introducing readers to writers since 1995

July 19, 2005

One Is Talking Numbers and the Other's Talking Length

by Ron Hogan

Got a note from the folks at yesterday about their survey of the NYT bestseller lists over the last half-century, and it seems that women have slowly but surely been taking over. Whereas women fiction writers accounted for only 17.8 percent of the top selling books from 1955 to 1964, since 1995 they've increased their territory to 46 percent, and fully half the books that have shown up this year. (In the latest list, they hold five of the top six slots, surrounding Dan Brown's entrenched position.)

Respect, however, will apparently take a little more time. I'm not even thinking of the mocking tone in previous reviews of bestselling potboilers, but of the contrast in this week's NYTBR between the fawning cover placement (not to mention what may be the only flattering André Carrilho caricature in Review history) of John Irving's latest, which even Paul Gray tacitly admits after several long paragraphs of plot summary isn't very good*, with the half-page or so, whittling away the ad and the headshot, of commentary on Kathryn Harrison's Envy.

While Emily Nussbaum isn't completely won over by Envy, it's clear that she considers it a substantial book and Harrison a significant contemporary writer. So why is Harrison's effort given short shrift in comparison to Irving's, when the paper's own critics seem to believe she's better at handling psychological and sexual themes than he is? I'd like to be charitable and think it's because Harrison's book is just one-third as long as Irving's, or that somebody thought it might be unseemly to lavish too much attention on a writer who's also a regular (and regularly good) NYTBR contributor. Likewise, I can recognize Nussbaum's admirable concision as opposed to Gray's rambling. But maybe it's that being an eminence grise still trumps being a "wonderful writer," enabling a male author to be considered endearing when his protagonist goes through round after round of pre-adolescent sexual activity, while a woman author spends a decade contending with opprobrium for dealing with "narcissism, family violation, sexual taboo and physical suffering" in her fiction and nonfiction. That's Nussbaum's catalog of Harrison's themes, anyway, but it's kinda surprising how well it holds up when juxtaposed with many of Irving's novels, no?

*Contrast Gray's reluctance to deliver a meaningfully direct opinion with Michiko Kakutani's disgust with the "lackadaisical and weary," not to mention "hideously overstuffed," tome.
If you enjoy this blog,
your PayPal donation
can contribute towards its ongoing publication.