With its latest cover story, the Stranger has achieved something interesting. The cover features a young author in a beatifically serious pose. "Great American Novelist" declares the headline—the very one that anointed Jonathan Franzen in Time’s cover profile in August. Yet this article is about Tao Lin, an insouciant young author with a small but fervent following. Written by the man himself, it is a near paragraph-by-paragraph parody of the Time piece. It's also silly, and not exactly worth reading. What is satisfying, however, is the way this transference of Time's canonisation to a young Asian author helps to clarify what some of the bluster—call it "Franzenfreude"—has been about. Will an Asian-American author, or an African-American or a woman, ever be credited with writing the Great American Novel?
Jonathan Franzen has indeed enjoyed rapturous attention for “Freedom”, but the man himself is not to blame. (By all accounts Mr Franzen has dutifully sublimated any desire for pleasure in the real world in order to create stories about flawed families in a fictional one.) Regardless of your thoughts about his new novel, this has become a good time to consider our biases—gendered, latent and otherwise—in our judgment of books.
Most of the discussion of late has been about the attention paid to male versus female authors: the considerable gap in both the quantity and the style of attention they receive in the popular press. But the more unsettling issue involves our personal reading choices, particularly among the self-styled judges of contemporary fiction. Specifically, how often do white men read books that are not written by white men?
Last month Chris Jackson, an editor at Spiegel & Rau, wrote an impressively candid piece about his own reading. Over lunch another editor had asked, "When was the last time you read fiction by a woman?" He couldn't remember. "It was a pretty shameful moment," he admitted. Judging from the (great) bookstore owned by his wife, he writes, "it's clear that women are willing to buy books by male writers, but men seem much more reluctant to buy books by women.” He then observes that “there's definitely a feeling out there that men—even when writing about frivolous subjects—are taken more seriously as literary writers and are more likely to be presented to serious readers by the various literary gatekeepers."
All readers are gently trained to empathise with white male narrators—the bulk of important books are dominated by them. The gender specificity of a narrator's voice hardly matters. Whether reading "Moby Dick" or "Rabbit, Run", the hero’s "I" becomes the reader's "I". My own copy of "Zuckerman Bound" is littered with the pen-marks of a younger self, not just for the book’s insight into the life of a vital and sexually voracious male writer, but for the clarifying light it cast on my own.
But still, there is a disconnect. Not long ago an Asian-American friend lamented the general absence of popular Asian-American authors. An omnivorous reader, he described a subtle feeling of alienation, as though he was perceiving the world of canonised letters with his nose against the glass. It is not as though the varied experiences of American life aren't represented in fiction: of course we have Junot Diaz, Toni Morrison, Chang Rae Lee and the varied authors in the New Yorker's list of 20 under 40 (a veritable model UN). It's just that white men get to write for and be read by everyone, while everyone else runs the risk of being too niche.
"When men write books about family life," observed Katha Pollit recently, "they are read as writing about America and the Human Condition. When women write books that are ambitious, political and engaged with the big world of ideas, they are seen as stories about the emotional lives of their characters." I'm reminded of the way I felt when I first read "The Last of her Kind", a fine novel by Sigrid Nunez, a woefully unsung author. Here was a smart, ambitious book—a Great American Novel of sorts—which spanned decades in the lives of two women who first met in college in the 1960s. It was about love, friendship, history and ideas, all from a female perspective. It felt thrilling to feel a real sense of familiarity with the characters on the page. But is it any wonder that Ms Nunez has been marginalised as a women's author?
Female literary authors, such as Lionel Shriver, are left complaining that their work is frequently packaged to appeal exclusively to a female market, as publishers plainly assume men will never buy their books. As Ms Shriver lamented in a recent column:
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?"
This is a shame. But as long as men—specifically white men—are considered the ultimate arbiters of literary fiction, it is hard to imagine Time anointing a non-white, non-male author as the new voice of the age. But I'm curious about the potential for e-readers to shake up our book-purchasing habits. A friend recently said that upon hearing good things about "A Visit From the Goon Squad", Jennifer Egan's latest novel, he bought the book on his Kindle. He then read it straight through without realising the author was a woman. "I'm kind of glad I did," he admitted, "because otherwise I might have read it more critically."
His honesty was admirable and illuminating. Instead of targeting buyers using general demographics studies, e-readers gently steer consumers to new purchases inspired by their last choices. By packaging books without author photos or glossy covers of women in floppy hats, they strip away some of the gender-biased marketing baggage. Most readers look to fiction to alleviate some of the loneliness of life—a good book is a diversion, but also a connection. E-bookstores may make it easier to facilitate connections with authors who don't look exactly like ourselves.