A few weeks ago, two book critics held a hushed conversation via cell phone under cover of darkness.
"They better not do it again," one hissed.
"I know," the other sputtered.
"If it happens, I will just --"
"I know!" said the other.
"SCREAM," the first finished. "I WILL SCREAM."
The subject was the upcoming season of book awards; "They" was the mass of authors, critics and publishing professions who -- including yours truly -- dispense them.
The cover of darkness, cell-phone relay and hissing were mainly due to exigencies of subway travel in New York City. But the "it" -- the hissed "it" -- was really the rub. "It" was the fact that, no matter how many jewel-like works of fiction, nonfiction and poetry lady writers churn out in the course of a year, the bulk of the awards nevertheless goes to men.
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Before I continue, let me borrow a phrase from the majority and say that some of my best friends are men. Some of my best friends are male writers. There are many men I love, many male writers I love, and many loves counted by me among writers of the male persuasion.
But that said, I, female, longtime book critic, longtime lover of males, writers, and male writers, must nonetheless point out an inconvenient truth: It has been a very strong two years for female writers and a weak two years for male ones, and the fact that the latter have garnered unseemly armfuls of praise and prizes for their tepid output is a scandal.
While this is a favorite topic of mine whatever the season, it was brought home to considerable irritation today when I discovered that Publishers Weekly had already generated a list of Top 10 Books of 2009, and it was -- didn't they LISTEN to our emphatic cell-phone directive? -- all male.
I will give this to PW editors -- they did notice. "We wanted the list to reflect what we thought were the top 10 books of the year with no other consideration," they inform us cheerily. "We ignored gender and genre and who had the buzz . . . It disturbed us when we were done that our list was all male."
Well, that's comforting. Except the "no other consideration" and "ignored gender" part. Because, as someone who's worked as an editor, writer and critic for almost two decades in the literary world, I've concluded, like most of my half-sentient colleagues, that the publishing industry is no better at ignoring gender than your average obstetrician.
It is the conventional wisdom that women's writing gets overlooked in the prize department because it doesn't get enough attention at the outset, or because women writers aren't respected. I don't think either is true. Sure, the New York Times Book Review could be a little better about reviewing books by women. (From this I exempt my old editor, Dwight Garner, who is interested in anybody and anything as long as it's good.) But Alice Munro, Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood are North American institutions. (Thanks, Canada.) Kay Ryan is our poet laureate. The latest Nobel was given to a German lady. The ladies, they write good! We know it. So why are we so bad about showing it?
I got a glimmer of an answer last year as I sat in a board room hashing out the winners for one of the awards for which I am a judge. Our short list was pretty much split evenly along gender lines. But as we went through each category, a pattern emerged. Some books, it seemed, were "ambitious." Others were well-wrought, but somehow . . . "small." "Domestic." "Unam --" what's the word? "-- bititous."
I don't know about you, but when I hear the word "ambitious," what I think is "Nice try. Better luck next time. Keep shooting for the stars!" I think many things, but never among them is the word Congratulations.
But, incredulous, again and again, I watched as we pushed aside works that everyone acknowledged were more finely wrought, were, in fact, competently wrought, for books that had shot high but fallen short. And every time the book that won was a man's.
"I just want to say," I said as the meeting closed, "that we have sat here and consistently called books by women small and books by men large, by no quantifiable metric, and we are giving awards to books I think are actually kind of amateur and sloppy compared to others, and I think it's disgusting." (I wasn't built for the board room.) "But we can't be doing it because we're sexist," an estimable colleague replied huffily. "After all, we're both men and women here."
But that's the problem with sexism. It doesn't happen because people -- male or female -- think women suck. It happens for the same reason a sommelier always pours a little more in a man's wine glass (check it!), or that that big, hearty man in the suit seems like he'd be a better manager. 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.
The conservatives are right: affirmative action is huge blemish on the face of our nation. And until we stop giving awards to men who don't deserve them over women who do, we're sunk. Because our default is to somehow feel like Philip Roth's output is impressive while Joyce Carol Oates' is a punchline. Our default is to call John Updike a genius on the basis of four very wonderful books and many truly weird ones, while Margaret Atwood, with the same track record, is simply beloved. Our default is to title Ayelet Waldman's book, "Bad Mother," while her husband's is "Manhood for Amateurs." Our default is that women are small, men are universal. Well, I know men get sensitive if you call them small. But gentlemen, sometimes you are.
The organization Women in Letters and Literary Arts, started by excellent poets Cate Marvin and Erin Bilieu to bring attention to women in the world of literature, has released a defiant list of great books by women in 2009 as a counter to PW's list. To tell you the truth, I don't think that's a great list, either. (Reactionary items -- excepting, of course, this post -- seldom are.) I, on the other hand, have been keeping a small, not particularly ambitious list of the best books of this year, based on three reliable metrics: They made me embarrassed to call myself a writer, they gladdened my heart, and I am always right. In no particular gender, here they are:
"Blame," by Michele Huneven
"Wolf Hall," by Hillary Mantel
"The Believers," by Zoe Heller
"Notes From No Man's Land," by Eula Biss
"Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry," by Leanne Shapton
"Too Much Happiness," by Alice Munro
"A Gate at the Stairs,"
by Lorrie Moore (odd but works)
Enjoy! I'd love to hear your favorites, too.