Straddling the Political and the Subjective (or "Why the PW Top 10 List Has the Right to Offend, but Is Still Offensive")

Last week, I attended Margaret Atwood's last United States event for Year of the Flood. The dramatic reading (equipped with a choir singing hymns Atwood wrote for the book) took place at Chicago's Merle Reskin theater, and was so packed that I waited in line for an hour and a half to get Atwood--one of my favorite writers since college--to sign a book. Atwood, as most avid readers know, is not only the recipient of a Booker Prize and numerous other prestigious awards, but is more than a dabbler at sci-fi or speculative fiction, a genre known for its popularity among male readers. And yet, at this crowded event that had sold out of tickets days in advance, it would probably be a gross overestimate to say that even ten percent of the audience was male. Five percent might be more accurate, though if someone told me that a poll had been taken and it was even less, I would probably believe them.

Margaret Atwood is seventy years old this year, and has published 40 books in 40 years, across numerous genres. She is one of the most acclaimed living writers of any nationality working today. So: where were all the guys? What the hell is going on?

As everyone reading She Writes is aware, this "Atwood phenomenon" is merely part of a larger syndrome. The scenario goes something like this: male writers are for Everyone. Female writers are for women.

As a woman writer, editor and reader, the continued pervasiveness of this circumstance saddens and outrages me. And yet, yesterday I posted a comment to Kamy's piece about her correspondence with a member of the PW panel that picked the now-infamous Best Books of 2009, strangely defending that list's right to . . . well, exist as it stands. Here's a bit of what I said:

I've had a mixed response to this controversy. On the one hand, it seems clearly absurd to me that so few writers (even on the list of 100) were women, and that out of the top 10 books only 1 was written by anything other than a white man. How can one even comment on that except to say that it confirms some of our worst fears about inherent cultural bias and privilege? I deeply wish this list had reflected more voices and experiences, and to be honest, I even more so wish that the publishing industry as a whole pigeon-holed women writers (and writers of color or from other countries/cultures) less, without expecting us to write either chick-lit, quiet domestic books, or, in the case of non-white writers, something "exotic" where the corporate publisher can use a marketing campaign singularly emphasizing the trendy foreign-ness of the writer--I mean, really, the whole thing is a huge problem, and the fact is that literary publishing is still very biased towards a white, male experience as the "norm," and any other experience as the "other."

But there is more to the story than the PW list. As with any controversy, the smoke is often coming from many different fires.

I have been an editor since 1995, first of a literary magazine, Other Voices, and finally, a decade later, I co-founded the fiction book imprint Other Voices Books and eventually our nonprofit company transitioned to focus exclusively on book publishing. We are a small indie press publishing only two titles annually, and as such don't bear much in common with the corporate publishers who put out the vast majority of books that make these "Best of" lists in any given year. We don't have big marketing dollars; we don't have a publicity team; we can't afford huge print runs or billboards or prominent book placements at the chain stores. My business partner Stacy Bierlein and I, with the help of a couple of sporadic volunteers and one underpaid copy-editor, wear every hat from editor to publicist to accountant to party planner. Though I am usually loathe to admit it due to solidarity in the indie trenches, even in the small publishing arena I am sometimes surprised by what a "boys club" the world of literary fiction is. Many of the most exciting, cutting-edge publishers have also at one time or another (if not consistently) had a bit of a rep for favoring male writers or at least having a "masculine" aesthetic that favors male definitions of "political" or "experimental" over those that may reflect women's realities. We at OV, a press run by women but without any explicit feminist or political agenda in terms of the books we choose, have chosen women and men writers almost equally: of our 7 books to date, three have been written by men and three by women, with one multi-cultural anthology that was not gender biased, and another anthology pending that is specifically for women writers. Oddly, we never set out to balance our books equally by gender; it simply happened.

I suspect that if we had more male editors, however, it might not have. For in fact, the publishing industry is largely run--from agents to editors--by women, and yet male writers continue to dominate the literary fiction arena. I have to believe that only a fool would argue that the reason for this is that male writers are simply better by some objective or absolute criterion: in fact, I highly doubt even most men would make that argument. It is simply that issue of what is considered Universal vs. specific. Women reader do not seem to hold a bias against male-authored books. Whether women publishing professionals, on the other hand, hold a bias against literary books by women might be a matter worth debating . . . but if they do, this bias may be market-driven. It is simply an adage of truth in the industry that male readers don't buy books by chicks. And while readers of most types of books are predominantly female, men still account for a good percentage of literary fiction readers. Thus it just adds up to "good business:" if women will read men, but men won't read women, then publish more literary books by men and everyone--meaning the corporate shareholders literary editors need to turn cartwheels for due to how little revenue literary fiction brings in compared to other types of books anyway--"wins."

What, then, is there to have a "mixed response" to about this PW list? Shouldn't all women writers (and readers) be unilaterally outraged at the clear bias of the list, which is an echo of a larger problem of women's marginalization in "serious" literary culture? Well, maybe we should. Maybe it really is that simple, on one level. But of course, on another level, nothing is every quite so simple. As I wrote to Kamy:

I blanche a bit at calling individual [panelists] harshly to task for what they loved most in a given year. I wish the list were different, but what I don't wish is that these editors had "faked it" because they were afraid of a backlash for their white-boy-heavy list, and pretended to love books by women or writers of color because they thought they "had to." Reading is such a subjective experience, and on some level I do believe these particular individuals on the panel had the right to love what they loved, and not have to pretend otherwise or defend themselves for it . . . I hesitate to make this one PW list the poster-child for what is really a far broader cultural/literary issue . . . and yet it IS a symptom of that larger problem. It's both a symptom and an individual, subjective choice, and is both wrong and yet "not wrong" simultaneously.

To me, this controversy is not about one list created by one set of people. To be sure, there are women writers I would have included among the Top Ten (Atwood among them) and more still I would have liked to see make the larger list of 100. Yet I would never really quarrel with any reader's right to feel breathless and spellbound by, say, a writer like Dan Chaon--one of PW's Top 10--whom I still remember publishing for the first time in Other Voices many years ago and my feeling of utter certainty that he would someday be counted among the best writers of our generation. I'm worried that high emotion over PW's list has veered towards women feeling the need to tear down the merits of the male writers who made the list in order to justify the merits of the women who were excluded. And that, of course, is the old trick that is always played on the marginalized: the myth that, in order to get to the top, you have to kick somebody else off the ladder and occupy their space.

Busting those old myths is exactly what I like best about She Writes. A site like this aims to foster the kind of collaboration and mentorship and networking among female professionals that men have enjoyed for generations. The solution, then, is not for women writers and readers to denigrate male writers as somehow less worthy, but to work together to insist that women writers no longer occupy the realm of Other: for writers like Margaret Atwood and Lorrie Moore to be recognized for the universal voices they are, rather than considered the best of a small consolation club for girls.

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Comment by Jessica Powers on November 25, 2009 at 8:45am
There's a ghettoizing effect that occurs in literature, just like in society....And I think we have to be more adament in our demands not to be ghettoized, whether we're women writers or writers of color.
Comment by Gina Frangello on November 25, 2009 at 8:41am
Jessica, you're absolutely right about writers of color, yes. Other than a select few who have won major prizes straight off the bat, like Jhumpa Lahiri or something, the "specificity" of writers of color's audience is probably even more extreme than that of "women" in general. I'm always shocked by how many of my students have not even read Toni Morrison, even though if there is a Great American Novel at all, Beloved is probably it. I think this is particularly true of Black writers, even more so than writers of other racial/ethnic groups. It's very disturbing.
Comment by Jessica Powers on November 25, 2009 at 8:28am
It's a perception I find problematic for a lot of reasons, but it's a widespread perception.
Comment by Jessica Powers on November 25, 2009 at 8:27am
When talking about the trend that "men write for everyone, women write for women," I think the same phenomenon applies to writers of color. Why is it that literature written by whites is for everyone--but an African-American writer writes for a black audience? Or a latina writes for a latina audience?
Comment by Kathie Bergquist on November 25, 2009 at 8:08am


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