Is Oprah Sexist? Should Authors Say Less and Write More?

09/17/2010 04:59 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

So Oprah picked Jonathan Franzen's new novel Freedom for her Book Club, despite the hullabaloo raised by Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner about the amount of "sexist" press coverage his new novel was getting. Does that make Oprah sexist? And what will those highly successful commercial writers say now?

It makes me think back to 1988, when I made the leap from being published in magazines and newspapers to being anthologized. This was a whole new level of exposure, and very exciting. Suddenly I was reading reviews of my story, hearing from fans, and meeting other authors on a regular basis at conferences, banquets, and on tour.

One of these very well-established writers, someone I deeply admired, gave me some advice when we were talking about career. "Don't attack your peers," he warned. "It makes you look ungracious, and people don't forget."

I've been careful over the years to not say much in public when people ask me what I think about fellow authors if they're not my favorites. If I do express criticism, I try to keep the comments to something technical without letting any personal animus slip in. Let's face it, watching people whose work you don't admire become ever more successful can try even the most Zen-like author's patience.

Even after a reading at a reception or a restaurant when things are more relaxed, I'm cautious, because whatever you say may travel much further than you expect and end up making you look bad. That's what my mentor was trying to explain to me, and he told me about how sharp comments of his when he started out had reached another writer and started a feud.

I saw something similar happen in my own career, though without the feud. Back in the 90s, an American author apparently felt safe mocking my first book when he was on tour in Holland. He didn't know the freelancer he was talking to was an acquaintance of mine who reported the incident in detail, with some scathing comments about the author who should have buttoned his lip.

The "Franzen Feud" has raised questions of literary taste, commercial vs. literary fiction, sexism among reviewers, but what about rudeness and bad taste? Jodi Picoult dismissed Franzen as a "literary darling," though she claimed she had nothing against him per se. And Jennifer Weiner publicly reveled in her wealth, while mocking those at The New York Times who ignore her as balding (a hairist remark if ever there was one). Whatever the legitimacy of their complaints, should any author be engaging in this kind of snark?

Franzen himself has outdone them in attacking Michiko Kakutani a few years ago after she panned his last book, calling her "the stupidest person in New York." And Alice Hoffman last year attacked the Boston Globe reviewer who gave her novel a mixed review, asking her followers on Twitter to call this reviewer and express their outrage. None of this makes the authors look good, no matter who the target is.

A writer friend of mine was once banging out a rebuke to a reviewer when his wife came up behind him and read what was on his Mac screen. "Do you want to be respected for your work," she asked, "or have people think you're a crank and an asshole?"

It's a question every author should consider when getting ready to light into a reviewer or a peer.