Angry or Honored to be Ignored by Publishers Weekly
While I’m angry that Publishers Weekly ignores women in its “Best Books of 2009” list, I’m not surprised. Since about 1993, when I began to follow trends in creative nonfiction, I’ve noted that many book-review critics, on a fairly consistent basis, are more likely to honor traditional male narratives than those by women. They particularly glorify stories written by men who have fought in foreign wars in far-away places, or by former hostages, prisoners of war. This positive attention is, of course, deserved; after all, these stories are important. But what about memoirs written by women? At the same time that men’s books garner positive notice, women’s words reflecting their traditional battles—battles, say, waged on the home front—domestic civil wars about abused women and children—domestic POWs—have been belittled or ignored. When women write about wars closer to home, or even in the home, we are frequently, and pejoratively, labeled “confessional” writers. Whiny. The book-review critic Michael Skube, for one example, writes particularly hostile book reviews in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution proclaiming that Linda Katherine Cutting’s incest memoir, Memory Slips, is more “therapy…than memoir…” (2/9/97). In another article he proclaims: “People are spilling their guts out, confessing the unimaginable and sometimes the purely imaginary. We’ve gone tabloid. Infidelity, which can at least be interesting, is old hat. Boring. Incest is in—all in the family, you could say” (4/20/97). Publishers Weekly likewise has a history of either disparaging or ignoring women’s books on domestic violence. I apologize if I sound self-serving, but my first memoir (Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You), which won the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award Series in 1996, and which recounts my story of growing up in an incestuous family, was the first creative nonfiction book in the history of the AWP award series not reviewed by PW. When the University of Georgia Press asked why, PW admitted it was because of the subject matter. Publishers Weekly’s continual indifference or misunderstanding toward this subject is also exemplified, for example, by its review of Carol Hebald’s memoir, The Heart Too Long Suppressed, about childhood sexual and emotional abuse. The reviewer notes that the work is “an Oprah-esque saga of overcoming adversity. But author publicity will help this book, especially given its inspirational ending” (2001). Contrast this with a PW review of Brian Keenan’s, An Evil Cradling, about Keenan’s time in Beirut, teaching at the American University, when he was kidnapped by fundamentalist Shi’ite militiamen and held hostage. PW calls it “a riveting and terrifying read that finally ends with the exhilaration of Keenan’s inexplicable release” (1993). The connotation of words says it all. In the mouth of PW, “inspirational” makes Hebald’s book sound unliterary, a lesser work. Ironically, it is this very disregard of women’s memoirs that inspired me, in part, to write Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir (also not reviewed by PW!), with the hope that more and more women will cultivate the courage to tell their truths in the face of forces—from family members to the media—who would prefer that people with inconvenient pasts remain silent. Regardless of whether we write nonfiction, poetry, or fiction, I think Publishers Weekly’s neglect should serve to encourage women to write and write and write…to write more, not less. So maybe, after all, it might even be an honor to be ignored by PW. Doesn’t it mean our books are telling important truths too scary for PW to hear? Grace Paley famously said, “Let us go forth with fear and courage and rage to save the world.” And, I might add, both change and reflect the world as well: one feminist book at a time. ~~Sue William Silverman

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  • Sue William Silverman

    Hi, Leslie, so pleased that you're working on a memoir! And, you know, regardless of reviewers/media folks, most memoirs are VERY well received by people who actually read. These memoirs can truly make a difference in people's lives.

    And, yes, it is important for the memoir to have that literary integrity you mention--to be as artfully crafted as any novel or poem. Absolutely! I, too, love the Birkerts book. Also, if you want more "ammunition" on this subject, the last chapter of "Fearless Confessions" is about the importance of women's voices--regardless of what the media might say! That's great that you're at the VT Studio Center. I hope you have a wonderful time there. Sue

  • Deirdre Sinnott

    That was indeed a very helpful book. Good luck on the work your doing now.

  • Leslie McGrath

    Hi Sue, Dierdre,

    I'm up at the VT Studio Center writing memoir and thinking about the very lukewarm bathwater my baby will eventually be born into. I deliberately chose a "fiction month" to be here in an attempt to recapitulate the sense of outsiderhood in the memoir. But most of the residents this month are also writing memoir!

    I try to keep in the back of my mind that the work (regardless of genre) must have integrity as a thing apart, that literary fashion and considerations about a future readership might accept it are beyond my ken. I've found much comfort-- not to mention wisdom-- in Sven Birkerts' The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again. His chapter on what he calls "the traumatic memoir" is clear-eyed and respectful, focusing on craft and ultimately building a strong case for the need for traumatic memoir within this important genre.


  • Sue William Silverman

    Hi, Deirdre, thank you so much for reading my essay and for your wonderfully supportive response! That means a lot to me. Yes, I totally agree with you: the generalized attack on memoir has very little to do with those few problemmatic books, but rather with the fact that the memoir has been so fully embraced by women and those considered "outsiders." I am so sorry to learn about that conference you attended! That's appalling--that a writers' conference would be in the "business" of attacking, well, writing...or at least a certain kind of book. Ironically, the memoir is still very very popular among readers! Very good to meet you here! Sue

  • Deirdre Sinnott

    What a great essay. I feel that one of the reasons memoir has been so attacked recently is not simply because there have been some high-profile books with less than truthful parts, but because the memoir form has been one that's open to women writers talking about traditionally female problems. I was recently at a conference where so-called "trauma memoirs" were particularly derided. As a writer trying to find an agent and a publisher, I felt like it was difficult to admit that I too had a memoir that had trauma/addction issues in it. Too bad because while some are sneering, they're missing some really great books.

  • Sue William Silverman

    Thank you, Beth!

    And thank you, Leslie--what you say means a lot to me! I love Drunken Boat, by the way!

    I fully agree with your assessment of PW. It has, indeed, lost its pulse in terms of what is being written--and in terms of what readers want to read. Books by women are both popular and important, and it's as if PW is completely unaware. Too, in terms of MFA writing programs, the majority of the students--at least in the low-residency programs--are women. Ultimately, I think (hope!) that you're right--that these "judges" will achieve clarity in years to come. Let's hope!! Really good to hear from you! Sue

  • Leslie McGrath

    Thank you for this erudite post, Sue. I look to your writings and teaching in the art of memoir writing as part of the canon of the genre.

    For me, PW's list shows that it's lost the pulse of what's being written in the US today. As Drunken Boat's managing editor, I'm privileged to read hundreds of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction submissions a year. There's a lot of good, solid work out there, and *much* of the heat, of the forefront in American literature, is being written by women. I suspect that PW, and others who place themselves in the judges' box, will see this with greater clarity in the years to come.


  • Beth Browne

    Great post!! Thank you!