So, the editors of Publishers Weekly have made a list of their top 10 books of 2009, and they’re all by men.
“We ignored gender and genre and who had the buzz,” they said. “It disturbed us when we were done that our list was all male,” they acknowledged fleetingly in the middle of a paragraph of self-congratulatory rah-rah.
Well, it disturbs us here at Chez Bishop, too.
Lizzie Skurnick’s essay contra PW’s list is worth reading, particularly for her description of one awards-deciding process, in which, she says, “we have…called books by women small and books by men large, by no quantifiable metric.”
The trouble is, we’re not yet in a position to say that we can ignore gender. (Or race, or culture, or sexual orientation.) Our biases are deep as shit. As The Mumpsimus puts it, ‘ There is no objective, essential “best”. There is stuff we like and stuff we don’t — texts we have developed techniques for appreciating and texts that we do not, for myriad reasons, appreciate. There are texts about which we have built large critical apparatuses for justifying as “great”.’
Which is why I think we probably ditched affirmative action too soon. Patriarchy still informs our tastes and appetites, and we can’t evade it any more than we can evade our own genes. And it may not just be a matter of taste regarding the books themselves. Skurnick writes: “It’s not that women shouldn’t be up for the big awards. It’s just that when it comes down to the wire, we just kinda feel like men . . . I don’t know . . . deserve them.”
Which is even scarier, if it’s true, because it doesn’t speak just about a cultural tendency to prefer men’s writing but a tendency to cut men more slack, to wish them more success, to extend them more compassion and goodwill — in short, to love men more than we love women.
In the interests of honesty, I have to say that I’m a woman who has been helped, encouraged, and promoted by men. I’ve had so much male support, I should be able to insert something witty about jockstraps in here, but I’m getting over a bit of food poisoning and ask to be excused from wit. At any rate, it’s not on my own behalf that I complain. Or rather, it is — if I ever succeed in writing this book I keep failing to write, the one with all the women in it, doing womanish things, though not having affairs, because that would be too sensational.
On to the second part of this post, which is much more ruminatory…
Lizzie Skurnick writes about a group of awards judges finding texts by men “ambitious” and texts by women “domestic”, and rewarding the former even if they fell short of their goals, though the latter may have been better written.
Assuming that this was not the only time that such a finding as been made, it raises some troubling questions. Like, do women actually tend to be timid, preferring to do a good but limited job, where men might take a wild risk? Or do we fail to see where women have been ambitious because the ambition is disguised? Do we simply prefer sloppy-ambitions to skilful-safe because the former seems to inject more new material into the cultural meme pool? Or do wild ambitious works by women go unpublished because publishers know that women’s writing within certain safe bounds is saleable, but when it comes to work that shoots for the moon, the reading public is more likely to look favourably on the flawed efforts of a not-quite-genius man than a not-quite-genius woman?
Perhaps a real genius, a woman who can shoot for the moon and hit it, has equal chances with an equally brilliant man. Or maybe not — maybe there are women out there shooting for a different moon, and finding that no one cares.
As I say, ruminations. Questions, all of them hard to answer.