lives in New York, and has an MFA-equilavent degree, I still think the NYT should evolve.

They won't, because the book industry suffers from the same delusions as Hollywood - rich, old white folk at top who think that's all people want to see.

Unless, of course, you fulfill the ethnic stereotype of whatever caste you're from. Then you're acceptable, because your story is only about what makes you different from the majority.

Of course, at the end, you discover you're really just like majority! Yay!

More thoughts on my blog.

Anonymous said...

Oh, poor Ms. Picoult. Doesn't she realize that whining for affirmative action doesn't do the female authors any favors. One friend of mine dismisses any vaguely politically correct news from the NYT automatically because he assumes it's just wishful thinking from a bunch of dreamy fools who think they can just change the world by getting the NYT to write some story about how a woman was starting her own business or writing a book or acting out all of the wishfulfillment fantasies from the novels and movies like "First Wives Club" or "9 to 5".

Now whenever I see some book review written by some female professor at some sensitive liberal arts college about a book written by some other sensitive professor from a sensitive liberal arts college, I'll just assume that the book was reviewed to shut up the whiners and make some 50% quota. It may actually be quite good but I'll dismiss it out of hand because Picoult will be just looking at the author's name and trying to guess whether "chris" is a boy or a girl.

Anonymous said...

Maybe the problem is that too many of the books that Piccoult would like to read are chick lit books that are only of interest to women who want to take a break from their own emoting by diving into someone else's pool of emotion. It's not like the NYTimes is reviewing white male stories like this Onion classic:

http://www.theonion.com/articles/empowered-man-murders-controlling-wife-in-lifetime,2699/

Ed Bast said...

Did anyone bother to tell Ms. Picoult that the critic who wrote the Franzen review is an Asian-American woman who trashed Franzen's memoior and Lethem's latest novel?

Anonymous said...

If picard and her ilk were to organize and mobilize, they could possibly launch a negative publicity campaign, a mass action lawsuit, consciousness raising and attitude readjustment campaigns to proactively reverse the systemic exclusion of the female.

Otherwise, the nuisance is about why your particular bad literature didn't get picked up for a tearing in the crab bucket.

Michelle said...

I feel like there's one person here who keeps responding under anonymous. That must be why there are lots of anonymous posts that are completely unreadable and full of pretentious phrases that are out of context with what we're talking about.

More importantly though, I think that NYTPicker should go back and read their own article and the points where they disagreed with Picoult..where they might end up noticing that they fail to come up with examples of the NYTimes reviewing a novel written by a woman and have only two examples of nonwhite authors being reviewed...both of whom are male and both of which were reviewed three years ago. If that's the best you can come up with then you've just proven Picoult's point.
This doesn't mean that commercial fiction reviews should replace literary fiction reviews, but they should be given more face time or the new york times will see less and less readership.

Jon from Brooklyn said...

Jodi should look at the "Best Books" of the last two years and then please be quiet. She's making money hand-over-fist with writing that pales in quality to what she has written in the past.

The 10 authors who were given "Best Book" by the NYTimes the last two years are: Steven Millhauser, Toni Morrison, Joseph O'Neill, Roberto Bolano, Jhumpa Lahiri, Maile Meloy, Jonathan Lethem, Lorrie Moore, Jeannette Walls, and Kate Walbert. That's 6 women (4 white, 1 african-american, 1 indian-american), 3 white guys, and 1 latino author. Lorrie Moore and Jeannette Walls were both double-reviewed.

The fact that she mentions Junot Diaz and Edwidge Danticat's 2007 books makes her seem so out of touch. Maybe she hasn't read many books since 2007, so she can't think of non-white-male writers that have gotten lots of love from the NYTimes, like those listed above and others, like Colson Whitehead, Allegra Goodman, Nam Le, Jennifer Egan, etc etc.

If she wants more critical acclaim, then she should write better fiction that rivals her contemporaries. Can you really compare fiction of the caliber of Toni Morrison's or Lorrie Moore's to Jodi Picoult's?

And for the commenter who wanted to know where was the love for British fiction, please take a look at the love given to David Mitchell this summer from the times, as well as their double-header E.M. Forster/Somerset Maugham biographies cover story. And both of those only in the last 6 weeks or so!

Sylvia said...

What difference does it make who is writing what and who gets recognised for what? As a consumer public, why can't we just reap what we like and ignore what we don't?

Anonymous said...

"This doesn't mean that commercial fiction reviews should replace literary fiction reviews, but they should be given more face time or the new york times will see less and less readership."

What is it? You are suffering? Can't quite speak in a language the masters can understand? It bothers you that your unverifiable profession is no longer paying the bills? Why don't you stop there and save face.

The kind of losers who read commercial fiction don't read book reviews. So, no worries, the genre will stagnate until storage space becomes an issue.

Anonymous said...

Wonder if Michelle is the kind of parasite who shows up to book readings to ask the stupidest question that masks a tangential threat that she thinks will have carryover in some angelic dimension. Well, well, well, time to turn the tables around.

Anonymous said...

"In 2009, 66% of the mystery novels reviewed in the New York Times were written by men (the books, not the reviews). In 2008, that number was 61%...Based on submissions for the 2010 Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar awards, the overall split in mystery novels published by men and women in 2009 was nearly equal, with approximately 51% of published mystery novels written by men. (The split goes up to about 56% male authors if you count only original hardcovers.)"

These are interesting numbers, but do you think the difference between 56% original hardcover males and 61%/66% reviews is a huge gap?

The numbers don't seem ideal, but not nearly as dramatic as Picoult pretends.

Anonymous said...

What are we talking about anyway and what exactly is commercial fiction? Is it the category that is forced down the throat of school children (lest they become overqualified) and picked up by Costco?

Can't figure out what adult readers actually see in such garbage.

Thrasher said...

I am Black and my tribe survived the domestic holocaust here in America yet the the NYTBR never publishes my poetry...

Thanks Jodi for your protests..

Rarian Rakista said...

I knew what lapidary meant, do I win a prize?

tori alexander said...

How funny. Literary fiction writers have been complaining for years that the NYT has dropped literary fiction for commercial fiction.

Gershen said...

Jodi Picoult got her facts wrong about Jane Austen, as Lev Raphael has just blogged on The Huffington Post:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lev-raphael/was-jane-austen-a-popular_b_705583.html