Chick non-fiction: the NYT's latest genre divide


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The Independent Culture

On Sunday, in an otherwise complimentary review of The Obamas, Jodi Kantor's new book about the US President and his wife, historian Douglas Brinkley coined an unfortunate term: "chick non-fiction". Writing in The New York Times, Brinkley invited Kantor's potential readers to "Call it chick non-fiction, if you will; this book is not about politics, it's about marriage..."(He also described Kantor's portrait of the First Lady as "a hug, really".)

Readers of both genders were incensed by the implications of the phrase: that women readers would be more interested in relationships than in, say, the minutiae of financial reform – and that male readers would be uninterested in Michelle and Barack's marital mechanics. "Is Brinkley suggesting that men don't enjoy this sort of writing?" asked Margaret Wheeler Johnson, women's editor of The Huffington Post. "Because if so, he is also basically arguing that no man enjoyed The West Wing." Melinda Henneberger of The Washington Post blogged a similar sentiment: "Anyone who thinks politics is not about relationships is hard to take seriously on the subject."

The New York Times has been accused previously of a patriarchal approach to book criticism. In the tumult of publicity surrounding publication of Jonathan Franzen's 2010 novel Freedom, successful female novelists such as Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner complained of gender bias in the paper's critical preferences. Weiner was among the first to tweet her disapproval at the Brinkley review. Kantor, herself a Times reporter – who interviewed the Obamas, and 33 other White House sources, for her book – has yet to comment.