Dear SheWriters,

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.

Uproariously yours,
Lea Beresford
The Girl with the Red Pencil

Views: 47

Tags: #issues we face, #marketing, #publishing, Girl with the Red Pencil, Lea Beresford, feminist


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Comment by LaTonya on November 28, 2009 at 1:32pm
Hi Kirsten,

I didn't mean to refute but to expand the discourse. You did make a valid point. Unfortunately, we are accustomed to not seeing ourselves, but we are no longer silent about our absence and we're no longer waiting for an invitation. We're knocking on or down if necessary the behaviors that have marginalized us. Silence doesn't serve us. There is a movement. I know there is because I'm part of it. Embracing diversity enriches us. It's not simply a matter of being political correct. It's about interdependence, tapping unknown or neglected resources and perspectives. It's about doing more by including more.

You know my history and my passion. I'm glad we can have extended the conversation rather than remaining silent or offering up conciliatory agreement.
Comment by Kirsten Imani Kasai on November 27, 2009 at 10:33pm

You're right. I made quite a sweeping generalization here, but I think that my point is still valid. Those of us who are outside of the power demographic (white male) are inundated with wm culture. It's normal to us to not see ourselves represented. However, those within the power demographic aren't accustomed to the same perspective. There's plenty to choose from within their own group; they don't feel the need to look beyond it, unless it is with the deliberate goal of including of women writers and people of color.
Comment by LaTonya on November 27, 2009 at 8:34pm

Good to see you here. Glad you weighed in.

I've sat on judging panels. While I agree they need to have greater diversity, I know personally that I am not inclined to lean towards a woman or a black writer solely because we have a commonality. Does it help me to see something others might not, yes. Nevertheless, I need more than gender, culture and race when what we are evaluating is not focused on these factors. I currently belong to a AA readers group, yet I'm not fitting in all that well. Why, because I don't read what is popular among the majority of the community. I read lots of women of color but since joining the group, it's clear that being black isn't enough for identification. By my estimation I don't know the most popular AA writers.
Comment by Kirsten Imani Kasai on November 27, 2009 at 1:50pm

Just as reviews give more insight into a reviewer's world than the book she is evaluating, contests merely represent the cultural bias of the judges. Period. If the judging panel was comprised of all African-American grandmothers, middle-aged Argentinian men, or Japanese teenagers, their winning selections would most likely reflect the cultural community of those particular groups. Unfortunately, we have yet to realize the necessity for creating balanced judging panels that reflects the vast diversity of the world's authors. People stick with what they know, whether is it to the detriment of advantage of others.
Comment by Renate Stendhal on November 27, 2009 at 11:20am
I love your math skills, Lea. Very convincing! I want to repeat part of what I just wrote to Kamy about her book action...
When I look at the list of Nobel Prize winners of the last 100 years it's stunning that most winners are either utterly forgotten or in hindsight seem bizarrely and grossly undeserving. This is the same old mystery we are facing right now. Fashion and politics of the day have always governed the choices -- with a maximum of input from the Old Boys Club. And as we know from history, women (on the juries as well as among the readers) are token members of the club -- influenced, as we all are more or less, by the zeitgeist. And the zeitgeist has one simple name: backlash. Exceptions, as always, prove the rule.
Perhaps it is helpful to remember that only some 30 - 40 years ago, things were quite different. There wasn't a New York Review of Books then with only one woman reviewer per issue... Women exerted pressure on the culture at large and this was reflected in PW and many other "Best" lists as well. It's time to ask who is "afraid of Virginia Woolf" or Gertrude Stein, or the infamous (?) F-Word. Perhaps we are all waiting for the next "Generation F". I hear from many young women, teen-agers and twenty-something clients of mine, that they are not so afraid any longer to use the taboo language of feminism. Perhaps there is reason to hope. And to remember. Or, in the words of Monique Wittig, from her Amazon utopia "The Guérillères": "If you cannot remember, invent!"
Comment by LaTonya on November 27, 2009 at 10:10am
And let's not forget a major issue in the selections themselves: How many well-written books by women weren't in the running because they were either not published or weren't promoted as much as books by men? How can we win the game if we're not in it?

So often readers tell me they would read more poc titles if they knew about them. It's hard to read what you're unaware of? It comes back to not simply the strength and quality of the writing. Who get support and published is an industry issue.
Comment by shah wharton on November 26, 2009 at 7:54am
I wonder if there is an equal number of men and women who write? Does anyone know? And i wonder if those writers are equally represented? Are the agents and publishers all gender proficient, or do they all follow a largely male framework? Do the books which are managed by publishers and agents who are gender sensitive do better than those which are not? Personally i think it's all very subjective - jugding art. Any type of art. I have read many a 'prize-winning' novel and felt quite ripped off. Likewise, I have found little jewels in old book shops from little known authors. Perhaps i have an unsophisticated taste, or perhaps the jugdes always prefer the most long-winded complex drool some men put out there? Words, whose meaning gets lost in the drivel that is detail - mountains of it. So that your'e falling asleep instead of turning the page? Now some with love and admire such works, but i do not. It's subjective. Perhaps if the judges were a cross-section of our peers there would be many more female writers up there on the winners lists? Shah. X
Comment by Christi Craig on November 22, 2009 at 2:19pm
I agree on all perspectives mentioned in your blog and the comments. As we know, women have had to fight harder than men to get their fare share, and have come together in many ways to ensure we are heard (one great example being She Writes itself). Yet, you do raise a good point about the quality of the writing. And I appreciate your call to challenge myself to write better and stronger.

What surprises me most about the PW list is that the committee who chose the books was comprised of women. Can that be right? And, if so, that in itself is interesting.

I think of all the professions, other than writing, where the majority of workers are women (like nursing, teaching, and even my field of Sign Language Interpreting). Yet, the professional organizations for those fields are often run by men. Some days the 21st century doesn't feel all that progressive.
Comment by Nina Weber on November 21, 2009 at 2:48am
I like that you dared to ask this question.
I would not like if PW added women just to please everyone all around – that is done a lot in gender-sensitive areas/groups, where you are made to feel ashamed if you were happy with a male author or a male colleague. That always makes my hackles rise.
But then again (sorry if it's over-simplified): if women do not push women, usually nobody does.
Say we do write the ten strongest book in 2010 and that could be measured objectively somehow (since we talk about statistics). I think *still* men would dominate any such list. :-/

And especially senior (male) editors, m/f publicists and m/f marketing people I talked to in the past jumped on male authors. I sometimes joke that a male author can write about tying his shoes - and still there is a huge happy uproar at the publishing house resulting in a major campaign and the media jump on it "whoa, look at this!" Regardless if it's fiction and nonfiction. Why is that? Does it come down to some of the things Deborah Tannen discovered?

What I found intriguing also (and horrible) is the replies I got from men to this PW-discussion. Unisono they said: "Man! How typically female to make such a ruckus over such a thing. If it was an all-women top ten list, no male author or agent would bat an eye. Such is just life."
But when asked more closely, most of them said: "I'd try to find out if it was mostly women on the panel that chose the books. And if yes, I'd dismiss PW and the list as another little women-club that you just cannot win over as a guy. I'd stop reading it too."
Comment by Lea Beresford on November 20, 2009 at 4:33pm
Carrie Ann, love your words on quiet books.
And Julie, I am of course aware that the PW list wasn't generated by chance, but was trying to illustrate that it is indeed possible that the ten best books were by men. Not the most popular opinion, I'll admit, but certainly one worth considering.

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