• Kamy Wicoff
  • I Guess Women Aren't That Good At Writing After All
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I Guess Women Aren't That Good At Writing After All
Written by
Kamy Wicoff
November 2009
Written by
Kamy Wicoff
November 2009

Wow, did I feel good yesterday. 5000 women writers here. A depth and breadth of talent that takes my breath away.

We write fiction, we write memoir, we write scifi; we are bestsellers, we are award winners, we are just starting out; we are working hard, we are writing well; we are...not as good at it as men are. Or at least that seems to be the opinion of Publishers' Weekly, which published its "Best Books of 2009" list on November 2nd and could not see its way to including a single book by a woman without destroying its integrity or betraying its unassailable good taste.

Apparently books by women just aren't as good. Sorry, girls! Poor PW, they felt really badly about it.

According to the novelist and journalist Louisa Ermelino, the editors at PW bent over backwards to be objective as they chose the Best Books of the year. "We ignored gender and genre and who had the buzz. We gave fair chance to the 'big' books of the year, but made them stand on their own two feet. It disturbed us when we were done that our list was all male."

It "disturbed" you? In what way exactly? Like, did it make you think, "we are insane?"

Try to imagine if they had come out with a list of the Best Books of 2009 and it had included ZERO MEN. Try to imagine if Amazon had released its Best Books of 2009 and it had included only TWO men. I know it's hard. But just try. And in case you think ALL men got the star treatment from PW, you should also know that only ONE of the men on the list isn't a white dude. Naturally he is the dude on the cover. (More on that in a post to come.)

I have never felt clearer about why I started She Writes. It is time to start making our own lists. On that note I am issuing our first She Writes call to action. Tell us what YOU believe are the top ten best books of 2009 thus far. Written by men or women, please -- fiction or nonfiction. Be as objective as you can, with the awareness that lists of the "best" anything are subjective in the end. We are not trying to generate a list of books only by women. I'm guessing there will be some overlap with the lists Amazon and PW put together. I am also guessing we will somehow, some way, find a book or two by a woman that can stand on its own two feet. Click here to share your list of the Top Ten Best Books of 2009.

We will announce our She Writes Top Ten list two weeks from today. In the meantime, I will be featuring posts from our membership on this subject. Please feel free to share your lists and alert me when you do. Cate Marvin and Erin Belieu, co-founders of the much needed new literary organization WILLA (Women in Letters and Literary Arts), will be discussing their reaction to PW's list (and Amazon's) in a conversation we will post on She Writes in the next few days.

A parting thought: my friend and colleague Gloria Feldt, who also happens to be one of the most inspiring and important thought-leaders on women and leadership in the country, likes to cite a pair of statistics that speak volumes: women make 85% of the consumer buying decisions in this country; women are 17% of Congress. Here's another one for you: 65% of books sold in the U.S. are purchased by women; women wrote 0% of the Best Books of 2009. Really?

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  • Adeel Akhtar


  • Maggie Kast

    ImageUpdate's Top Ten for 2009 included four books and 1 TV show, Nurse Jackie, by women. One of the books was my memoir, The Crack between the Worlds: a dancer's memoir of loss, faith and family. How's that for equal time?

  • Marcy Gray Rubin

    Once again the old boys network wins. This time it's because books written by women weren't selected by PW for their coveted list. At other times women aren't considered funny enough to be included on the writing staffs of certain TV shows. That is reserved for young men who graduated Harvard and were in Hasty Pudding. So what do we have to do to prove that we are just as literate, as funny, as provocative, as expressive as our male counterparts? I have difficulty believing that with all the amazing books written by women this year that the powers that be could not find one that was as compelling as their male counterparts. Are all women's efforts dismissed as chick lit? Is it question of left brain judging left brain and leaving right brain in the dust? Do PW's judges feel that men capture our voices better than we do? Understand our struggles with more insight? And ultimately are able to capture both the psychology of men and women in a way that confounds women? Looking over the enormous list of works by women writers I think not, There's not a chance in hell that's true.

  • Lisa Solod

    Susan Chehak has an interesting point. I haven't looked at the ten best yet but .... she has a point. On the other hand I heard Atwood interviewed on NPR the other day. I have read all her stuff and want to read the latest. And when she read from it and talked about it it sounded pretty damned timeless and very important. Also of course, stunningly written and full of ideas as is all her work. It is hard for me to imagine her being left out. Or the Pulitzer Prize winner Strout, at the least.

  • Mishna Wolff

    OMG they are so serious over at PW. No irony. Just straight up sincere OLD school taste.

  • Megan Pincus Kajitani

    This brings to mind the recent NYT op-ed by Joanne Lipman, "The Mismeasure of Woman" (Oct. 24, 2009). She talks about how it is the subtler messages in our culture that keep women (and, I would add, people of color) from truly participating as full equals in the power sectors of our society. It is in the words used, the words not used, the underlying attitudes that we see where the "second-class citizen" category is still alive and well in our culture. There has been great progress -- the fact that we are having this discussion is part of that, and the fact that we have an African-American president, and a line of female Secretaries of State... And yet there is a long way to go -- the public attitudes and media commentary about our female presidential primary candidate, the misogynistic beer commercials, and PW saying there were simply no books by women that fit the bill for the top 10 of the year. A list like this may seem small, not a big deal, but it points to a more insidious issue in our industry and our culture. Thanks for starting this conversation, Kamy, and I hope it gets some attention!

  • Jane Gassner

    Nice to find a high road to take, I would add—which is what Susan Taylor Chehak does with her basic assumptions about lists, gender, and books. To deny that these lists mean anything is to deny the relevance of the entire field of marketing and PR in the publishing world. Anyone who has ever published a book and therefore been through the sausage mill of print runs and ad budgets knows that. If the Ivory Tower days of gentleman publishers like Maxwell Perkins ever really existed, they’re over now. Also long gone from our cultural intelligence is the idea that anything is gender-neutral. In so far as books are products of a specific intelligence, they are gendered as everything else is. What that gendering actually means is another issue entirely.

  • Laura L Mays Hoopes

    Thanks for writing this. I enjoyed thinking about my top ten books; I don't often divide books into year of publication groups, so it was interesting. There are so many outstanding books that aren't even on PW's individual category top tens, which did include some by women, but not many, the selection has to be subjective in the extreme. But given that, at least their intent/criteria must be explored; they should have known people would demand to know what they sought, given what happened.

  • Angela Austin

    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.

    So, I can understand the list created by PW. If writers can't come together, how do the people reviewing the readers purchasing the writer's work come together?

    To this day, I still can't believe how many books I read seem to have absolutely no diversity between the pages.

  • Beth Arky

    I just spotted WILLA's list:


    Thanks for starting this conversation, Kamy.

  • Jacki Zehner

    Kamy - thanks for writing this! This is absolutely shameful and I am outraged. BEST is so subjective and I am going to dig in to the selection process. This is yet another example of bias and exclusion and is unacceptable.

  • Jane Gassner

    "According to the novelist and journalist Louisa Ermelino, the editors at PW bent over backwards to be objective as they chose the Best Books of the year. 'We ignored gender and genre and who had the buzz. We gave fair chance to the 'big' books of the year, but made them stand on their own two feet. It disturbed us when we were done that our list was all male.'"

    'I would ask Ermelino et al exactly what their criteria for a Best Book is. Does it have to do with the number of copies sold? Number of weeks on the Best Seller lists? Number of positive reviews? It's all a numbers game, then, isn't it, which measures not literary worth but marketing success. And if it's not the numbers, then what? Women's writing has always been considered inferior because it's just not--manly. This was as true in the 17th century as it is today. A pox on those "damned scribbling women..."!

  • Andi Gregory Pearson

    Can I just say two words? Pulitzer Prize. We can all be as skeptical as we want to be, as dismissive and cavalier of awards as it is fashionable to be but still, the Pulitzer Prize for Literature is a big deal. And in 2009 it went to Olive Kitteridge. Using this and the currently male dominated list of Best Books of 2009 as incentive, we should all be not only writing seriously and creatively but we should be spurred to support our fellow female writers by reading their work, buying their work, showing up for their appearances at bookstores and book parties and doing whatever it takes to spotlight and support them. It's true that the biggest book buying segment of the population is middle aged women. Now let's be the most demanding book buying segment of the population and demand outstanding literature from ourselves. Here's to 2010!

  • LaTonya

    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.

  • Becky Gjendem

    I'm curious about the process. What are the criteria? Who's on the panel? Were they required to read the books they recommended? (And how would that be possible, if they were considering 50,000 titles? Just saying.)

  • Rebecca Rodskog

    Kamy, thanks so much for highlighting this for all of us. I consider myself a person who acts rather than moans, so I appreciate the call to action. I would also say this is a great time for every member to step up and invite 5 friends to join SheWrites. The power of our statements and our actions will be magnified by our numbers, so let's get it together!

  • Renate Stendhal

    Yes, Kamy, everywhere one looks these days, one finds more reasons why She Writes needed to be created! Have you recently followed the NY Review of Books, for example? There are hardly any women any more among the writers of the articles. Same story. Sign of the times -- in other words, it's the Backlash... in full swing.

  • Laura

    I don't read literature type books. I like paranormal romance. All (or mostly) written by women. But, the paranormal romance genre will never be considered for an award like this. I think a lot of women read and write books which are not taken seriously as a literary genre. To me this shows we don't take ourselves seriously enough and others follow through on this. Many women do not even want to admit they read romances of any kind. Yet they take up the most shelf space in bookstores and second hand bookstores. It's not a co-incidence.

  • CV Harquail

    Your indignation is appropriate, and your recommended action is terrific. I love the idea of proposing the SheWrites Top 10 -- brings attention to the incessant sexism and also to the power of the SheWrites community!

    I'm thinking that the curators of the list are not 'disturbed' enough by their outcome AND by their process for choosing the top 10. As a step further, how about inviting them for a interview on SheWrites, so that they can consider whether or not their selection process is in any way 'gender biased', and to help brainstorm about solutions.
    Why would any editor think that the selection process for Best Books should be 'objective'? Evaluation of writing, buzz, popularity, quality, "the best" is never 'objective'.

    Any time someone says they've given evey entrant in a qualitative evaluation process a "Fair Chance" and then end up with 90% whites and 100%males, you can be pretty sure that they have simply permitted sexism, racism, classicism, etc. to go unexamined. They just 'bent over backwards' so they wouldn't have to examine their assumptions, maybe.

    I'm off to think about my top 10 books of 2009.... cvh

  • Jennifer Lauck

    Kamy, thank you for your diligence and for your passion! The publishing world is just madness to me and I've often considered changing my name to James Lauck to see what the response would be and how many more doors would open.

    I wrote my first ever blog on She Writes about my decision to stay out of the industry of publishing and take my art directly to readers (this is a luxury I have due to earlier exposure) but my decision is connected to what you are pointing to here--we are having separate parts of the same conversation--who controls our art, why and with what outcome.

    I respect what you are doing on SheWrites and support, whole heartedly, the more feminine approach to writing, publishing and being recognized for our art.

  • Shannon

    I'm sorry, am I reading something wrong? It is only the Top 10 part of the list that includes no women (which, of course, STILL seems incredibly wrong), but this post is worded as though NO books by women were included on the whole Best Of list when in fact there are several in every category EXCEPT the top 10.
    And quite honestly i've never even HEARD of ANY of the books in the top 10 at all, nor most of the authors. When I go to the fiction, sci-fi, mass market, and mystery categories, there are many women which include a lot of my favorite authors. I was all set to get fired up and bent out of shape but after a little reading of the actual article, I feel as though this could have been worded to ONLY be about the Top 10 books.
    And then I would completely agree with you. :)

  • GloriaFeldt

    Breathtaking, but not so surprising. Women do most of the cooking, but male chefs get most of the culinary recognition and honors. Men's work is still more valued than women's. Men's intellectual framework is still considered the norm, women's the aberation. Even women operate within that standard--witness Louisa Ermelino.

    But at this point, the barriers to change are barriers of action, not of policy. For example, only when women are 50% of the political candidates can we expect to gain parity in elective office.

    Thanks for this wake-up call (and the very generous shout-out), Kamy. And congratulations on SheWrites surpassing 5000! That alone says that the pipeline of women writers is enormous and diverse. It's up to us to lead our way onto the top 10 list, even if that means we start by creating one for which the decisions are made through a woman's lens.

  • Robin Gerber

    PW list is on a par with their reviews. Thanks for highlighting this not surprising news, and for starting SheWrites!