In a largely positive review of Jodi Kantor’s book The Obamas in the New York Times Book Review, Douglas Brinkley—a historian who has published books about several presidents—wrote, “Call it chick nonfiction, if you will; this book is not about politics, it’s about marriage, or at least one marriage.”
Call it chick nonfiction? Some people most definitely won’t.
It’s a little outside my ordinary purview—though Kantor, a New York Times reporter, is Jewish—but the line struck me as newsworthy, particularly given recent discussion accusing the Times Book Review of giving short shrift to woman authors. 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. The book documents the First Marriage, with an emphasis on the first lady and how she was able to influence White House policy. “The story of the book is of people who had equal power in a marriage and one giving up the power,” said Rebecca Traister, a writer for Salon, in an interview with Tablet Magazine. And even less-positive reviewers—including Brinkley—acknowledge that no book about this marriage can be entirely free of political content.
Jennifer Weiner, a novelist who prominently supported accusations in 2010 that coverage of Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom reflected the Times’, and arguably the publishing industry’s, larger bias against woman writers, emailed this morning: “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.”
Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein wrote, “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.’ ”
Brinkley has not replied to a request for comment.
While The Obamas’ primary subject is the marriage itself, Kantor is a White House reporter for the Times, and the book broke several bits of news concerning Michelle Obama’s frustration with a perceived failure to enact her husband’s agenda—particularly with regard to health care and immigration reform—and her indirect conflict with Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. “Everyone from The Associated Press to POLITICO has focused their stories on the tensions involving Michelle Obama, Gibbs and Emanuel,” reported Politico.
Kantor declined to comment for this story, and Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of the Times Book Review, did not reply to a request for comment. As a sometime-contributor there, I would be surprised if the phrase “chick nonfiction” was not flagged by an editor or copy editor, which would mean (although this is only conjecture on my part) that it was then included at Brinkley’s insistence.
Many reviews have accused the book of various flaws. Though earlier on Kantor interviewed the First Couple, ultimately they did not cooperate with the book, and some have said this refusal significantly hindered what Kantor was able to reveal. Others have alleged errors of fact, although it turns out that many of the allegations were themselves erroneous. Many have said certain conceits, specifically a reconstructed scene featuring Michelle Obama alone, have gone a step too far into the speculative.
But no review I’ve read went quite so far in questioning the book’s basic seriousness (even while elsewhere appearing to take the book very seriously). In addition to the “chick nonfiction” line, Brinkley refers to Kantor as “a reportorial wunderkind” who had “gumption,” implying that she is green. But Kantor’s reputation as a wunderkind stems from her being named editor of the Times Arts section at the age of 27. Now, 36, she has been a Washington reporter since 2007, and, for example, wrote the paper’s “Man in the News” profile of Obama on the eve of the 2008 convention.
Traister noted that much of the review was positive, but in a way that makes the allegedly condescending tone of certain parts of it all the more puzzling—and stark. For instance, Brinkley writes of Kantor, “She reconstructs a half-dozen or so strange, gossipy moments that hardly hold up as serious journalism, but provide insight nonetheless.” Said Traister, “It’s the crazy combination of being positive about the material in a professional, serious way, but then just assuming that we don’t take it seriously.”
Weiner added, “Using a politician’s personal life as the prism through which to view the choices he or she makes has always been the work of reporters and historians and even novelists. Yet I don’t remember the Times calling Joe Klein’s Primary Colors chick lit, or complaining that recent histories about politicians’ personal lives, from Jon Meacham’s Franklin and Winston to Jacob Weisberg’s The Bush Tragedy to Robert Dallek’s An Unfinished Life, took a tabloid tone.”
The difference isn’t only that those books were by male authors. It’s that this book is primarily about the president’s wife.
And not just any wife, as Traister eagerly pointed out. “When you’re talking about [Michelle Obama’s] influence on [President Obama], you’re talking about someone who began as his professional mentor, and was his professional equal,” she said. “This was not true of any other First Lady until Hillary Clinton. You can’t actually draw the historic comparisons without acknowledging that there’s a radically different set of circumstances and context for, for example, her opinions on policy, since she and the president were professional and intellectual equals.” Traister added, “[Michelle Obama] comes at this with a completely different range of opinions, education, and experiences than what you’re going to attribute to Jackie Kennedy or Lady Bird Johnson or Nancy Reagan”—three first ladies to whom Brinkley does compare Obama. “Maybe it’s a critique that Jodi Kantor should have made that a more central theme in the book. But to not acknowledge the fundamental qualities that make it an entirely historic dynamic!”
Added Traister, “This is not to say someone had to give it a great review. But nothing I read about his review except for the implied femininity of author, subject matter, and lead character actually made it unserious. Because everything about how it was crafted and reported was positive.”
Indeed. Here are some good things Brinkley had to say: “A few of the anecdotes Kantor includes are riveting;” “Kantor skillfully elucidates;” “the vivid prose stays, at all times, free of snark;” and “The author is pretty much a straight-ahead reporter with an ear attuned to verifiable gossip.”
Yet in the same paragraph as that last sentence, Brinkley also writes, “On a couple of occasions, the tabloid scent in the book is so strong that one would be forgiven for thinking Kantor writes for Us Weekly, not The Times.”
The First Marriage [NYT Book Review]