The controversy started last fall, when novelist Jodi Picoult voiced loud annoyance that Jonathan Franzen was getting more attention than most female writers typically get.
It continued when the women's literary group VIDA voiced louder annoyance after determining that most book reviews are written by men, and most of those reviews are of books also written by men. (The New York Times, for instance, reviewed 283 books by women last year -- and 524 by men.)
There was so much outrage you might have missed the quiet evolution that was going on, sort of off to the side: the rise in the number of interesting, intelligent novels written by women. It's been a steady, strong growth over the past several years.
We're not talking about romance novels, or sassy, consume-it-in-one-bite chick lit. And we're not talking, exactly, about Pulitzer- or Booker-winning stuff by the likes of Jennifer Egan or Hilary Mantel. We're talking about something in between -- thoughtful and entertaining fiction, written by women and (let's face it) read primarily by women.
"It does seem like there's a huge growth of multitalented female writers who are coming out with books on this level," said Michael Taeckens, online and paperback marketing director for Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, N.C. "I think there are a lot of readers who don't really want to read chick lit -- not that there's anything wrong with that, but they're looking for something more. At the same time, they're not looking for the next 'Finnegan's Wake.'"
In recent years, Algonquin has published a flurry of such books by women -- the bestselling "Water for Elephants" by Sara Gruen, "Pictures of You" by Caroline Leavitt and "A Friend of the Family" by Lauren Grodstein, to name a few. Taeckens came up with many other titles, published by others, without even pausing to think.
"'The Help,' by Kathryn Stockett. 'Major Pettigrew's Last Stand.' Writers like Alice Hoffman and Jacqueline Mitchard and maybe even Anne Lamott and Sue Miller fall into this category," he said. "It seems like there are now, within the past two years or so, a lot more of those Anne Lamotts and Sue Millers out there."
Taeckens isn't sure if more women are writing these books, or if publishers are just more open to publishing them. "It might be a demand in the marketplace," he said. "There's a really big thirst for this kind of book. I think book clubs definitely play a huge role in it, and independent booksellers, as well. It's really nice to see. There are a lot of talented writers out there."
The Internet, and Oprah
Ellen Akins, a novelist and college instructor, agreed. "I think it is increasing as women go through MFA programs and study writing more," said Akins, who has won the Whiting Award and an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and teaches in Fairleigh Dickinson University's MFA program. (She also reviews books for the Star Tribune.)
These books are about homey, intimate things: relationships, friendships, things left unsaid, decisions to be made -- "books about feelings for educated women," Akins calls them.
"I don't think women are suddenly more talented," she said. "I think there's just more access and more attention. It came together with a better reading public, too, a better audience for those books.
"And I would put Oprah into the mix, too, frankly. She single-handedly increased that audience."
The Internet, with blogs, virtual book clubs, Twitter, Facebook and sites devoted to reading, such as Goodreads and Shelfari, has also played an enormous role.
"The online culture is really important for book buzz," Taeckens said. "This is a place where people get an awful lot of book recommendations."
Word of mouth -- virtual or actual -- has made the fortune of many of these books, such as "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society," which became a bestseller through indie booksellers passionately hand-selling it, and book clubs championing it.
Susan Gilbert-Collins, who grew up in South Dakota and was educated at the University of Minnesota, is the author of "Starting From Scratch," a novel about a young woman grieving her mother's death.
"My awareness of how many women are reading has really grown since this book has come out," she said. "It's interesting, because I didn't think a lot in terms of women's fiction until I actually had an agent. She started using the term 'women's fiction,' and I found it a little unsettling at first. I love fiction, any fiction that's good, but then I started realizing that women are really the biggest readers out there of fiction. And book clubs -- I started to realize how important they are. I hadn't thought of it as such a far-reaching phenomenon. My awareness kind of blew open a little."
Still, Gilbert-Collins is not sure if there are more women writing, or just more writers overall. "I think there are so many serious people trying to write, maybe because of MFA programs, I don't know. I wonder if women are sort of gaining confidence for some reason. It's a risk, to write.
"My agent commented last summer that the quality she receives -- and she receives a lot of women's fiction -- is so high she can afford to be really picky right now."
Good news for readers, though not necessarily for writers. And for reviewers? Who knows? Maybe VIDA's next report won't be as bleak.