Please don’t take another long drag on your ciggie and nonchalantly claim that the editors of Publisher’s Weekly didn’t know they were selecting books solely by men for their Top 10 Best Books of 2009. I will hurl dragon fire and burn your little house of cards down. One need only peruse the “brief reviews” of each book selected to understand that no conscious being, sucking smoke or drinking coffee, could have been under the misperception that these books were not male-driven — the subject matter of each top ten book is undoubtedly male-centered, save the one collection of short stories. The content of each book is pure masculine mode (mostly written by men, though women write for purely male interests infrequently): adventure, problem solving through violence, with sole focus on traditionally-defined masculine protagonists, etc. Not only does this list avoid celebrating and promoting women’s stories and modes of being, thinking and exploration, but it doesn’t offer any alternative male narratives that veer from the business-as-usual masculine concerns of war, adventure, and typical exploits such as who’s shagging whom or who discovered what element before the other guy did. And while this list is only one, it is indicative of a whole history that excludes, tokenizes, and downplays women’s writing.
“But it’s just a list of books!” Yes, and since we live in a capitalist-driven world, even in the literary realm lists do matter, whether they matter to you or not. Librarians consult lists of major publications when acquiring books to stock their “New to the Neighborhood” shelves. Readers check out the latest recommendations so that they can pick up a copy for the bus or their lunch hour. And acquisitions mean sales, money in publishers’ coffers and writers’ pockets; sales also mean teaching jobs. The dissemination of these popularized books also leads to the continued proliferation of male interests and values.
Publisher’s Weekly reviews editors claim, “We ignored gender and genre and who had the buzz…”, all well and good, except gender runs deeper than simply who wrote the book and it will not be ignored. Content, and whose interests it serves, is anything but transparent. Let’s consider the top ten “best” one more time: headlining is something of a biopic on male British scientists and their daring, next involves an ex-heroin addict Ricky and his big adventure, which brings us to a biography on John Cheever, then the history of producing the missile and other war apparatuses (ahem), onto an exploration of the “cutthroat feudal society”, followed by two “40ish” dudes on adventure, then some guys who go on an adventure to locate two “explorers” previously lost in the jungle, followed by a philosopher-motorcycle repair man protagonist who “extols the value of making and fixing things” (sounds like a rehash of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance), and rounding out we conclude with a memoir comprised of drawings about a boy who grows into a man. Now where, in that mix, could one possibly imagine that any of the mythmaking that goes into spinning the world of men and their interests was spun by the hand of a woman? Possible but not likely. “Ignored gender”, indeed. Such a claim is based on the age-old shaky premise that the universal “he” and “his” story still includes everyone’s story; “she” is presumably enfolded in “he”—and muted.
Not that women can’t and don’t write the male viewpoint and male protagonists, or vice versa, but this list is, without a doubt, one dictated by the interests of men. And who selected these books while supposedly “ignoring gender”? What were their criteria? Were these reviews editors men who like to read about war, men on adventure, male scientists and their explorations, and, well, the male speculation and “quest for knowledge” as one of the reviews put it? Am I repeating myself? Overdoing it? Well, it is all overdone, this idea that men write universal books and women’s stories just “didn’t make the cut” because they weren’t as interesting. Above all, there seem to be few themes prominent on this list of the most valuable writing in 2009: male adventure, male exploits, and male quests for answers. In other words, male-driven content dominates. Women’s lives, viewpoints, and quests are, for the most part, absent — invisible as the gender the reviews editors claim was for them. (Lizzie Skirnick considers the ways women’s writing is belittled where the adjectives assigned to men’s writing are glowing in her article, “Same Old Story” – click here. )
Women are writing well and have been for some time now, despite being barred from universities and publishing houses for far too long (consult Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own,” please) and practicing our craft in the “lesser” genres of letters, diaries, and journals before being permitted to bind our wares and dispatch them to a limited public. I won’t get into how long it took for the publishing industry to pick up on the fact that a market existed for woman-made books. As your Virginia Slims pack notes, we’ve come a long way, baby. So why in a year when heavy-hitters such as Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, Alicia Ostriker, Barbara Kingsolver, and Margaret Atwood published new books is a prominent group of reviews editors telling me—telling us!– that a biography on Cheever is better than any of the aforementioned writers’ books? How does a book on missile-making win out over The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, a finalist for the Mann Booker Prize, or any number of the books listed here? And on what basis, pray tell, did they “ignore gender” and determine which books were best? That bit still hasn’t been cleared up.
Well, I’ll mix some bad masculine metaphors, down a glass, roll up my sleeves, throw my hat in the ring and speculate what the criteria were that went into determining just what makes a book best in 2009. The literary tradition has historically prized masculine adventures propelled by violence and power plays, trickery and deception, lascivious exploits, books with climactic plots over episodic plots, triumph-of-the-underdog stories where one who was once dominated becomes top dog, and depictions of taming the untamed whether it be lands, peoples, women, or the lower classes (start with Where the Wild Things Are). These stories have nearly always held a male character at their centers, driven by his own thirst for conquest of the unknown or that which is not in his power, yet. Far more books receive awards that celebrate the power of individuals, again usually male, who triumph and end up in some version of hierarchical control as opposed to books that value groups of people who work together for a common good, cooperatively, as equals, despite or even because of differences in abilities, talents, and histories—the traditions that girls and women are taught to uphold. This is also partially why so many girls learn to imitate mothers, who will nurture and give all even at the expense of their own demise if necessary (Charlotte’s Web, anyone?). So female-driven content traditionally includes stories that center on learning to ready one’s self as the trophy for a man (think Disney-edited stories), preparing to nurture the family via endurance and sacrifice in the domestic realm of motherhood and wifely roles, cooperation among other girls and women, etc. Of course, we now have contemporary perverted spin-offs of those old tales where we see women being catty, imitating a version of muted violence when it comes to vying for a man, as well as assuming the same role of the sacrificial lamb-mother. But women have also been telling our own stories now for some time; we just aren’t making the same pay-dirt that men are, nor are we, apparently, topping the lists of what’s best so much because, I contend, we aren’t telling the masculine fables of yore (and now).
These lists aren’t just about celebrating male authors but are also about recognizing what values many male authors (and some female ones) continue to perpetuate. Admittedly, I have not read through P.W.’s top ten, but I dare say that very few of those books on the list will bear the responsibility I see writers as having: to be critics of the usual, old dominant ideals and to expose those ideals rather than simply transmitting them yet again. That involves telling stories unheard and bearing witness to injustices as well as ways of being that debunk these tireless violent notions of conquering lands and peoples or just the world in our immediate vicinities. Because frankly, those kinds of stories have been over-told and lead down a worn-out road far too often taken. There are so many other ways of being. If our tales reflect the culture we live in, then we should be telling so many more kinds of tales. Helene Cixous echoes in L’Arc, “writing is the possibility of change itself…the movement which precedes the transformation of social and cultural structures.” The same old rehashed male adventures and conquests are why in the waking world we generally think in terms of vying for power; the fist is an easier remedy than talk, and people unlike ourselves seem intolerable and need our dominance and taming. It takes real work to write less glamorized accounts of lives restricted by traditional women’s—and men’s—roles, and it’s even harder to imagine new and alternative trajectories characters of any gender could take. We often find the familiar stories we’re raised on comforting and enjoyable. That’s one type of pleasure, one that often goes unexamined and is sought out for comfort and affirmation of what one knows. Another type of pleasure, according to Roland Barthes, is that which discomforts and surprises, tells us of the unusual and unfamiliar, stories we’ve not yet heard and realities not yet fathomed by the public. Lists may include both kinds of pleasures, if reader-reviewers made a concerted effort not to just note which stories made them feel good by reflecting their own lives and modes of storytelling they’re used to, or as my students like to sing, “Stories we can relate to!” when they are demanding white male-centric adventures to excite them.
Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying all men (and some women!) write in those tired old traditional male modes, complete with singular male interests. Nor am I asking for a list of all women’s stories. In fact, I’m with Helene Cixous again when she states, “I, for one, am absolutely against marginalization…that would amount to going back to this sort of absurd dream: ‘a man’s world/a woman’s world.’ This is not so! This is a world of men and women where it is up to women to impose something which is their difference in the equality.” What I am saying is that when you ignore the fact that you have included no women’s writing on your top ten reading list, or topically-unusual stories at the very least, and then dismiss that fact with some lame excuse like you didn’t feel like being “p.c.” today (whatever the hell that means and whoever the hell is ever politically-correct), then you are also choosing to ignore that ideologically and politically, men’s interests have dominated most public arenas for a long, long time and that you are pretty much publicly declaring that you don’t care, you don’t have any responsibility as someone in a position of capitalist-driven power, however minor. If you’re okay with that, well, I’m not. So here’s my letter to you: I’ll not meet your ignorance with ignorance. I’ll point out the unjust bias of your list, note what’s lacking, and while you locate additional excuses for your laziness and ways to defend your comfort zone, I’ll continue to write about such antics and use you as my stalwart example. Got a light?
* In Amelia Gray’s muddled response, “In Defense of the Weenie Roast,” she speculates the causes of such omissions are because women don’t submit work as often as men and because women buy books by men. Um, first, if your publishing company isn’t receiving enough submissions by women, that’s likely because women submit where they want to see there work published and know their work won’t be treated in a belittling manner. Second if you want to publish more women’s work, which you especially should if your press is a weenie roast, then try this ancient concept: solicit work! It takes more effort to examine your publishing practices and send a friendly invitation than it does to blame women for not submitting to you. Nate Pritts opened a debate over this issue at H_NGM_N recently (click here). As for the books women buy, we too have been trained in the art of liking men’s books, and many of us do. But it’d be nice to see books that I’ve described above celebrated too. There is a history of women’s books being discussed as “less than.” If more were available, I dare say more would be purchased. Of course, Gray does not consider the content of the books on the list or the criteria that went into selecting them. Regardless of the reviewers’ silence about their criteria (If I don’t examine what I think is “best”, why should you?), we should understand that we don’t read in a vacuum and that our reading histories are shaped by the educational systems and cultural production machines we participate in. What we like is influenced by trends, familiarity, what’s deemed “good” by teachers and reviewers, etc. We don’t always like what’s good for us, which is a compelling reason to think about the reasons we like something.
* Lizzie Skurnick – “Same Old Story: Best-Books Lists Snub Women Writers”
* Courtney Milan – “All men: seriously?”
* WILLA (Women in Letters and Literary Arts)
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Amy King is the recipient of the 2015 Winner of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) Award. Her latest collection, The Missing Museum, is a winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. She serves on the executive board of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and is co-editing with Heidi Lynn Staples the anthology Big Energy Poets of the Anthropocene: When Ecopoets Think Climate Change. She also co-edited the anthology Bettering American Poetry 2015 and is a professor of creative writing at SUNY Nassau Community College.