Yes, it is old news that every year the Best-of-the-Books lists make people angry and divide opinion. These lists are never going to satisfy the varied tastes of the reading public. And thankfully so. It would be kind of scary if everyone held fast to the very same yardstick for measuring excellence. That doesn’t mean I think we should continue allowing some of these lists to get away with their appalling blindness to the mountains of excellent literature coming from outside-the-mainstream publishing spotlight. I’m not going to detail my thoughts on this particular subject, mainly because Roxane Gay has already done this so well. Her essay, “Toward a More Complete Measure of Excellence” at The Rumpus is thoughtful, measured, and realistic, and yet contains enough subtle anger and dismay to satisfy my own oversized sense of literary injustice.
The thought that I’d like to work through here is about women writers and men writers and who is getting credit for big ideas, for the “best” writing, for “defining and critiquing society.” This issue, always at the back of my mind, has been hovering around me quite intensely for most of the past year. I can pinpoint a moment of renewed interest when I read a thoughtful response by Michael Nye, the managing editor of The Missouri Review, to VIDA’s The Count on the male bias in publishing. Nye was troubled to see that the male bias was true for The Missouri Review, but he found it was mostly because women submitted less and he wondered how to fix this problem. I would be interested to see a study on this—I suspect it is true that women submit less, but I’d be curious to see someone attempt to figure out why and whether there is a way to fix this without radical upheaval of multiple unrelated systems.
In my work as reviews editor at Necessary Fiction, I have also found this to be true. Significantly more than half of the books submitted to me for review are written by male writers. Obviously, the submission statistics for reviews at NF are further biased because we’re interested in the already published, and there seems to be more men being published. In any case, around April of this year I did a quick tally of our reviews and saw that we’d reviewed 10 male writers, only 4 women and 1 multi-author collection. I was quite surprised and since then I’ve worked to even out those numbers.
In a conversation about this issue with my husband, he mentioned that what I was doing might not be considered fair. He wondered whether our reviews should reflect the publishing situation. I’ve been searching, and I can’t yet find what the publishing situation is. The most easily available statistics are from Vida and they are about books reviewed, not books written. Because so few books by women are reviewed, I can only conclude that men are publishing more. So if there are 65% (I’m throwing this number out off the top of my head) books by men being published, than reviews should reflect that number. Perhaps there is some logic to that, but I’ve decided I’m not interested in being fair to a situation that is intrinsically abnormal. As far as I know, there is nothing “normal” about the male bias in publishing except that it has become “the norm.” We have the chance to publish 52 reviews each year at Necessary Fiction; you can bet I will try very hard to find 26 excellent books written by men and 26 excellent books written by women.
I’m quite happy to say that when we finish 2011, Necessary Fiction will have reviewed 23 male authors, 21 female authors and 6 multi-author collections. I’m proud of those statistics because I helped create them (along with Steve Himmer who consistently came to me, unasked, with a review of a woman’s novel, and with Jess Stoner who realized that she’d been reviewing a lot of men’s fiction and wanted to make sure she included some women. Jess and I actually spent hours combined, combing the Indie houses for a frustratingly short list of women’s books available. Several otherwise excellent houses have no women authors at all. Many have less than 15% on their lists.)
But here is where my literary heart starts to get a little antsy. I love reading. Period. I don’t actually give a rat’s ass who has written the book as long as it changes me somehow, as long as it gets up into my brain and moves ideas and emotions around. Reading is a frightfully powerful activity and I’m reluctant about the decision I’m about to announce because it feels somehow false to me. The list of male writers that I love (worship even) is long and diverse and makes up a significant part of my reading and writing background. So why purposefully exclude these wonderful and talented writers from my book discussions? Yet on second thought, aside from Nadine Gordimer and a handful of books by various women, that list of male authors makes up the major part of my literary education. So yes, this is a problem. Until just as many male writers can say the same thing about a long and diverse list of female writers, until men wake up and find that women are getting the majority of all publishing contracts, then I’m not going to feel at all guilty for kicking some male writers out of my discussion room. I’m pretty sure they will still get talked about. The same cannot be said for many women writers.
If you haven’t guessed it already, here’s my announcement—in 2012 I’m going to read women writers exclusively for this blog. This is, however, more than a quibble with statistics; I have a thematic exploration in mind. Litlove recently reviewed Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, and in her essay she writes,
The early parts of this novel are just so much fun. Eugenides enjoys himself enormously with college students, pretentious theory and interfering parents; he conveys so well the way that desire, in the early twenties, is almost always covertly aspirational, no matter what form it takes. His characters want this person, this class credit, this discourse of knowledge in the hope that something shiny and powerful will rub off on them. So far, so good, but I did feel I could easily be reading an Alison Lurie novel, or at a pinch, one by Anne Tyler. Not that this is bad! I count both those women among my favourite writers, but it was not what I was expecting from a male author hailed as the new great hope of American letters.
Now, those last three sentences are fascinating to me (and I apologize to Litlove for “picking” on her this way, I hope she doesn’t mind) because I know exactly what she means, and yet it’s such a terrible statement actually. One I have probably made on any number of occasions. On some subconscious level we don’t expect a male author to be meddling so much in the domestic. Especially not when the book is being upheld as one of the “big books.” So what do we expect? Stern politics? Tantrums of philosophy? Social meditations? Historical explorations? Nature vs Humanity?
Now, I do not believe for one second that men write bigger books than women. I’m quite certain we can find examples of books from both men and women that fulfill all literary subject categories, big and small. But I do believe that men’s books are more often credited with being “big” compared to women’s books of equal profundity. I do believe that many excellent, “big” books written by women get overlooked in book reviews and End-of-the-year Book Lists. I do believe that for every woman’s book that gets discussed thoughtfully and energetically, there are three or four men’s books that get the same treatment. So I’m going to spend a year reading women’s books and writing about women’s books exclusively on this blog. I’m going to inundate you with a flood of excellent literature written by women. I’m going to discuss these books, I’m going to complain about these books if I need to, I’m going to praise these books when they deserve it. I’m going to give these women writers just a tiny bit more time in the spotlight.
Well, I don’t have a spotlight, I realize—my little blog here is probably better described as a flashlight. But even the feeblest of flashlights in a dark room has gotten many a reader through some very exciting pages.