By Amy Hoffman for WOMEN = BOOKS
Posted on December 7, 2009
By now it’s been widely reported that this year’s Publishers Weekly 2009 ten-best list, announced in PW’s November 2 issue, includes exactly zero books by women.
This in a year that saw the publication of books by Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Barbara Kingsolver, Lydia Davis, Yiyun Li, Marilyn Hacker, Alicia Ostriker—for a comprehensive list, and an infuriated press release on the subject headlined “Why Were No Women Invited to Publishers Weekly’s Weenie Roast?”, visit the website of WILLA, Women in Letters and Literary Arts.
Even PW itself realized something was amiss; in the lead-in to its list, Reviews Director Louisa Ermelino admitted, “It disturbed us when we were done that our list was all male” and mentioned that “a literary ghost story came so close, it squeaked.” I assume that was Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger.
When Women’s Review of Books was founded in 1983, it declared that its mission was “to give women’s writing the serious critical attention it does not get elsewhere in the media.” I became editor in 2003, and one of the first questions I asked myself was whether, after twenty additional years of the feminist movement, this mission was still relevant. Didn’t the title “Women’s Review of Books” lack depth and nuance? Wasn’t it about time for us to do like PW and “ignore gender and genre”?
Apparently not—although things have progressed far enough that the fact of an all-male list was noted with varying degrees of outrage all over the Internet, including internationally at the Guardian.
Criticism could even be found on the New York Times’s ArtsBeat blog—which is not without irony, given that the New York Times Book Review is a major player in the ignoring-and-belittling-books-by-women department. In 2004, “72 percent of all books reviewed in the NYTBR were written by men, and 66 percent of all reviews also carried a male byline,” according to a study by Paula Caplan and Mary Ann Palko (explicated in their November 2004 article in WRB, “The Times is Not A-Changin’”). The ratios have decidedly not improved under editor Sam Death-of-Conservatism Tanenhaus.
Nor are they much better in other magazines or mainstream review publications—those that are left, anyhow, as one newspaper after another shuts down its books section.
On PoliticsDaily.com, reviewer Lizzie Skurnick provided a glimpse into the decision-making process of an awards committee (unusual, since the members of such committees rarely expose themselves in this way). As the committee’s deliberations closed, she says, she burst out:
“We have sat here and consistently called books by women small and books by men large, by no quantifiable metric, and we are giving awards to books I think are actually kind of amateur and sloppy compared to others, and I think it’s disgusting.” (I wasn’t built for the boardroom.)
“But we can’t be doing it because we’re sexist,” an estimable colleague replied huffily. “After all, we’re both men and women here.”
“But that’s the problem with sexism,” Skurnick continues. “It doesn’t happen because people—male or female—think women suck.” Instead, she says, in these sorts of liberal-minded, bookish gatherings, sexism is the more or less conscious “default” setting.
I’m always surprised by how little overlap there is between the books we review in WRB and those that are covered in NYTRB or my local paper the Boston Globe or the New Yorker or even progressive publications like The Nation and In These Times.
As I sit in my office, I’m surrounded by tottering piles of worthy books by and about women—meditations on everything from Ladies and Gents: Public Toilets and Gender (an edited collection, no less, which means that lots of scholars are investigating this area) to Domestic Secrets: Women and Property in Sweden, 1600-1857 to Freedom’s Teacher: A Biography of Septima Clark to The Fat Studies Reader, The Gloria Anzaldúa Reader, and Reading Women’s Poetry.
We probably receive an average of one novel and one poetry collection a day, although I’ve always been afraid to count. (You can see a sampling of the works we don’t have space to review in the “Books Received” section of the WRB website.)
So at least for now, I’ve concluded that our old mission, even ten years into the new millennium, is still relevant, especially since there’s almost no one else out there picking up the slack. Moreover, women writers are doing such varied and exciting work that confining ourselves to “women’s studies books and literary fiction, poetry, and memoir by women” (a phrase I end up saying over the phone about ten times a day and more often at conferences) is not confining ourselves at all.
P.S. The Literary Review recently announced its 2009 "Bad Sex in Fiction" award, and the shortlist of the ten worst offenders, including Philip Roth and this year's winner Jonathan Littell, has only one woman—one annual roundup we can feel good about! To see the Literary's Review's write-up and shortlist, click here. You can also read an entertaining Guardian piece about the award.
Amy Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of Women’s Review of Books and author of An Army of Ex-Lovers: My Life at the Gay Community News (University of Massachusetts Press, 2007) .