I Guess Women Aren't That Good At Writing After All

Wow, did I feel good yesterday. 5000 women writers here. A depth and breadth of talent that takes my breath away. We write fiction, we write memoir, we write scifi; we are bestsellers, we are award winners, we are just starting out; we are working hard, we are writing well; we are...not as good at it as men are.

Or at least that seems to be the opinion of Publishers' Weekly, which published its "Best Books of 2009" list on November 2nd and could not see its way to including a single book by a woman without destroying its integrity or betraying its unassailable good taste. Apparently books by women just aren't as good. Sorry, girls! Poor PW, they felt really badly about it. According to the novelist and journalist Louisa Ermelino, the editors at PW bent over backwards to be objective as they chose the Best Books of the year. "We ignored gender and genre and who had the buzz. We gave fair chance to the 'big' books of the year, but made them stand on their own two feet. It disturbed us when we were done that our list was all male."

It "disturbed" you? In what way exactly? Like, did it make you think, "we are insane?" Try to imagine if they had come out with a list of the Best Books of 2009 and it had included ZERO MEN. Try to imagine if Amazon had released its Best Books of 2009 and it had included only TWO men. I know it's hard. But just try.

And in case you think ALL men got the star treatment from PW, you should also know that only ONE of the men on the list isn't a white dude. Naturally he is the dude on the cover. (More on that in a post to come.)

I have never felt clearer about why I started She Writes. It is time to start making our own lists. On that note I am issuing our first She Writes call to action. Tell us what YOU believe are the top ten best books of 2009 thus far. Written by men or women, please -- fiction or nonfiction. Be as objective as you can, with the awareness that lists of the "best" anything are subjective in the end. We are not trying to generate a list of books only by women. I'm guessing there will be some overlap with the lists Amazon and PW put together. I am also guessing we will somehow, some way, find a book or two by a woman that can stand on its own two feet.

Click here to share your list of the Top Ten Best Books of 2009.

We will announce our She Writes Top Ten list two weeks from today.

In the meantime, I will be featuring posts from our membership on this subject. Please feel free to share your lists and alert me when you do. Cate Marvin and Erin Belieu, co-founders of the much needed new literary organization WILLA (Women in Letters and Literary Arts), will be discussing their reaction to PW's list (and Amazon's) in a conversation we will post on She Writes in the next few days.

A parting thought: my friend and colleague Gloria Feldt, who also happens to be one of the most inspiring and important thought-leaders on women and leadership in the country, likes to cite a pair of statistics that speak volumes: women make 85% of the consumer buying decisions in this country; women are 17% of Congress.

Here's another one for you: 65% of books sold in the U.S. are purchased by women; women wrote 0% of the Best Books of 2009. Really?

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Tags: #issues we face, PW, activist, feminist, reading

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Comment by Maggie Kast on December 17, 2009 at 9:29am
ImageUpdate's Top Ten for 2009 included four books and 1 TV show, Nurse Jackie, by women. One of the books was my memoir, The Crack between the Worlds: a dancer's memoir of loss, faith and family. How's that for equal time?
Comment by Elizabeth Patch on November 12, 2009 at 7:59pm
As a working woman artist, I'm sure my life is not very different than many of my fellow She-Writers, balancing the day job with the second-shift home responsibilities, and yet somehow managing to find the energy to create. I work all day, take care of my family, and then in the few semi-conscious hours I have left over, am writing and illustrating my next book.

On Veteran's Day this week I was reminded of my experiences in the military; the blatant sexism and in-your-face male organizational style was so terrible that I rarely, if ever, think about my service experiences. The father of my children was able to walk away from his responsibilities with few consequences from either the law or society, free to pursue his dreams while I worked several jobs and raised the family by myself. Need more sexism? If you are in the visual arts, which I am, then its not news to walk into any invitation-only exhibition (like a museum biennial) or high end gallery, and see less than 2% representation by women.

What has this to do with anything related to She Writes?
Because this week She Writes sent me an email about the ZERO women writers on the Publishers Weekly Best Books list. And suddenly I am thinking about all those instances of seeing things go zipping by, over the heads of amazing and talented women, and landing effortlessly in the laps of men.

I must admit, I haven't read any of the books on this Best Books list.
I am sure that they are worthy choices. But are they so superior, so exceptional, that there was no room, not a single space, for even one superior and exceptional female voice?

What year is this again?
Comment by Marcy Gray Rubin on November 12, 2009 at 6:15pm
Once again the old boys network wins. This time it's because books written by women weren't selected by PW for their coveted list. At other times women aren't considered funny enough to be included on the writing staffs of certain TV shows. That is reserved for young men who graduated Harvard and were in Hasty Pudding. So what do we have to do to prove that we are just as literate, as funny, as provocative, as expressive as our male counterparts? I have difficulty believing that with all the amazing books written by women this year that the powers that be could not find one that was as compelling as their male counterparts. Are all women's efforts dismissed as chick lit? Is it question of left brain judging left brain and leaving right brain in the dust? Do PW's judges feel that men capture our voices better than we do? Understand our struggles with more insight? And ultimately are able to capture both the psychology of men and women in a way that confounds women? Looking over the enormous list of works by women writers I think not, There's not a chance in hell that's true.
Comment by Lisa Solod on November 12, 2009 at 12:28pm
Susan Chehak has an interesting point. I haven't looked at the ten best yet but .... she has a point. On the other hand I heard Atwood interviewed on NPR the other day. I have read all her stuff and want to read the latest. And when she read from it and talked about it it sounded pretty damned timeless and very important. Also of course, stunningly written and full of ideas as is all her work. It is hard for me to imagine her being left out. Or the Pulitzer Prize winner Strout, at the least.
Comment by Mishna Wolff on November 12, 2009 at 9:10am
OMG they are so serious over at PW. No irony. Just straight up sincere OLD school taste.
Comment by Megan Pincus Kajitani on November 11, 2009 at 4:19pm
This brings to mind the recent NYT op-ed by Joanne Lipman, "The Mismeasure of Woman" (Oct. 24, 2009). She talks about how it is the subtler messages in our culture that keep women (and, I would add, people of color) from truly participating as full equals in the power sectors of our society. It is in the words used, the words not used, the underlying attitudes that we see where the "second-class citizen" category is still alive and well in our culture. There has been great progress -- the fact that we are having this discussion is part of that, and the fact that we have an African-American president, and a line of female Secretaries of State... And yet there is a long way to go -- the public attitudes and media commentary about our female presidential primary candidate, the misogynistic beer commercials, and PW saying there were simply no books by women that fit the bill for the top 10 of the year. A list like this may seem small, not a big deal, but it points to a more insidious issue in our industry and our culture. Thanks for starting this conversation, Kamy, and I hope it gets some attention!
Comment by Jane Gassner on November 11, 2009 at 2:02pm
Nice to find a high road to take, I would add—which is what Susan Taylor Chehak does with her basic assumptions about lists, gender, and books. To deny that these lists mean anything is to deny the relevance of the entire field of marketing and PR in the publishing world. Anyone who has ever published a book and therefore been through the sausage mill of print runs and ad budgets knows that. If the Ivory Tower days of gentleman publishers like Maxwell Perkins ever really existed, they’re over now. Also long gone from our cultural intelligence is the idea that anything is gender-neutral. In so far as books are products of a specific intelligence, they are gendered as everything else is. What that gendering actually means is another issue entirely.
Comment by Laura L Mays Hoopes on November 11, 2009 at 1:13pm
Thanks for writing this. I enjoyed thinking about my top ten books; I don't often divide books into year of publication groups, so it was interesting. There are so many outstanding books that aren't even on PW's individual category top tens, which did include some by women, but not many, the selection has to be subjective in the extreme. But given that, at least their intent/criteria must be explored; they should have known people would demand to know what they sought, given what happened.
Comment by Angela Austin on November 10, 2009 at 11:39pm
As amazing as this sounds, it doesn't surprise me. When I first began to write, I found it difficult to find critique groups that 'fit' me. Why? I am an African-American woman who writes women's fiction. The groups I joined had few if any AA authors. The critique groups had none. They all seemed to believe there was some great difference in my writing and theirs. There may be a difference in the stories told, and the voice telling them, but we were all there for the same thing...to become better writers, and network with other writers.

So, I can understand the list created by PW. If writers can't come together, how do the people reviewing the readers purchasing the writer's work come together?

To this day, I still can't believe how many books I read seem to have absolutely no diversity between the pages.
Comment by Beth Arky on November 10, 2009 at 6:55pm
I just spotted WILLA's list:

http://willalist.wikia.com/wiki/The_WILLA_List_Wiki

Thanks for starting this conversation, Kamy.

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