Saturday, November 7, 2009

Judging the Judges

As you've probably already heard, this year's Publishers Weekly Top 10 Best Books of 2009 is exclusively male-authored. WILLA (Women In Letters And Literary Arts) has issued a press release titled "Why Weren't Any Women Invited To Publishers Weekly's Weenie Roast."
Quoted in The Huffington Post, PW confidently admitted that they're “not the most politically correct" choices. This statement comes in a year in which new books appeared by writers such as Lorrie Moore, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Rita Dove, Heather McHugh and Alicia Ostriker.

“The absence made me nearly speechless.” said writer Cate Marvin, cofounder of the newly launched national literary organization WILLA (Women In Letters And Literary Arts), which, since August, has attracted close to 5400 members on their Facebook web page, including many major and emerging women writers. “It continues to surprise me that literary editors are so comfortable with their bias toward male writing, despite the great and obvious contributions that women authors make to our contemporary literary culture.”

WILLA’s other cofounder, Erin Belieu, Director Of The Creative Writing Program at Florida State University, asked, “So is the flipside here that including women authors on the list would just have been an empty, politically correct gesture? When PW’s editors tell us they’re not worried about ‘political correctness,’ that’s code for ‘your concerns as a feminist aren’t legitimate.’ They know they’re being blatantly sexist, but it looks like they feel good about that. 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.”

PW also did a Top 100 list and, of the authors included, only 29 were women. The WILLA Advisory Board is in the process of putting together a list titled “Great Books Published By Women In 2009.” This will be posted to the organization’s Facebook page and website. Press release to follow.

In Sexism Watch: Publishers Weekly Top Ten Books of 2009, Melissa Silverstein, at Women & Hollywood from a feminist perspective, concludes:
I personally believe that it is bullshit that the top 10 books of the year are all by men (and by the way 9 out of the 10 are by white men.) People who make these lists need to look at their own inherent and internalized biases. Wonder how those women who didn’t give a crap about political correctness yesterday are feeling this morning.
Interestingly, though, Nicola Griffith suggests that Publishers Weekly's cutting women out of its ten-best list is a screw-up that "is just another indication that PW is rapidly becoming irrelevant to the real reading world."

I've often thought that annual "best" lists more often than not reflect the workings of hype. Is it ever really possible to pick out the ten "best" (even when the selection is restricted by genre, and even supposing that the persons compiling the list have excellent reading skills and anything by the most narrow of tastes), given just how many fine books fly under the radar, particularly during the year in which they are first published? I rather like Nicola's assumption that such lists can be used to judge the credibility of their makers.


Josh said...

Yeh, I took a look at PW's Top 100 list: Feh. NG's right. I mean, I'm not all anti-mass media -- the NYT's "Notable Books of 2007" is lovely -- but this is PW, for Heaven's sake. Read two of their reviews on, say, Amazon (remember "Delany is a poet who gave up writing poetry for a more financially rewarding career writing sci-fi and memoir"?); and you'll see that dumbth is an important job qualification for most positions at that organ.

Melissa Silverstein said...

Hey, thanks for linking to my piece. Just an FYI my last name is Silverstein.

Josh said...

Gentiles are always doing that sort of thing, and then they excuse it with the old punchline, "Iceberg, Goldberg, what's the difference?"

Timmi Duchamp said...

Oops-- I'm really sorry about that. It's now corrected.

Nancy Jane Moore said...

Assuming that it is possible to name the ten best books of the year -- and as has already been pointed out, that requires reading one hell of a lot of books (more than I could get to) -- and assuming that list could remotely be objective (extremely unlikely in such a subjective endeavor), there is no damn way you could have a list of the ten best books of the year without any women on it. It's mathematically impossible. There are too many women writers. There are too many GOOD women writers. It isn't political correctness to look at such a list and realize that whoever made it must not have read some of the great books of the year; it's common sense. (Not that I object to a little political correctness here and there, since I remember without fondness the years in which it was socially as well as politically correct to treat women like crap.)

BTW, while I have heard of most of the nonfiction books on that list, and even have a couple of them on my "get this from the library list," I never even heard of any of the fiction. Given that I read a lot of reviews, and a lot of books, I find that highly suspect. They must be choosing their fiction from a very limited list.

Unknown said...

On top of all that, I have a pet gripe. Whenever people say "politically incorrect," they are using linguistic sleight of hand to avoid saying "inexcusably offensive."