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Publishers Weekly’s Top 10 Books by Men

November 5, 2009

We Read to Know that We Are Not Alone - photo by melodramababsPublishers Weekly (PW) recently released their list of the top 100 books of 2009. The good news for feminism: Yes Means Yes! is on their nonfiction list. The bad news: their top ten books are all written by men. This in a year in which, as a press release from Women in Letters and Literary Arts notes, works by Lorrie Moore, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Rita Dove, Heather McHugh, Alicia Ostriker, and others were published. Poet Amy King took a closer look at PW’s selections and concluded that it’s

[s]imple to observe that the content that “stood out from the rest,” according to PW, is all about mostly male protagonists and their realities: war, adventure, science, boyhood adventures, taming the wilderness, the male writer’s life, etc.  In other words, the novels that deal with women’s realities simply “don’t stand out”.

In other words, this isn’t simply about numbers or about PW not being “politically correct” (I have to admit to being a little surprised to seeing a publishing industry journal use such an empty cliche to defend itself.) It is fundamentally about which realities we value and, in connection with that, what standards we use to judge literature. These are not timeless, apolitcal, and universal, but rather determined politically by transient cultural needs and values. The U.S., where PW is based, is still a sexist society, and I’ve written before about sexism in the English-speaking literary world, so it isn’t entirely surprising to see selections that dismiss women’s  lives and realities in favor of male (and masculinist) ones.

Still, I’m reminded a bit of Susan Glaspell’s Trifles in which two women solve a murder by looking through the pieces of a woman’s life the male authorities deem too trivial to examine. She wrote that play in 1916, and I would have liked to imagine that the reality to which she was responding would have changed by now. And of course it has to some extent, but while we women may not live in the kitchen anymore, our realities continue to be dismissed.

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  1. christinedepresent permalink
    November 17, 2009 4:18 pm

    I think we are in a real moment of delegitimation of women writers. And this phenomenon doesn’t just refer to female writers who defy traditionally published genres. People I know will say about J.K. Rowling or Stephanie Meyer, “she’s not a writer.” And, perversely, the fact that their books sell mountains of books is used as evidence that they are not writers at all. Yet when my friends refer to someone like Nicholas Sparks (whom I have not read) or any other “popular” male writer they’ll typically say, “he’s a bad writer” or “he’s a horrible writer.”

    The reasoning seems to be that because Meyer began writing in middle age, her work is not legitimate. And yet that is untrue of so many male writers like Roddy Doyle or Nabokov (who only began writing in English in his 40s). And because Rowling brought concepts from other works (from, gasp, children’s literature) into Harry Potter, her ideas are not fully her own. Whereas paying homage to influential work is a sacred tradition within the (male) canon.

    I am not saying that Meyer and Rowling are geniuses. In fact, I’ve never read their books. However, their work should be judged for what it is. If people think they are bad writers, fine. But not writers at all?

    We really need to think about where these ideas come from and how they influence not only who and what is published, but how it is received.

    • November 17, 2009 6:40 pm

      That’s an interesting point about language, but I’m not sure it’s entirely a recent development either. Consider the significance of the addition of -ess to words like poet or author, for instance.


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