The Hash Hags Talk Back



When my story about gender bias on NPR ricocheted through Twitter, I received a tweet from @HashHags letting me know that they didn't fit the bill. Hash Hags, a weekly NPR radio show hosted by authors Julie Klam, Ann Leary and Laura Zigman, is broadcast in New York and Connecticut and has a healthy online following. What's more, 95% of their guests our women. I gave them a call last week.

ME: What do you make of the review bias against female novelists?

ZIGMAN: When this whole discussion started, I didn’t really understand it. I sort of thought, what are these women complaining about? As a person often accused of writing chick-lit, I didn’t understand the issue. More recently, I understand it more. . . There really is this discrepancy in the numbers.

LEARY: First of all, being slightly narcisistic, we thought of ourselves [when we read your story] because we have mostly women on our show. It was also not a conscious decision. . . We book someone if we think they'd be a compelling guest, and it just so happens that we think women are really funny. It’s much easier to talk to women about a wider variety of subjects.

I was surprised of the numbers you had in your piece [about NPR gender bias]. We were talking earlier about whether there was some kind of unconscious, collective thing we do in a society. People have observed teachers who say that they’re not biased, that they're actually feminists, but unconsciously they tend to favor the boys: they call on boys more, they give the boys more affirmation, and they tend to have the boys sit in the front. It's often because boys sometimes don't behave as well as girls. When I read your piece about how this thing is going on with NPR and the New York Times and different reviewers, I was wondering if maybe male writers aren’t a little bit more forward, not aggressive, but assertive. Somebody else may have raised this issue the first time around, but I thought that was a really interesting point because most book buyers are women.

ME: How do you feel when your books get pigeonholed as chick lit?

ZIGMAN: It never bothered me because I don’t care about a lot of things like that; I was always just glad to have my book published.

It was always a derogatory term, but now it’s a super-derogatory term.It's an insult. Somebody on Twitter was writing to me because she really wanted me to write for her blog. She thought [chick lit] was a compliment. She was like, “You know, I read your book and I really liked it, and I don’t normally read that kind of stuff.” I’ve never unfollowed her, but I've never written for her again. That's when it insults me. It’s not that we see shame in it, but it’s the way people have come to use it to say [something] isn't literary writing.

I was a publicist in the 80s and 90s at Knopf and Random House, and I remember when the Jonathan Franzen happened with Oprah’s Book Blub. Even before the Franzen thing, there was this sense about Oprah picks -- like, ew. I was offended by that sense [that] there are books that are acceptable. People are reading; let them read what they want. What business is it of ours to tell people what we think of what they're reading?

ME: When you started this show, were you trying to address this?

LEARY: We tried to address the need for a funny show. We all met on Twitter. When we got together, we noticed that the three of us didn't talk over each other; there was really good balance and I think that was a sign from the Lord. We have a lot of fun doing it, and I think on a small community-based radio station, there’s not a lot of restrictions. We have a lot of freedom, and that’s what makes it fun for us.

ZIGMAN: Our Twitter feeds are full of really  interesting women. There are way more female writers on Twitter than big best selling male writers. Our feeds are filled with hilarious, interesting, sometimes whiny people.

LEARY: Actually, I would be interested in knowing if men social network as much as women. I know I’m all over Facebook and Twitter, and my husband [Denis Leary] sold a best-selling book of his tweets, and he honestly doesn’t know how to get on Twitter. He writes them and his assistant enters them in.

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