Credit where credit is due: Terry Gross had Jonathan Franzen on “Fresh Air” on Thursday. At the beginning of the interview she characterized the discussion about Franzen’s coverage in the media as a “certain amount of resentment of your success by some writers.”
Here’s Franzen’s response, transcribed from the podcast. “I haven’t been following any of that closely, but the little bit that’s trickled back to me hasn’t sounded particularly ad hominem. It seems like there’s a different critique, it’s a feminist critique. And It’s about the quality of attention that writing by women gets compared to the quality of attention by male writers. And I actually have a lot of those feelings myself and I have over the years.”
And debit where debit is due: If you want to find a media outlet where women are allotted much less airtime than men, then Fresh Air is at the top of the heap. I listen to the podcast now, but two years ago I was listening to it on radio and I noticed something strange, something I couldn’t put my finger on at first. Then I got it: There were two female voices on the radio. Usually, there’s one and it’s Terry Gross.
On a hunch, I chose a month at random and tallied up the guests. The disparity was shocking to me. Fewer than one-fifth of the guests that month were women. Now, I never took statistics, but I think looking at an entire month’s line-up is a pretty good sample. Glancing at the current line-up of episodes in my iPod, these are the writers I see: Franzen, Scott Simon (talking about a book on adoption), Andre Agassi (interviewed about his memoir), Rafael Yglesias, Matthew Weiner, Gary Shteyngart, Harvey Pekar, Atul Gwande, Billy Collins (but he’s talking about Emily Dickinson), a male cab driver, Michael Chabon, W.S. Merwin . . . the only female writers I see in the lead spot are: Lisa Cholodenko, who co-wrote the screenplay of The Kids Are All Right and Lena Horne’s daughter, who I think is talking about a memoir about her mother. That’s out of 56 episodes currently in my iTunes. And if I added all the other women in the lead interview spot, I think the list might grow to a total of five or six. (Dolly Parton, Marisa Tomei, Jackie DeShannon, but I could be missing an unbilled expert here or there. Some segments are described by topic, not interviewee.)
But to review: I looked at 56 episodes, found 14 segments about writers. Only two were women. Jonathan Franzen gets it. Terry Gross doesn’t.
ETA: Because I relied on the podcast’s description of the show, I didn’t realize that New Yorker writer Jane Mayer was on Fresh Air during this period, discussing her piece on the Koch Brothers.