Stung by gender bias in the writing biz, Tawni stings back

By Tawni O’Dell

As originally appeared in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette post-gazette.com, November 17, 2010

I’m a novelist and I’m a woman and I’m considered to be a serious author whether I like it or not. I write literary, not commercial fiction, or so I’ve been told by my publishers who are proud I write literary fiction but secretly wish I wrote commercial. I’ve been well-reviewed throughout my career, even by The New York Times. (Granted, it was a decade ago, but my agent says it still counts.) I’ve been compared to such writing luminaries as John Steinbeck, Clifford Odets, J.D. Salinger, and Emile Zola. To my knowledge I’ve never been compared to a female writer. Probably because none of the reviewers could come up with one he took seriously.

Along with these credentials, I also briefly belonged to the world of bestsellerdom that Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner inhabit after I was visited by Oprah’s magic touch, the same one Jonathan Franzen so famously rejected because he didn’t want to be lumped in with all those “nonserious” Oprah authors.

The publication of Mr. Franzen’s latest novel, “Freedom,” and the extensive attention it has received by reviewers and the literary community has reopened the debate over whether male authors are taken more seriously than female ones. It’s an old argument, one that’s been going on ever since women were finally allowed by men to publish books and eventually even to do it without being forced to use male pen names.

Jodi and Jen are the latest female authors to pick up the gauntlet and defend our gender, and they’ve done it intelligently and honestly. I feel no need to enter the fray since I see it not so much as a topic for discussion as it is a rehashing of facts that reflect society in general as much as they do literature or any art form. Are male authors better reviewed, given more awards and taken more seriously than female writers? Yes. When I was a kid and my dad decided to grill a few burgers on the weekend was the act greeted with lavish praise and awe while the meals my mom put on the table every day were never met with any fanfare? Yes.

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