News

NY Times review calls Obama book “chick nonfiction”; controversy ensues

Pin it

New York Times writer Jodi Kantor's book, The Obamas, is the gift that keeps on giving. Kantor has done a blizzard of press to keep the tome on the tip of our consciousness, and stories emerging from the book, such as a secret, Alice in Wonderland-themed tea party at the White House, and Michelle Obama's possible angry confrontations with Rahm Emanuel, have kept the internet salivating for more. Now, the latest controversy surrounding The Obamas comes to us courtesy of well-respected historian, and official Rosa Parks biographer, Douglas Brinkley.

Reviewing Kantor's bestseller for the Times the other day, Brinkley, while giving a generally positive overall accounting of the book, used an infelicitous phrase to describe it, writing, "Call it chick nonfiction, if you will; this book is not about politics, it's about marriage, or at least one marriage, and a notably successful one at that."

The blogosphere pounced on the sexist reconfiguration of the term "chick lit," which summoned memories of the Jonathan Franzen-Oprah highbrow/lowbrow feud from a decade ago. (Interestingly, no one had a problem with Brinkley beginning a later paragraph by writing, "Fortunately, The Obamas is more Sally Bedell Smith than Kitty Kelley.") Writing in Tablet's "The Scroll," Marc Tracy says, "Here, that alleged lack of respect — and to call a book 'chick nonfiction' is to call it unserious — extends not only to the woman who is the author but also to the woman who is the subject."

Tracy also notes an email he received from novelist Jennifer Weiner stating:

"My suspicion is that if a male reporter had written a detailed, well-researched, revealing book about the First Marriage, it would have been praised as a serious work of journalism. However, when the old, pernicious double standards still apply, if it's a lady doing the investigation, the personal can never be political… it can only be gossip, and the writer, however skilled a reporter, is still merely a chick."

The Washington Post's Ezra Klein also weighed in, writing:

"Jodi Kantor's The Obamas is among the very best books on this White House. It's a serious, thoughtful book on the modern presidency in general. So no, I'm not going to call it 'chick nonfiction.'"

I don't believe Douglas Brinkley is misogynistic (unlike, arguably, V.S. Naipaul), but in this case he appears to be guilty of condescension. I can't imagine Brinkley ever referring to a Doris Kearns Goodwin book, for example, as "chick nonfiction." Brinkley is entitled to call Kantor's book "gossipy" if he likes, but it should be acknowledged that men enjoy gossip just as much as women. And the long-entrenched, unjust, male/female literary divide should be abolished once and for all.