Reviews, bias, and women writers

After reading the remarks by Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, which I mentioned in my last blog post, as well as the superb comments by Laura Lippman over on her blog, I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic. I really wasn’t planning to add anything, as I think these three ladies have covered it well. I also have mixed feelings about getting reviewed at all in the New York Times , because it’s a mixed blessing. Hurray, you got reviewed! But oh dear, those reviews are too often public beheadings in which your blood ends up splattered all over those previously much-coveted 10 column-inches. No, much better to be ignored by the Times and not have to endure the sympathetic silence of your friends, family, and neighbors after M. Kakutani pronounces you the Worst Writer in the World. Getting spotlit by M.K.’s evil eye seems about as appealing as getting caught in Sauron’s terrifying glare.

Then again, I can’t help wondering. What is it about the NYT and women writers? What do they have against us?

I don’t detect this bias in newspapers abroad. In the UK, my crime novels have been reviewed by just about every major newspaper. The UK Telegraph published my article about my childhood experience with murder, and flew out a photographer to take photos. When I look at my English-language review clippings, the majority of the reviews are not from the U.S. but from the UK, Canada, South Africa, and Australia. Is it the old phenomenon of “you’re never a prophet in your own home land”? Or does the NYT (and I’ll also throw in the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post here) simply have a thing against women writers?

While I don’t have hard statistics (can anyone help me with this?) it seems to me that UK newspapers regularly — and respectfully — review crime novels by women. If we catch any flak there, it’s usually about our books being too visceral and gory. But that’s simply a matter of taste, not anti-woman bias. I’ve certainly never been slammed with a review like the one I received from the Washington Post a few years ago, sneeringly titled: “Adventures of the Lactating Detective.” The book was VANISH, in which Detective Jane Rizzoli gives birth to her first child and struggles to combine motherhood with her duties as a homicide detective. I don’t have the piece in front of me (and I think I ripped it up after I read it) but I recall that the reviewer (a man, of course) said that you’d have to care about girly stuff like motherhood and breast-feeding troubles to enjoy the book, and he really wasn’t interested in that nonsense. (VANISH, by the way, received the Nero Wolfe Award and was a Macavity and Edgar nominee.) This same reviewer raised a similar objection to Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone series: too much boring stuff about what women think.

While we women fret over the sparsity of reviews, we may actually face a far deeper and more disturbing issue here in the U.S.: an utter disdain for women in general. A disdain for our lives, our experiences, what we think, what we care about. A disdain that makes it acceptable for a reviewer to state that readers don’t care about childbirth and motherhood. A disdain that’s so ingrained in the institution that his editor didn’t call him on it.

If that reviewer had said “no one really cares about what African Americans or Hispanic Americans think”, do you think his editor would have let that slip by?

9 replies
  1. Anthony Lee
    Anthony Lee says:

    Hi, Tess.

    I think it’s sad that the male reviewer who bashed Vanish just doesn’t get it. Authors tell stories based on what they know and what they’re passionate about, so if a female crime writer wants to write about a homicide detectve who also just gave birth, that’s fine. After all, it’s fun for the reader to get a glimpse into the experience of a type of person who is different. Even as a guy, I enjoyed Vanish, both the main story and Jane Rizzoli’s personal life and issues alongside the mystery solving (the Rizzoli and Isles TV series works for the same reason). It certainly broke the monotony of reading about various male protagonists in mysteries and thrillers. 🙂

  2. lwidmer
    lwidmer says:

    I wonder if that’s why PD James went with her initials in the beginning?

    Here’s the thing – the bias you speak of is definitely there. As you say, it’s that sense of disdain. Don’t think so? How many female rock stars are there? Really? How often are women taken seriously in any profession in this country? I’m reminded of a recent confession by James Chartrand, who made a name for himself quickly in freelance writing. He revealed he was actually a woman posing as a man. As she put it, the clients took her much more seriously when they thought she was James. Why is that?

    It’s why I’ve warned writers off calling themselves work-at-home moms. The focus is on the mom, not the work. Call yourself a writer. No one needs to know your familial status.

    The fact is we women have plenty to offer. We need only get past that stigma of not being as smart, clever, strong, or talented as the boys (which is nonsense). I’m not into male bashing at all, but I’m not into letting women get tromped on unfairly just because they’re women.

  3. DaveR
    DaveR says:

    Speaking as a man, I absolutely loved Vanish! In fact, I think it’s your best book (you’ve come close to hitting that target again, but it’s still the book I enjoyed the most).

    Everything just seemed to come together perfectly in that novel, and the fact that Jane was pregnant just enhanced the intensity of the book.

    That guy should have his reviewing credentials revoked.

  4. Matthew Pearl
    Matthew Pearl says:

    Hi Tess,

    I think you have really important points. You might remember my rant about the problems with the review system when we had that event in Boston! Anyway, I’ve linked to your post with my own thoughts at my page here, where I ramble about some of these ongoing discussions:

  5. DebPiccurelli
    DebPiccurelli says:

    Hi Tess,

    Thankfully, that review in the Washington Post did nothing to hurt sales of VANISH. Nor did it keep it from winning the Nero Wolfe Award, and being nominated for others. I think a lot of readers are like me, in that they don’t pay much attention to the reviews. If I like the premise of a book, I’ll try it out. For authors I know and love (like you), I never read reviews, because I know what I’m getting. In my mind, reviewers’ opinions are just that – one individual’s opinion. An author can’t please everyone, and that person’s taste may be different than mine. I just like to see for myself.

  6. Penelope27
    Penelope27 says:

    Dear Dr. Gerritsen,
    Honestly? With all that is happening in this world, it is only in the US that there is an “utter disdain” for women? Are you joking? What do you call “honor killings” or infanticide of the female gender in other countries? Have you ever heard of Oprah? I have never read the New York Times book reviews. I make my own judgment calls on what I read. I am a new fan of yours due to the Razzoli character from the television program, finally, I thought – a character who seems to know who she is – I even made a list of all the books to buy so that I can begin to read them. However, this post of yours is just…disappointing. There are all sorts of people in this world, some will like you and some won’t, that is life. In this game of publishing, I think the best revenge would be… success. You see, I will never know the name of the person who did not like Vanish, but I know your name and I am willing to spend my money on your work. It might not mean a lot to you because – I am a nobody, but I work hard for my money and I only spend it on things that I find worthwhile, no matter the gender, race, or cultural background of the person.

  7. Tess
    Tess says:

    Matthew, thanks for pointing me to your blog about the subject. I think it’s interesting that in the comments that follow your blog over on Red Room, Lisa feels the need to immediately sneer, with the all-knowing voice of authority, that I’m a Bad Writer (yet she can’t even spell my name!), thus dismissing my right to say anything at all about the subject. It’s this “we write good books and you write bad books” mentality that’s so sad. I’ve made no comment about what’s a good book or a worthy book; my concerns were about reviewers’ attitudes toward women writers. Yet Lisa (who apparently didn’t even read my blog) seems to feel I have no right to even say that much.

    Penelope, my comment about disdain for women had nothing to do with political climates in any countries; I was merely saying that book reviews reflect attitudes about the gender of the writer. And I only mentioned the UK, the US, Canada, and Australia. I’m not sure I saw the necessity to include the subject of honor killings and the condition of women in the rest of the world, in a blog about book reviews.

  8. Penelope27
    Penelope27 says:

    Thank you, Dr. Gerritsen.

    I guess I saw a whole picture instead of a slice. If book reviewers are doing as you believe, then it is a sad state of affairs (I cannot give an opinion as I do not consider book reviews/reviewers). It just struck me as a bit of the “victim mentality” thought process. My apologies for my earlier reply. I see you as an accomplished individual, and I am not immune to the inequality of life, but, I suppose that I am of the thinking: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Eleanor Roosevelt

    Please, just put this down to the ramblings of an old lady from an era gone by. I look forward to reading your books, no matter what anybody else says.

  9. Patrick Balester
    Patrick Balester says:

    I remember reading this in 2008 and thinking it may have been your finest work ever, an excellent story. Shocking that someone could write a review like that.

    I’ll never forget the opening lines of this novel, and the tremendous impression that they made on me.

    Well done.

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