How a Twitter war in 2010 helped change the way we talk about women’s writing

In 2010, a virtual war broke out between bestselling women’s fiction author Jennifer Weiner and novelist Jonathan Franzen, king of the literary Jonathans. It was an odd little inside-baseball fight that revolved around an esoteric question: Did Franzen’s novel, Freedom, deserve quite as much coverage at the New York Times as it received? The Times certainly seemed to think so. Weiner, not so much.

Despite its seemingly niche appeal, the Weiner/Franzen dispute was covered breathlessly in the press. It was discussed on NPR, on Gawker, on the Awl, in the Atlantic, and it eventually reached the New Yorker, too. It became central to the mythology of the VIDA Count, an annual data analysis published by the women’s literary organization VIDA that was launched in 2011 in the wake of the Weiner/Franzen conversation. Nearly all news coverage of the first VIDA Count list pegged itself to the Weiner/Franzen story. Ultimately, it became central to the mythology of Jonathan Franzen, the angry, cranky, possible genius.

The story seemed to be getting at some big question the culture was still struggling to figure out how to frame in 2010, one that was beginning to take on vital importance. At the time, the mainstream was only just starting to find the words to ask this question, but it went something like this: What kinds of stories do we consider to be worthy of respect? And to whom do those stories belong?

Those questions would end up dominating the next 10 years of pop culture discourse. They’re the questions that ran through the boycott of the all-women Ghostbusters, through the new Star Wars trilogy and the Captain Marvel outcry, through GamerGate, through the long and steady fall of the white man as the default protagonist in American culture.

In 2010, that fall had only just begun. And arguably, it was prefigured with the most 2010s-ish of pursuits: a Twitter war.

“In summation: NYT sexist, unfair, loves Gary Shteyngart, hates chick lit, ignores romance”

When Franzen’s Freedom was released in 2010, critics immediately named it a “masterpiece of American fiction,” and Franzen himself the Great American Novelist. The New York Times was especially effusive in its praise.

The New York Times granted Freedom a review in the daily paper from then-chief book critic Michiko Kakutani, and another in the weekly New York Times Book Review from then-editor Sam Tanenhaus. Both were raves. The Times also ran an article on Franzen’s book party in its Style section. David Brooks wrote a column about Freedom. The Gray Lady, it appeared, had decided Jonathan Franzen was someone whom its readers should know about.

On Twitter, Jennifer Weiner and fellow commercial women’s novelists like Jodi Picoult expressed their belief that the Times could have been a little less lavish in its praise. Couldn’t just a bit of that valuable page space, they asked, have gone to a book that needed it a little more? Franzen, after all, was already a Pulitzer winner. He hardly needed the hype. And why was the Times so devoted, in particular, to literary fiction by white men?

“Count the reviews, interviews, profiles and essays by/about writers like G. Shteyngart, C. Bock, J. Safran Foer the NYT pubs,” Weiner tweeted. “Now try to find a woman who’s gotten that kind of attention. NYT loves its literary darlings, who tend to be dudes w/MFAs.”

Weiner herself didn’t exactly need the hype either, sales-wise. Her most recent novel at the time, 2009’s Best Friends Forever, was a No. 1 New York Times bestseller; one of her other books, In Her Shoes, was made into a movie starring Cameron Diaz in 2005. Still, despite her substantial sales figures and devoted readership, Weiner rarely saw her books reviewed in outlets like the New York Times. And even when prestigious outlets did review her, they tended to do so defensively, seemingly aware that readers might judge them for spending time on that kind of book. “If you think ‘chick lit’ is unworthy of critical attention, go away,” began Maureen Corrigan’s NPR review of Best Friends Forever.

As Weiner’s Twitter thread began to get more attention, some observers took her position to be nothing more than a case of sour grapes. At the Atlantic, the now-disgraced Lorin Stein accused Weiner of “fake populism” and of making her case with “the logic of the Hollywood blockbuster machine.” And Weiner, Daniel D’Addario pointed out at Salon, had a tendency to “cannily [tilt] a conversation on its axis to ensure her issues — and sometimes her books — are at the center of a debate.”

But other observers thought Weiner might have a bit of a point. In a separate Atlantic article, Random House editor Chris Jackson noted that the controversy made him realize that he couldn’t remember the last time he’d read a book by a woman. “Weiner is a sharp and fearless observer of literary gender politics, and I think she is onto something,” wrote Katha Pollitt at the Nation.

Franzen, who’s notoriously media-shy, held off on discussing the fracas at all for years. In the Guardian in 2013, he took a swipe at literary authors engaged in “Jennifer-Weinerish self-promotion,” but otherwise, he didn’t discuss the incident at all until 2015. When he did, he made it clear that he agreed with Stein and D’Addario.

It was true the literary establishment didn’t recognize women as they should, Franzen allowed. But nevertheless, he told the literary journal Booth in 2015, Weiner “is asking for a respect that not just male reviewers, but female reviewers, don’t think her work merits.” She was “an unfortunate person to have as a spokesperson” for such “an important issue.”

“We are told this is a book about America”

Weiner’s argument was a little more complicated than Franzen suggested. To begin with, she consistently maintained that she didn’t think she and Franzen were writing the same kinds of books. “Do I think I should be getting all of the attention that Jonathan ‘Genius’ Franzen gets? Nope,” she told HuffPost in 2010. “Would I like to be taken at least as seriously as a Jonathan Tropper or a Nick Hornby? Absolutely.”

As Weiner would later explain in her 2016 memoir, she had two basic criticisms of the New York Times. The first is the easiest to understand: Why, Weiner asked, wasn’t the Times paying attention to literary fiction written by women in the same way it was paying attention to literary fiction written by white men named Jonathan? Why was it that when women wrote literary fiction about families, they were writing domestic novels, but when Franzen did it, he was writing the Great American Novel?

“It’s just interesting to sort of stack them up against a Lorrie Moore or against a Mona Simpson, who write books about families that are seen as excellent books about families,” Weiner told NPR in 2010. “And then to look at a Jonathan Franzen who writes a book about a family, but we are told this is a book about America.”

The second of Weiner’s critiques is a little more nuanced: Why was it, she asked, that the Times was willing to devote column space to genre fiction that is gendered either male or “universal,” but not to the kind of genre fiction that is considered to be exclusively for women?

In 2010, the New York Times Book Review had already established its recurring columns on science fiction, fantasy, and crime fiction. But it didn’t have any space dedicated to romance or to commercial women’s fiction. Mostly, it tended to ignore those kinds of books.

To Weiner, the divide was unmistakable.

“I’d noticed the gender/genre divide for a while, and for years had blogged about what I’d seen in the Times,” Weiner wrote in her memoir. “How many male writers were getting the hat trick of two reviews and a profile, how many women were seeing their books relegated to the Style section, how dismissive the paper was when it deigned to even mention chick lit, how lucky I felt when Good in Bed earned a few positive words in a Janet Maslin beach-book roundup, and that I was allowed to sneak my book into my wedding announcement.”

In 2010, the New York Times insisted its reviewers had no gender bias, with Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus telling NPR, “What we are really try[ing] to do is … identify that fiction that really will endure.” But Weiner wasn’t the only one who felt there was a certain pattern to whose stories the Times — to say nothing of the culture at large — deemed valuable. Soon enough, there would be data to back up those impressions.

“They wanted a mechanism to hold the community more accountable”

Within weeks of the Franzen-Weiner dustup, Slate’s now-defunct women-centric Double X vertical was fact-checking Weiner’s hunch. The team went through every piece of adult fiction reviewed by the New York Times over the course of two years, and the numbers it came up with were damning: 62% of the books the Times reviewed during that period were written by men. Of the books that received coverage in both the daily paper and the weekly Book Review, 71% were by men. “Men,” Double X concluded, “are reviewed in the Times far more often than women.”

Shortly thereafter, the literary nonprofit organization VIDA appeared on the scene. “VIDA was started by a group of women who saw a clear bias in the literary and publishing landscape and wanted a mechanism to hold the community more accountable,” a VIDA spokesperson said in an email to Vox. The mechanism was VIDA Count, an annual data report that looks at the gender breakdown of both the books covered at a given publication and the bylines at the publication itself. The VIDA Count rapidly established that the gender divide Weiner saw at the New York Times wasn’t just a Times problem. It was everywhere.

In fact, the New York Times was doing better than a lot of other places. The 2010 VIDA Count found that the Times reviewed 524 books by men and only 283 by women that year, a split of about 65 to 35 percent. But that was nothing compared to plenty of its peer publications. The New Republic, for instance, reviewed 256 books by men and only 49 books by women, for a split of about 84 to 16 percent.

The count was explosive. At last, as Claire Fallon wrote for HuffPost, here was “hard, visually striking, basically irrefutable evidence that women are not given equal space in the preeminent publications of this field.”

“VIDA’s study raises questions about how seriously women writers are taken and how viable it is for them to make a living at writing,” Meghan O’Rourke wrote at Slate’s Double X. “As we all know, small rewards and affirmations have a concrete but unquantifiable effect on one’s writing life. So does silence.”

In 2010, feminist writers decided that silence was unacceptable. So over the past decade, they began talking more and more about which publications cover women’s narratives — and who, by association, considers women’s narratives to be valuable. And in many ways, the story of this decade is the story of how women’s writing scrabbled its way into the conversation.

“The point isn’t just to check off a bunch of boxes on your table of contents and pat yourself on the back”

At this point, the other end of the decade, it is no longer quite so controversial as it used to be to suggest that women’s stories aren’t given the same platforms as stories written by men. Instead, what was shocking when Weiner suggested it in 2010 has now become close to conventional wisdom.

“A lot of people will be quick to point out when an issue of a book review, or a short list for an award, doesn’t include any women,” VIDA Count director Sara Iacovelli told Vox. More and more new publications are taking seriously the importance of highlighting women’s voices, she added.

“What we have seen since we started the count is a lot of smaller pubs stepping up to advocate for women’s writing,” Iacovelli said, “and new publications popping up that are specifically dedicated to promoting work by women, nonbinary, and/or trans writers.”

Change came even to the New York Times. In 2013, the New York Times hired Pamela Paul as the new editor of the Book Review, replacing Tanenhaus. In 2017, Paul took charge of all book coverage at the paper. Under her leadership, duplicate reviews between the New York Times’s daily paper and the Book Review became less common, women received more review bylines, and books by women were reviewed more often. The Times also hired Jaime Green in 2018 to cover romance novels in a recurring column, creating exactly the kind of ongoing coverage that Weiner had lamented didn’t exist for women’s genre fiction back in 2010.

All of this change does not mean that we’ve entered into a feminist literary utopia in which everyone’s words matter equally. “There is a certain class of gatekeepers at prestigious literary institutions that still think they’re above this conventional wisdom and are happy to keep covering only books by cis white men,” Iacovelli said. And the most recent VIDA Count showed a strong gendered split at publications like the Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books.

Iacovelli also pointed to a tendency at some publications to “tokenize” women’s writing, especially writing by women of color. “Like, the point isn’t just to check off a bunch of boxes on your table of contents and pat yourself on the back for publishing/reviewing a woman, or a person of color, or a disabled person,” she said. “The point is to make space for writers from historically marginalized groups that’s equal to the space that’s always been afforded to cis white men.”

Part of that project, Iacovelli argued, should be making space for women who are not straight and white and cis. “It’s not enough to be ‘pro-women’ or to simply read more women, because women are not a monolith, and plenty of women participate actively in the oppression of people of color, trans people, nonbinary people, women, and others,” she said. “If you want to build a better book world, you have to think intersectionally.”

Still, that the project of building a better book world at all — let alone making it intersectional — has been an overwhelming concern of the past decade is a major step forward from where the conversation stood when Weiner first took to Twitter nine years ago. Countless Franzen jokes and anxious think pieces on the state of the media later, it’s become clear that the 2010s were the decade in which the Overton window shifted dramatically to the left on the importance of women’s stories.

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