Publishers Weekly Versus the Rest of Us
The PW "ten best" list was a surprise, but not a big one, at least not for me--though when I shared the news with my husband, HE was outraged. "How dare they?" said he. It was a little dismaying to read the descriptions of the books, which you can do at, and realize how very much it was shaped by "boy" subjects. "Gritty, mostly honest-hearted ex-heroin addict protagonist Ricky Rice!...Rebellious Yankee son of a father who fell victim to the Depression!...[T]he men who built America’s intercontinental ballistic missile program in the 1950s and ‘60s!...Two 40-ish men seeking love and existential meaning!...Grann’s vigorous research mirrors Fawcett’s obsession with uncovering the mysteries of the jungle!...Philosopher and motorcycle repair-shop owner Crawford extols the value of making and fixing things in this masterful paean to what he calls manual competence!..." That's six of the ten. There's also a book on 19th c. science which apparently gives some space to the astronomer Caroline Herschel and to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein - though of course the book is written by a man. And there's a book of interconnected short stories taking place in Lahore, which pays attention to some women's lives, but is also by a man....and a graphic novel of a traumatic childhood by a man...YOU GET THE PICTURE. Probably all these books are good books. Okay. More irritating was the snarky defensiveness of the PW editorial board, which seemed to think that the only possible reason to choose books by women or people of color would be "political correctness" or "buzz," to which they were so haughtily, condescendingly superior. Backlash, anyone? Co-option of women editors, anyone? What most deeply bugs me, though, is the whole concept of "best." As if all choices were not subjective ones. Why couldn't the PW editors each just pick a book that was a personal favorite and leave it at that? No, wait. I've been on a Pulitzer committee and I cared who got it. I've judged poetry contests. I've been a national Book Award finalist (twice), and wished I'd won, dammit. It's hard standing around on the geriatric queue waiting for a crumb to be tossed my way. So I guess this kind of picking and choosing exercise is inevitable. But one more thing— Does everybody only buy and read books that were just published this year? I don’t. I mean, sometimes I do, but I like OLD books too. So here’s my little list of books by women I’ve recently loved. Most of them are poetry. Patricia Smith, BLOOD DAZZLER –a dazzling post-Katrina book of poems Rachel Zucker, MUSEUM OF ACCIDENTS—wicked brilliant book by a NYC mom Deena Metzger, RUIN & BEAUTY—visionary poetry re: the world, the wars... Daisy Fried, MY BROTHER IS GETTING ARRESTED AGAIN—urban, sassy, smart Judy Grahn, LOVE BELONGS TO THOSE WHO DO THE FEELING—classic lesbian & revolutionary poetry—a lifetime of new & selected _________, THE WORK OF A COMMON WOMAN—oldie, and very great Andrea Budy, ed., WHEN SHE NAMED FIRE—anthology of contemporary American women’s poetry Honor Moore, ed., POEMS FROM THE WOMEN’S MOVEMENT Marilyn Krysl, DINNER WITH OSAMA—witty and heartbreaking stories Leslie Chang, FACTORY GIRLS—non-fiction book about young women in today’s China

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  • Yvonne T. Osborne

    Waiting for a crumb to be tossed my way. Ahh....seems it's the life I've chosen. Many of the most memorable books I've read are by women. Most book buyers are women. PW is clearly not as astute as SW! And, yes, this is a highly subjective business, and I agree, they should just be picking personal favorites and leave it at that.  I read old and new. I just read BLOOD SAFARI and SONG OF THE CROW, both which I highly recommend. And now I'm reading THE BRIDESMAID, by Ruth Rendell and A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY, by John Irving. I love Margaret Atwood and Barbara Kingsolver. I love to read a wide variety of books, just not the ones on their so-called Best list.

  • Emily Rolfe Grosholz

    Hello, Alicia! I so agree with you. Indeed, in my comment I made more or less the same point, though you make it more concretely and poignantly. Last year I published an essay on necklaces; the in-passing blog responses to it are generally "this is really boring, why would anybody write about necklaces," from male commentators. If it had been an essay on American football (for example), I imagine they might have regarded the essay as rather deep, like George Plimpton's "Paper Lion". Who knows. But your examples make the point very well. Cheers! Emily

  • Andrea Hollander Budy

    Thanks so much for responding to the Publishers Weekly article, Alicia. I was a freelance book reviewer for more than twenty-five years and was especially grateful to be a cheerleader for the terrific books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry written by women. And (as you already know) because women are still so often slighted by editors of poetry anthologies, I spent two years editing When She Named Fire: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry by American Women (Autumn House Press, 2009). My only disappointment in regards to this project was not being able to include the work of all the women whose poetry I admire.

  • LaTonya


    I think we start within especially since we are buying more books. What stops us from reviewing women and having an impact ourselves?

  • Marilyn Krysl

    My senior year in high school I wrote a story about a kind man who carries Christ’s cross for a bit so Christ can have a break, sent it to a religious magazine and earned $50.00. The following year I published my first two poems in the Massachusetts Review when I was a freshman in college. I came of age with the Women’s Movement, and now I’m 67 with ten books under my bikini, and many women protests later, we still stand here ironing.
    How to proceed together?
    Yes, we must support women’s writing and review it. I have just reviewed a book of po by Karen Swenson, two books by men whose work I also admire, and three more books of po by women (out soon in Womens’ Review of Books) and am about to review two more by women. I feel, like Alicia, rather geriatric these days, and reviewing books by women feels to me like a labor of love for sisters, for daughters. Now I am curious to know if there are statistics on how many men are reviewing books by women—anyone know? Perhaps male reviewers might be a bastion to storm, and of so, how go about it?

  • LaTonya

    Here's a short list of great YA written by women of color for 2009. YA is far more sophisticated, diverse and relevant that many adult readers realize. If you haven't read any YA lately, I invite to check out these works. Chin and Nguyen are memoirs about young women and are not YA. Jarrar is a coming of age but not marketed as YA.

    A Wish After Midnight by Zetta Elliott

    Jumped by Rita Williams Garcia

    Map of Home by Randa Jarrar

    Liar by Justine Larbalestier

    The Other Side of Paradise by Stacy Ann Chin

    Stealing Buddah's Dinner by Bich Minh Nguyen

    Secret Keeper by Mitali Perkins

    Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger

    Ash by Malinda Lo

    Skunk Girl by Sheba Karim

  • LaTonya

    You don't make progress by standing on the sidelines, whimpering and complaining. You make progress by implementing ideas.

    ~Shirley Chisholm


    My surprise comes when I talk to women who when asked who they read and who their favorite authors are, their lists are dominated with men. Can we have an honest conversation about how we women support or fail to support women writers? In one forum, writers admitted not reading much. How do we pursue writing while failing to support those women who are published?

    I wasn't surprised and quite honestly I didn't even get upset about the PW list, because if I got upset every time I was overlooked or forgotten, I'd be chronically depressed.

    My reading habits aren't based on national lists and pub dates. I'm not dismissing the important of lists. I am saying I need more than a list to be interested in a work. I'd like to see most blogs by women reviewing and promoting women writers. I have posted in two forums here about a year long reading challenge to read and review books by women. Let us commit to participating in this event, Women Unbound or similar challenges.

    We have to do more than criticize those who don't support or recognize us. We need to READ and promote women as much as we aspire to write.

    I run a community that is unabashedly committed to promoting and supporting women of color. I built a community library that is 80% girl-women focused. I mentor young women. My reading, buying and collecting is 85-90% works by women about women. I'm not waiting for men or the publishing industry or even majority of readers to notice I exist. I'm doing. I'm contributing my voice; my writing is action.

    My recommended short list for the challenge:

    In The Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez (historical fiction) This is a fictional account of the Mirable sisters who lost their lives rebelling against an oppressive regime. Told in alternate narrations from each sister. This is what hooked me on historical fiction and its power to teach.

    Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler (speculative fiction). I can't think of any other writer who challenges a reader like Butler does. All of her work is a critique and examination of accepted social mores and behaviors. All of her women leads and all of her books I've read have women leads are complex, flawed and often problematic. They refuse to conform to convention.

    No Laughter Here by Rita Williams Garica (YA) Young girl suffers the cultural practice of FGM.

    Secret Keeper by Mitali Perkins (YA). A fantastic look at culture, gender and family.

    A Wish After Midnight by Zetta Elliott (YA) an impressive blend of historical and speculative fiction. An accessible, noteworthy examination of race, racism, history and terrorism.


    The Skin Between Us by Kim Regusa (memoir) Moving, well-written work about 3 women of 3 different generations, cultures and race.

    Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. One woman's criticism of Islam, multiculturalism and her campaign to bring attention to a myriad of issues including female circumcision.

    The Other Side of Paradise by Stacy Ann Chin (memoir) A young artist describes her difficult years and triumph. Chin is a writer, activist, lesbian poet.

    Do They Hear You When You Cry by Fauziya Kassindja One woman's detailed account of seeking asylum in America to escape the horrific practice of FGM.

    The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde. (essays) One of the most important and respected intellectual among her peers. She was brilliant, an iconic figure. You don't have a full picture of feminism without reading the Lorde.

    Sex for One: The Joy of Self-Loving by Betty Dodson (sexuality) I think this should be required reading in Women's Studies.

    My Secret Garden by Nancy Friday (sexuality) A classic. For the progressive woman and for the woman who wants to explore who she is.

    Why do we have to wait until we're young adults before we discover women's studies? Wouldn't it help if we educated our young girls about their bodies, body image and biology before they go off to college?

    Body Drama Real Girls, Real Bodies, Real Issues, Real Answers by Nancy Amanda Redd Give me a 'V' for vulva. Say it like you're proud.

    33 Things Every Girl Should Know: Stories, Songs, Poems and Smart Talk edited by Tonya Bolden (self-esteem)

    Things I have To Tell You: Poems and Writings by Teenage Girls edited by Betsy Franco and Nina Nickles (body image/identity/self-esteem)


    Flying West by Pearl Cleage. I think plays are Cleage's strength. This volumes contains plays that center on strong women if different places and different time periods. Strong emphasis on migration and place. Solid work.

    For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Was Enuf by Ntozake Shange I don't a woman or girl who has read or seen a production of the seminal work that was not moved by it. Another work that should be required for any serious women's studies program.


    Like The Singing Coming Off The Drums by Sonia Sanchez. A true poet/activist. Sanchez embodies what it means to tap the feminine energy and power.

    The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni: 1968-1995 by Nikki Giovanni Ms. Giovanni is old-school, the real deal poet/activist. She's been penning about social, political and feminist issues her entire writing career.

  • Dominique Millette

    There are many other works I'd like to add to the list, especially in CanLit, which I am most familiar with. Here is a small sample:

    - Critical Injuries, by Joan Barfoot, ISBN-10: 1552633470
    - Late Nights on Air, by Elizabeth Hay (Giller 2007), ISBN-10: 0771038119
    - The Restoration of Emily, by Kim Moritsugu, ISBN 1-55002-606-2
    - The Lizard Cage, by Karen Connelly, ISBN-10: 0385518188

  • Dominique Millette

    Margaret Atwood came out with The Year of the Flood in 2009. It's a vivid rendering of post-apocalyptic Earth, this time told from the point of view of two female protagonists. Her previous work was just as gripping: Oryx and Crake, published in 2003 and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

  • Renate Stendhal

    Alicia, I noticed exactly the same as you did in the PW list -- wonderful to see it analyzed this way! Chapeau also to your husband -- allies are needed, especially if they are capable of generating the outrage that is warranted.
    I discovered your long list of books and can say I have a feeling you will soon by on my special lists of women writers!