Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Guest Post: Author Lesley McDowell on Jodi Picoult and "White Male Literary Darlings"

A recent article in The Guardian, "Jodi Picoult Attacks Favouritism to 'White Male Literary Darlings'," has gotten a lot of well-deserved attention in the book world. Lesley McDowell, author of Between the Sheets: The Literary Liasons of Nine 20th Century Women Writers, knows the feeling all to well. She shared her thoughts on the article--and how she thinks demographics can affect the gatekeepers of publicity, book reviewers--below. Thanks, Lesley!

When I stepped out of the world of academia in 1997 and into literary journalism, I had a mortgage and bills to pay. I needed to make money. So I took a look at the literary pages and thought, hmmm. No-one’s going to let me review the latest Martin Amis. Or the latest Salman Rushdie. Or the latest Ian McEwan...I could see I just didn’t have the right equipment for the job, despite a PhD on James Joyce.

Fortunately, though, I did have the right equipment to review the latest Jane Smiley. Or Carol Shields. Or Alice Hoffman. The women writers that the boys won’t touch with their barge poles. But that was fine by me – what they didn’t want, I took gratefully and all those reviews of all those superb women writers paid my mortgage and my bills. They still do. And I still don’t get the big boys to review – the latest Amis or Rushdie or McEwan goes, by and large, to lead male reviewers. I didn’t care, back in 1997. I built my own little ghetto and I was just fine with that. I needed the cash, plus I got to read some of the best literature that the late twentieth century had to offer.

And now? I do occasionally review a book by a man. Just as some male critics do very occasionally review a book by a woman (of the 26 reviews I’ve received for my own book, Between the Sheets, four – yes, 4 - have been by men). But I like pushing for the women writers – I see it as my job to give them attention they might otherwise be denied if a literary editor can’t find another female critic to review them in time. The financial pressure is still there, but I don’t see my reviewing, or the books I review, as part of a ghetto any more.

And yet that sense of a ghetto is still there. I’m guessing that Michiko Kakutani didn’t face quite the same financial pressures I did, when she began building her career as a major literary critic. I’m guessing she could afford to badger for the boys’ books, maybe wait till that important male reviewer was off sick and she could steal the latest Amis for herself. I’m not saying I never reviewed a lead title, but the lead titles are invariably by male authors, so if you want to be a major reviewer, you tend to have to concentrate on the boys. And so, I’m guessing, that’s what Kakutani did. It got her the status she has today.

So why would she take a step down and review the latest Jodi Picoult? Jodi Picoult, for heaven’s sake! What does she know about family drama? Nothing that Jonathan Franzen doesn’t know much, much better, it would appear. Women have been writing about the family for decades, and been castigated for it, marginalised as frivolous, domestic, local. Occasionally a woman writer is accorded proper status – oh, how it pains the literary boys to see Joyce Carol Oates up there with Roth and Updike and Mailer, contesting the title to Great American Author. But mostly, women are in the cheap seats at the back. Everyone knows that more novels are bought and read by women than men. But that volume still isn’t reflected adequately in reviews in the literary pages, or in the status of women writers themselves.

I can’t complain. Like I said, I received 26 reviews of my own book. I’ve hardly been ghetto-ised. And important women writers, like Ruth Padel and Diana Souhami, have reviewed my book. But what would it take for one of the major male critics to review me? A piece of equipment I don’t have? A book that defies my fragile female tendency to focus on the home and steps out instead onto enemy lines on a battlefield, perhaps? And would that make men pick up my book in a book store and buy it? It’s tempting to retort, I don’t care. But all writers care that their books are read.

When a friend of mine was interviewed for a University post fifteen years ago, she recited a list of her favourite authors, all of them women. ‘Don’t you like any men?’ one male academic asked. ‘Men, men,’ she thought furiously, and then brightened as she remembered. ‘Yes, of course. I’m a big fan of Keats.’ ‘Keats!’ the male academic exploded. ‘He’s an honorary woman anyway!’ ‘Ah, macho men,’ she thought, but could only come up with Len Deighton. Perhaps when women don’t have to be honorary men, and men don’t have to be honorary women, we’ll have a bit more equity in the books pages, too.

These are the opinions of Lesley McDowell. Contact her at info at overlookpress dot com, or leave your thoughts in the comments. We'd love to hear from you.

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