The XX Factor

The Franzenfreude Files: Lionel Shriver Joins the Discussion

Whether or not you think Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner chose the proper target when they took on Jonathan Franzen and started the ” franzenfreude ” meme, it’s undeniable that the two women writers have started what is an important-and now international-conversation. (The pair complained that the New York Times gives short shrift to women writers, particularly those who write popular fiction. We fact-checked their claims here .) Writing in the U.K. paper The Guardian , London-based, American-born novelist Lionel Shriver paints a pretty damning portrait of the way book publishers have treated her work, and by extension, the way those publishers treat women readers:

With merciful exceptions, my publishers constantly send prospective covers for my books that play to what “women readers” supposedly want. 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?” When I proposed a cover photo by Peter Beard of sagging elephant carcasses-perfectly apt-the sales department was horrified. Women would be repelled by dead animals. We settled on live elephants, but it was pulling teeth to get girls off that paperback.

Shriver’s German publishers had similar issues with the presentation of her work. Again, most of this has barely anything to do with Franzen himself-It has to do with the publishing industry as a whole. As it happens, the cover of Franzen’s incredibly cranky nonfiction book of essays How to Be Alone depicts an attractive young woman in gauzy lighting standing in the middle of a warm-looking book store. So even books by the great J. Franz get the “floppy hat” treatment.

More American publications are jumping into the Franzenfreude fray as well. The Louisville Courier-Journal has some push-back on Weiner and Picoult. C.E. Morgan, a fiction writer who is one of the New Yorker ‘s 20 under 40 , thinks that the reaction to Franzen is just insecurity. She tells the Courier-Journal : “This issue will die when women produce more and more work of indisputable genius and, until then, we need to stop championing mediocre female work out of defensiveness, stop firing spitballs at male work and stop dissolving the line between high art and pop art.”

A worthwhile point, to be sure. But let’s let Lionel Shriver, who is very far from mediocre, have the last word: “By stereotyping my work’s audience as self-involved and prissy, women-only packaging also insults my readers, who could all testify that trussing up my novels as sweet, girly and soft is like stuffing a rottweiler in a dress.”