Because times are tough in book publishing – with a smaller audience for literary works and fewer media outlets devoting space to the arts – writers are, naturally, looking for someone to blame. A lot of writers, novelists in particular, have seen their sales and public appearances decline over the last 10 years, and they are puzzled, for they expected the opposite to happen. One naturally believes that one is growing more skilled as one practises, that more recent work is more mature and that it should be more amply rewarded than juvenile work. It’s infuriating and painful when a new novel gets less attention than an early novel. But it’s happening to almost everyone who isn’t writing blockbusters.
And, of course, it must be the fault of some kind of conspiracy, of some powerful cabal of people who are different from you, who do some other sort of thing. If you’re a science-fiction writer, it’s because the cabal is against science fiction. If you’re a kids’ writer, it’s because there is a snobbish bias against the whole genre. If you’re from Newfoundland, it’s because you’re not from Toronto. If you’re from Toronto, it’s because you’re not from Newfoundland. If you are a male writer, it’s because the members of book clubs are all women. If you are a female writer, it’s because of male book-review editors and prize juries.
And whatever your prism is, you are going to see everything through it. If you get a bad review and you’re from Newfoundland, it’s because of geography; if you get a bad review and you’re a woman, it’s because of gender. Here’s a recent example of how this works. A minor disagreement about a book reviewer’s question turned into a subject of passionate online debate, and the conversation immediately blamed gender bias. I don’t think there’s any evidence that gender had anything to do with it.
The conversation started after an interview published in Publishers Weekly, the U.S. industry magazine. The author is Claire Messud, whose new novel, The Woman Upstairs, has been receiving mostly positive reviews, even though it’s about an unlikeable, slightly crazy character. The interviewer asked her, “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you?” Messud betrayed some exasperation in her reply: “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Thomas Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter?”
Her irritation is totally understandable: The question of whether readers should like or “find sympathetic” the heroes and heroines of books is one that is taking forever to die, and it plagues every writer who attempts anything more morally complex than a parable. By listing a number of respected works by male authors, Messud seemed, to some, to be suggesting that this was a sexist question. But the inclusion of the character Antigone and the writer Alice Munro seems to belie that. Furthermore, Messud might have gone on to say that in fact many of the works she lists have been criticized for exactly the same thing – particularly Lolita, whose vile narrator has always been the sticking point for the book’s many detractors.
No matter, the outraged blogs and postings began to pop up, always with the question, “Would a male author have been asked that?” and then linking to a number of other recent scandals of literary sexism – the dearth of reviews in major newspapers, the idiocy over categorization at Wikipedia – as if each was an example of the same thing. Almost immediately there was an almost-funny parody film that went around, by Washington Post fiction editor Ron Charles, of a whiny book-review editor dismissing the work of Messud and other famous U.S. novelists as “women’s writing.” (Who this hammy actor is trying to caricature I don’t know; no such editor exists.)
Interestingly, the interviewer who asked Messud the annoying question was female. And she added a note to the comments that followed: “I’m sorry to disappoint you, but gender never crossed my mind.”