Lionel ShriverThe latest literary dust-up in the United States concerns the outsize critical admiration of Jonathan Franzen's new novel Freedom, the follow-up to his 2001 National Book Award winner The Corrections. Freedom secured two worshipful reviews from the New York Times in one week, the Book Review's lengthy cover essay drooling with such jaw-dropped awe that it was hard to read for the saliva stains. Franzen himself appears on the cover of Time, and Freedom sits in President Obama's stack of holiday reading.
Fellow novelist Jodi Picoult ignited online fireworks last week by claiming that female writers never attract the same reverence as "white male literary darlings" like Franzen. Naturally Picoult risks the appearance of plain old envy. Though a skilful craftsman, Picoult may also lack the literary standing to make such a charge. Myself, I've yet to read Freedom, embargoed until this Wednesday, but it does sound like an excellent book, one I'm looking forward to.
Nevertheless, Picoult has a point. A female novelist would never enjoy a Franzen-scale frenzy of adulation in America, which maintains two distinct tiers in fiction. The heavy hitters – cultural icons who often produce great doorstop novels that no one ever argues are under-edited – are exclusively male. Rising literati like Rick Moody and Jonathan Franzen efficiently assume the spots left unoccupied by John Updike and Norman Mailer, like a rigged game of musical chairs. Then there's everybody else – including a raft of female writers who keep the publishing industry afloat by selling to its primary consumers: women.
Elaine Showalter did a bang-up job in the Guardian Review last spring explaining why American women are never credited with writing the Great American Novel while identifying female writers who deserve more acclaim. So in preference to singing yet more praises of the gifted Annie Proulx, I'll share an inside glimpse of how publishers are complicit in ghettoising not only women writers but women readers into this implicitly lesser cultural tier.
With merciful exceptions, my publishers constantly send prospective covers for my books that play to what "women readers" supposedly want. Take the American reissue of my fourth novel Game Control – a wicked, nasty novel about a plot to kill two billion people overnight. The main character is a man, the focal subject demography. Yet what cover do I first get sent? A winsome young lass in a floppy hat, gazing soulfully to the horizon in a windblown field – soft focus, in pastels. Dismayed, I emailed back: "Did your designers read any of this book?" When I proposed a cover photo by Peter Beard of sagging elephant carcasses – perfectly apt – the sales department was horrified. Women would be repelled by dead animals. We settled on live elephants, but it was pulling teeth to get girls off that paperback.
Or take the amicable difference of opinion I am having with my German publisher, since apparently this problem is also European. My latest novel, So Much for That, is told from two male points of view. Its subject matter – illness, mortality, and the fiscal depredations of American healthcare – is unisex, its tone furious. Yet what's on the cover? A woman, looking stricken. Male readers wouldn't be caught dead reading a book with that cover on the Strassenbahn.
The titling of that novel also came up against stereotypes of my ostensibly all-female audience. The US sales department vetoed the original title, Time is Money, for "sounding like nonfiction", though fiction appropriating and subverting nonfiction titles is commonplace (nobody mistook Alison Lurie's Foreign Affairs for an international policy journal). It took me a while to discern the real problem: Time is Money was too direct, too aggressive, too in your face; it would frighten the girls away. This suspicion was confirmed when I suggested the Germans, with no equivalent of "so much for that", simply use my original title. Uh-uh. Zeit ist Geld is "too male and harsh". I admired my publisher's candour, if not his neutral substitute: The Better Part of Life.
Publishing's notion of what "women want" is dated and condescending. In the era of Venus Williams, girliness and goo isn't the way to every woman's heart. Yet publishers presume that women only buy a book that looks soft and that appears to be all about women, even if it isn't. Yet women, unlike men, buy books by and about both sexes.
Granted, the marketing logic seems unassailable: in the US, Britain and Germany, 80% of fiction readers are women. (Which mysteriously makes women look bad: those layabout ladies have nothing better to do than loll around and read. Yet if 80% of fiction readers were men, we'd assume that men are still far more cultured and better informed, while women squander their free time on mopping the floor.) Why appeal to the meagre male 20%?
Simple: smart female authors who twig that their careers depend on writing solely for their own gender will instinctively narrow their subject matter. Meanwhile, gauzy covers with shy titles signal that the literary establishment needn't take this work seriously. Little wonder, then, that the language of extravagant regard in that New York Times Book Review write-up of Jonathan Franzen – "Like all great novels," Freedom "illuminates, through the steady radiance of its author's profound moral intelligence" – is rarely lavished on female novelists. Little wonder that admiration of Franzen's focus on "family as microcosm or micro-history" would invert to disdain should a woman choose the same subject: look, just another bint stuck in her tiny domestic world.
When my novels are packaged as exclusively for women, I'm not only cut off from a vital portion of my audience but clearly labelled as an author the literary establishment is free to dismiss. By stereotyping my work's audience as self-involved and prissy, women-only packaging also insults my readers, who could all testify that trussing up my novels as sweet, girly and soft is like stuffing a rottweiler in a dress.
Lionel Shriver won the 2005 Orange prize for fiction with We Need to Talk About Kevin