• Katha Pollitt
  • Is Michael Connelly really a better writer than Lorrie Moore? Really?
Is Michael Connelly really a better writer than Lorrie Moore? Really?
Written by
Katha Pollitt
November 2009
Written by
Katha Pollitt
November 2009
Anyone who has ever sat on a prize committee or a list committee has got to know , if he or she is minimally observant and self-aware, that what results are not Olympian judgments. There’s a fair amount of happenstance involved. Group dynamics are much more important than you might think. Even the claim to have read all the relevant books is a bit fictional, because it would not be physically possible to do more than glance at most of the many hundreds of books that might conceivably be deserving. Also a bit fictional is the claim to be uninfluenced by buzz, word, reviews, the opinions of friends, conventional wisdom. Judges aren’t living on a desert island, and books don’t arrive like notes in a bottle. And yet, whenever a list comes out and it’s all men, or mostly men, the listmakers bristle at the suggestion that maybe gender affects the way they read and evaluate. “We ignored gender and genre and who had the buzz,” writes PW’s Louisa Ermelino in preemptive-pugilistic fashion of the magazine’s all-male Top 10 list. That makes the editors of PW the only people on earth who are not only totally unaffected by the society in which they live, but who have no subconscious. A wealth of studies show that gender affects just about every kind of evaluation people make, from grading papers (the same work gets a better grade if supposedly written by a boy rather than a girl) to getting elected. But somehow reading is supposed to be different. Nothing but "excellence" is supposed to matter: The sex of the the judges or the authors, whether a book is about women or men, about the kitchen or the ship, is written in a “feminine" or "masculine” style , and the way these elements overlap and influence each other. I look at PW’s list and I can’t for the life of me understand why Yi-Yun Lee’s The Vagrants didn’t make the Top 10--in my opinion, it’s a great work of literature and should win every prize going – or why Lorrie Moore and Hilary Mantel and Lydia Davis and A.S. Byatt aren’t even on the extended list. Michael Connelly ‘s latest thriller is really one of the best novels of the year? Pete Dexter? Well, I want to say, it’s PW, not The New York Review of Books. Except that NYRB is famous for having few women reviewers and reviewing few books by women. Obviously gender matters, in the world of books as elsewhere. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that a “Shopcraft as Soulcraft’, (“extols the virtues of how to do one thing really well) would not have gotten a huge amount of high-end critical attention or be in PW’s top ten if it was about sewing. Most men don’t even read books about women, or by women; but women read books by both sexes. That means that when it comes to prizes, and top-ten --or top-100—lists, books by men have an edge, because not only are they of interest to both sexes, they are reviewed and discussed as if they are of general interest (shop class?) and as if they connect naturally with the vast sea of literary tradition, which is mostly the work of men, while books by women tend to be perceived as its own small river, of interest mostly to the locals. Well, you know all this already. In a vague, general kind of way, every woman does, except Katie Roiphe. And yet, it doesn’t seem to make any difference when the judges are actually gathered in the room. The dynamic is too deep and too subtle, and very hard to tackle in the midst of the judging process, assuming anyone wanted to. It's easier to bristle, like Louisa Ermelino. I buy lots of books by women all the time, but I’m doing my bit today by buying Marilyn Hacker’s new book of poems, Names. I’ve loved her work for years—it’s formal, slangy, passionate, funny, sexy, a little dark and desperate sometimes – everything I like. I'm also going to pick up SheWrites member Alicia Ostriker's "the book of Seventy," because I'm betting it's as beautiful and deep as her other collections of poetry-- if not even more so. For more on the ways gender shapes the way we read, here’s a link to my review in Slate of Elaine Showalter’s fascinating “A Jury of her Peers: American women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx.” http://www.slate.com/id/2213111/

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  • LaTonya


    Thanks for asking me for a list. I read mostly YA these days though I love women's literature and that's why I joined the Women Unbound Challenge. The problem for me is that I don't normally read new releases when they first hit the market. No problem though. I believe in community. I shared your request with Color Online. I want to get this right. I'll have something for you in a few days.

    Carol, Paule Marshall is on my reading list for Women Unbound. I'm glad you enjoyed my recommended list.

  • Carol Jenkins

    Thanks--I am aware of your keen interest in making sure everyone's included--from the beginning of SheWrites and during the PW push. It's not easy. But look what you've created--a community of 5,000 women writers who can, at last, talk to each other! I couldn't be prouder.

    As for Katha, where in the world would we be without her razor sharp brain decoding for us!

    The conversation--and the work--has just begun...count me in.

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    Forgot to link to Angela Austin's SW page!

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    Yes, Carol, you are absolutely right -- that has been a big concern of mine in all of this, and more generally--as the uproar about the list hardly acknowledged the race issue and has seemed to focus solely on the exclusion of women. I have tried to be clear that we are strongly objecting to both sexist AND racist omissions, but the results we've gotten in terms of "books I bought" have not included enough people of color.

    One of the first comments to my original post was from LaTonya who said:

    "While I get the indignation, may I suggest as a person of color who gets doubly overlooked all the time that members of this community remember women of color when you compile your list. And if you cannot think of any woc to include then maybe PW is not the only one who needs to re-evaluate how inclusive they are. Lists like this one matters in so much that a reader who is not necessarily well read will use this list to help them discover new reads and to broaden their reading habits. Well, when you get a list like this so much for being inclusive and diverse.
    I don't argue lowering the bar. I'm talking about raising it- raising it so you see there is more than you know."

    I couldn't agree with her more. I have asked LaTonya to make a list for me to share with the entire community, and Carol, as I wrote to you earlier, I would be so honored to have your leadership and your further input in this part of the discussion.

    Another SW member, Angela Austin, had this to say in response to the PW list:

    "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."

    Amen, sister. Let's make it work, with conscious intention and inclusion.

    Warm best,

  • Katha Pollitt

    The Vagrants is by a Chinese-American woman. I hope lots of people read it/buy it. It made the PW 100, but I feel it didn't quite get the big acclaim it deserved. Thanks so much for the other suggestions. We read Helene Cooper's book in my book club. Very sharp and interesting book. I learned so much about Liberia from it.

  • Carol Jenkins

    Such a topic--and so many great suggestions. I'm interested in reading every single book. But, with the exception of Tonya's reading list, I don't see that anyone is reading or buying books written by women of color. While we express our outrage at being left out by the men, should we also have a day when everyone buys only a book written by a woman of color?
    Paule Marshall's memoir, Triangular Road, which includes her literary travels with Langston Hughes, NYTimes White House reporter Helene Cooper's memoir about growing up in LIberia, The House at Sugar Beach, Carolyn See's series of historical novels about Asian women, the last, The Shanghai Girls...for a starter list?
    If there were a judging tomorrow?

  • Natasha Bauman

    Thanks for the excellent article. I just want to say that I am so tired of this. We have been discussing this bias for decades. We should be moving on by now. The thing that really bothers me is that so many women are complicit in the trivialization of women's literature. It seems those are the women who show up as critics in major publications, and who end up on the panels that decide these kinds of things. Enough! Enough!

  • Renate Stendhal

    Excellent arguments! And this is exactly why Gertrude Stein is still such an important role model, muse and inspiration today and every day: she knew how to fight the gender war of literature like no woman before her (and few after her). "I am the literary Einstein of this century." She is always on my top ten list!
    I love reading your snappy commentary in the Nation, too. :)

  • Cathy Day

    Thank you so much for weighing in here on this topic.

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    Katha -- I can't think of any writer I'd rather read on this subject. Brilliant, witty, and sharp, as ever, and a much-needed analysis of the deeper prejudices at work here. I will feature this on our main page immediately and call attention to it in an email sent to all the members of She Writes. Thank you thank you.