Sunday, November 8, 2009

PW and sexism

Publishers Weekly released their "Best Books of 2009" list. Unremarkable, typically. This time, however, the list has caused certain groups to raise the alarm because all ten titles were written by men. PW says, "It disturbed us when we were done" and goes on to mention who/what else didn't make the list. Meanwhile, via the Guardian:
"They know they're being blatantly sexist, but it looks like they feel good about that," said [WILLA's (the new US literary organisation Women in Letters and Literary Arts) other co-founder and director of the creative writing programme at Florida State University, Erin Belieu]. "I, on the other hand, have heard from a whole lot of people - writers and readers - who don't feel good about it at all."
The question: is it sexist? If in going through the thousands of books published this year, the top ten happened to be written by men, is it sexism? Answer: not really "blatant sexism", but it's kind of wrong. Literary sexism is often spoken of but is difficult to prove. It's known that men and women statistically like different styles and often view the literary differently (this is not to say that one is more right than the other). What remains is an argument over whether or not award-boards and juries prefer "manly" books over their female counterparts, and it's one complex, difficult argument that I still haven't figured out.

So what about this is wrong? If I don't think there's something inherently and outwardly sexist to this list (meaning, I don't think that PW intentionally left off women), what is it about it that bothers? Well, it's that you can't help but feel that there has to have been at least one (and probably many more) top-notch, incredible, mind-blowing book written this year by a woman. I'm not saying it has to be one of the big guns mentioned in the Guardian article (Atwood, Munro, Byatt, etc.), but it seems slightly sloppy of PW to judge like this. I wouldn't criticize them for purposely ignoring women writers, but I feel like publishing a list like this displays a slightly unbalanced view of this year's literature. So props for trying (points for non-fiction and graphic memoirs alike), but don't get too hurt by those calling foul. And for those on the other side, I'm not sure this is sexism out to get you - I honestly think it's just stupidity.

I'm curious to know how others interpret this. I suspect there's much to learn and understand from all sides of the story.

10 comments:

  1. I agree with you - there are so many variables. And men and women often prefer different books. But that doesn't necessarily mean women will prefer books written by women - in fact, it might be the opposite. And what if the "objectively selected" top ten were all written by men, or were all written by women? Wouldn't it be pandering to force the inclusion of the opposite gender? So I guess it all comes down to, who exactly was on the board and what kind of literature does each of them prefer? It would be a good subject for some lit major to tackle!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I can't believe The Help; Stockett is not or this list or Cutting for Stone; Verghese (unless I missed them)??

    ReplyDelete
  3. I'm curious what their criteria were...a bunch of PW editors threw out the lists of books they liked this past year and then they voted? I suppose it's a bummer that no women made it on to their list but I don't see a big gender conspiracy at PW exclusively. Books get read because they get bought by a publisher and then sold to the public...and then there is the question of taste and whether the industry shapes our reading tastes or public taste dictates the industry. So many factors to consider, although I'm not denying there is plenty of room for discrimination, I just think, like you, it's much more complicated...

    ReplyDelete
  4. Well, usually I'm not one to run and yell out "sexism!", but the thing is, that the bigger and more well-known an establishment it, the more you can be certain that they are working according to certain political agendas.

    Although, I whould still hate to see a woman's name on the list just out of politically-correctiveness..

    ReplyDelete
  5. I just think this shows the futility of these sorts of lists, overall. We already have the prize lists (which, let's hope, involve more thought that the PW list may have...they must--look at Hillary Mantel), and then of course there are the best-seller lists, Amazon rankings, and so on. Many of these include great books by women, so I am not sure how much the PW list really matters. It will most likely get lost in the sea of all those end-of-year lists we're starting to see everywhere.

    ReplyDelete
  6. My guess is that it wasn't conscious sexism, but that there is some unconscious bias at work here. I think we are susceptible to gendered likes and dislikes in ways we don't even realize, and sometimes even when we have the best of intentions to treat everyone equally, it doesn't happen. And I think because of that, it's worth working extra hard to make sure as many as possible get included.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Novels should be judged on their literary merit and not on the gender of their authors. I have every confidence that PW was working from this premise. If the top ten books of this year all happen to have been penned by men, then that's just the way the cookie crumbles. As usual, I'm frustrated by these conversations because they ultimately take the focus away from the spirit of the recognition. Rather than talking about what makes these novels great or what these novels are collectively saying about the progress of literature or society, we are talking about the gender breakdown of the authors - how TEDIOUS! One wonders, too, if the chatter will influence next year's choices to the extent that a woman will make the cut to quiet the cry from the maddening crowd. In my opinion, THAT will be sexist, this list is just happenstance.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I think stupid is a good explanation. I don't think it was intentional but I think someone actually wasn't paying attention. Some of the reactions to this make me angrier than the fact itself. Honestly I don't really know what to say.

    ReplyDelete
  9. It really depends on how they went about making the list as to whether it was blatantly sexist or not, but the fact that they themselves pointed it out makes me wonder if they were just making a PR move to cover themselves before someone else did. Either way, I think Marie is right - it's just not very smart on their part.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I agree with rhapsodyinbooks, that it would be pandering to force the inclusion of the opposite gender. I, for one, would prefer to see a female on the PW top 10 purely because that writer's book was THAT GOOD, not so that PW could have a "balanced" list of female and male writers.

    With that said, I agree it's a little strange that of all the books PW must have considered, that not 1 female author rose to the top. When I examine my own reading habits, I find that I read 60% female writers and 40% male, and out of all those books, my most favorite books follow the same statistics in that 58% of the writers were female and 42% were male.

    To add something else to the mix, I've heard it argued that more men write literary fiction, because female writer's are relegated to women's fiction. I can't begin to defend or argue against an argument like this, though, until I see or hear from publisher that this is, in fact, true.

    ReplyDelete

Anonymous comments have been disabled due to an increase in spam.