Last Saturday I had dinner with one of my favorite people, who also happens to be a Senior Publicist at one of the largest American publishing houses. We talked about the PW Best Books list as we strolled through the quiet of DUMBO, and he said that there were two possible issues. Perhaps the list was biased against women. Or perhaps the books women wrote this year were just not quite as strong as the ten books on the list? My feathers were immediately ruffled. I was pissed. How could he suggest such a thing?
But then I thought about it. And thought about it.
Remember that probability assignment from math class? What’s the likelihood of flipping a quarter ten times and getting ten heads?
.5 x .5 x .5 x .5 x .5 x .5 x .5 x .5 x .5 x .5 = 0.0009765625
That’s less than a tenth of a percent.
So, assuming that 50% of books published in 2009 were published by men and 50% by women (for the sake of simplicity), the probability of randomly selecting ten books by men is one in one thousand. Not great odds, but not terrible ones either. Certainly better than the lottery.
It happened. Ten books written by men made the list. It’s possible that women writers just didn’t come through this year. You’ll notice that none of the books selected for the 2009 National Book Awards were written by women either. (Though Flannery O’Connor’s The Complete Stories
—one of my personal favorites!—did win “Best of National Book Awards for Fiction”).
Whether the testosterone-heavy list is biased, or truer than we’d like to admit, let’s take it as a reason to push on. A challenge to write better, stronger books. Books that are more compelling, more beautiful, more striking.
Could PW’s Ten Best Books of 2010 all be by women? Just think of the uproar.
The Girl with the Red Pencil