I was dismayed earlier this week to read about the slap in the face the LA Times delivered to Jennifer Egan in their announcement of the winners of the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Awards (full list of winners and finalists here). Rather than grant Egan the spotlight she earned for winning the fiction award for A Visit From the Goon Squad, the LA Times‘s editorial staff instead found a way to bestow even more attention on runner-up (and presumptive winner, given the number of media outlets who described Egan’s win as a “surprise” or “upset” – examples here, here, and here) Jonathan Franzen, whom many have remarked, since Freedom‘s much-ballyhooed release last summer, has already been the beneficiary of more attention than he perhaps deserves (Google “Franzenfreude” for a taste), by headlining the article “Egan beats Franzen in National Book Critics Circle’s fiction prize.” To add insult to injury, the subhead reads: “The Jennifer Egan work bests Jonathan Franzen’s ‘Freedom’.” Not only does Franzen get two namechecks, but Egan’s book isn’t even mentioned by title. As if that weren’t enough, the online edition of the article prominently displayed a photograph not of Egan, but of Franzen.
I will give the LA Times credit for acknowledging their screw-up and replacing the Franzen photo for one of Egan and the cover of A Visit From the Goon Squad, even if only after readers called them out on the carpet. Rather than turn the gaffe and subsequent correction into an opportunity for reflection on the issue of women writers being overlooked in favor of male writers – a wide-ranging discussion in recent months (but hardly a novel issue) both causing and precipitated by the Franzenfreude – and the LA Times‘s complicity in this pattern, instead they trotted out a parade of weak excuses. The argument most egregiously lacking in self-awareness was that
the headline intended to point out the upset victory over a more widely known work. “Freedom” has been on the Los Angeles Times Bestseller List for 27 straight weeks, seven of those at No. 1. It also was an Oprah Book Club choice. In contrast, “A Visit From the Goon Squad” spent five weeks on the list, and it has received far less publicity. (Emphasis mine)
Has the LA Times‘s staff been paying attention the past several months? The fact that Freedom is getting most of the already very limited publicity afforded books in the first place is the problem. It gets more publicity, more people buy it, word get around, and so on. Bury news about other books – such as, for example, the new NBCC fiction winner – beneath yet more blather about that other book they haven’t stopped yapping about for months just feeds right into that pattern.
I wonder, did they even consider the possibility that A Visit From the Goon Squad won because it was truly the better work? After all, Freedom wasn’t even nominated for a 2010 National Book Award, which the Associated Press report pithily described as “The Great American Snub.” Others were quick to jump on this bandwagon, including – shocker! – the LA Times, which called the “surprising exclusion” a “controversy.”
Possibly related – but possibly not, to be fair – not long after the NBA nominees were announced The Paris Review editor Lorin Stein made an oblique comment about “judges of literary prizes [who] try to legislate from the bench—flexing their ‘muscle’ by giving a prize to some book that nobody’s ever heard of, or passing over a popular favorite because it’s ‘too obvious’ or ‘doesn’t need it.'” He continued, “My heart sinks when I see a list of unknowns as finalists for a prize I care about. It is usually a case of committee work or telling people what they ought to like (and already know they don’t).” Given the final results – the NBA for fiction went to Jaimy Gordon for Lord of Misrule, which was apparently so unexpected even the author was unprepared – Stein’s heart must have been somewhere near his ankles. Try convincing me that the interview with Franzen in the winter 2010 issue of The Paris Review, released a few weeks after the NBA awards ceremony, wasn’t orchestrated.
Dare I point out that Jaimy Gordon is, like Jennifer Egan, a woman?
Though it may seem otherwise, I do not wish to climb aboard the Franzenfreude hatewagon. It’s not his fault the US literary fiction world is determined, come hell or high water, to crown him the next David Foster Wallace or John Updike or whomever’s empty throne needs a new occupant. Nor do I wish to compare Franzen as a writer with Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult on the one hand or Jennifer Egan and Jaimy Gordon on the other. My blame and my anger is aimed directly at those media outlets who refuse to recognize and acknowledge the way they perpetuate the bias against women novelists, no matter what category or genre they write in, and who do not stop and think about the implicit messages they convey when, for example, they make Jennifer Egan’s NBCC award all about Franzen or take digs at the NBA judges for “snubbing” the darling of the month. Most importantly, when these tendencies are pointed out, stop making excuses. Stop justifying them. And for God’s sake, enough with the “Ur jus’ jellus” BS.
For further reading: Why we need the Orange Prize, in The Guardian. The VIDA study again, because it’s so damning (and here is a linked list of responses). Contrary Magazine’s short note to the LA Times.