Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

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.

16 Responses to “my new life as a flashlight”

  1. Lilian Nattel

    I’m looking forward to it, Michelle. I don’t know what the stats are on publishing, but you would still have to look prior to publishing at the reasons what gets published does. And furthermore, which of those books publishers submit for review.

    For example–why even call domestic subjects small and politics big? You could as easily call domestic the heart of human experience and politics remote from the every day. How we characterize it is already telling.

    (Think about, for example, Alice Miller’s theory that Nazi Germany was a direct result of a whole generation reared by stern authoritarian discipline.)

    It drives me crazy that our best public TV here–TVO–often has 100% male experts, occasionally the token lone woman, on the shows I watch. And this is a progressive TV station.

    I look at children’s tv shows, from cartoons to live action, and there I see, as well, one lone girl to 2 or more male characters. The same happens in children’s books. You’d never know that women form 50% of the world’s population. And it isn’t because women do less–women often do more; when given a chance women start to form over 50% of the classes in higher education or professional fields. So what gives?

    • Michelle

      So many good comments here, Lilian. Yes, the problem with publishing is so much bigger than publishing itself. There is no easy fix. There are no easy answers. And I completely agree that we need to be careful with labels like “big” and “important” because they can be applied to any subject, depending on how it’s treated.

      You mention children’s TV shows and books – this is something I was aware of before, but being a parent now (of a girl) has brought this into sharp focus. Reading shapes our self-perception as much as it shapes our perception of the world. I’m both excited and wary of how my daughter will develop as a reader.

      • Lilian Nattel

        My older daughter had no interest in princesses, but my younger daughter was a big fan. So I sought out all the princess pictures books, starting with The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch, that had active intelligent self-propelling princesses.

  2. Emily (Evening All Afternoon)

    As someone who is always looking for “big,” ambitious or experimental books by women, I anticipate this project with interest (I linked over from Litlove’s). I’ve considered doing a similar thing myself but have yet to woman up. Maybe yours will be my inspiration. 🙂

    • Michelle

      Thank you for leaving a comment, Emily. Have you read any Nadine Gordimer? I consider most of her work “big” and a few years ago I read her from start to finish. It was an incredible experience. (If you spend any time here, you’ll see I beat the Gordimer drum from time to time!). I hope whatever I turn up next year will be interesting for everyone, myself and anyone who checks in as I read and write along.

  3. Anthony

    It’s a superb idea, Michelle, and I look forward to following your goal. May I cheekily remind you of the list (below) I compiled if you are seeking inspiration. There is not shortage of woman writing excellent books with both macro and micro focus.


    • Michelle

      Nothing cheeky about it, sir. I remember when you made the list and even copied it somewhere. Such wonderful suggestions, and many of whom I’ve never read (some I’ve even never heard of). I’m pretty excited about the project, even if it means putting off my Nabokov start-to-finish read for another year. But he’s not going anywhere – I’ve got the gravestone a few kilometers away to prove it 🙂

  4. Helen

    This is a very interesting post, and so are Lilian’s questions. The politics/domesticity question is fascinating, because domestic life concerns all of us intimately, politics is less direct – and I wonder whether politics are, however, considered more ‘important’ is because it’s connected more obviously with power – or at least, wider-ranging power than most domestic situations. But I’d love it if someone wrote more about this… hint hint…

    I am not sure that women write fewer books than men, or not much fewer – probably impossible to tell though. I wonder whether numerically many more write romance genre novels and novels for children or teenagers, neither of which get so much attention from reviewers as literary novels for adults.

    Since women are supposed to read more than men, and since the publishing industry has many more women in powerful positions than many industries, the fact that all this is perpetuated is depressing. I’m looking forward to your year of women writers, I think it will be fun as well as educational!

    • Michelle

      I wonder if the issue I get so frustrated about are the “labels” – Jonathan Frazen publishes Freedom, a book that despite many tangents is essentially about one couple’s marriage, and he is hailed as a great critic of American society. I have suspicions that had a woman written that very same book, there would have been much less discussion of its critical side and more of its “domesticity.” My issue here is with PR people more than with critics and writers/readers. But I think you are right – something about politics being connected to greater power, as opposed to the smaller power influences of the domestic circle. Whenever I think of domestic power, I think of Enchi Fumiko’s Onna Zaka (The Waiting Years)… have you read that?

      Also, I would be curious to see whether in the absolute there are more women writers than men… especially if we include romance and YA and Chick-lit. But I’m mostly interested in literary fiction, because this is what I read, and I believe that women are excluded from this smaller circle. (Perhaps because it is considered more serious, more powerful).

      • Helen

        I absolutely agree with you on both counts! I haven’t read the Franzen so I don’t have anything to say about that. I suppose that it’s a double insult really – to have your novels classed as ‘domestic’ if you’re a woman, and then define ‘domestic’ as somehow lesser than ‘political’.

        As for PR, I can’t think of the links but there has been some discussion in the Guardian in the last year by women writers angry at having their novels given ‘pink, girly’ covers when they felt that their intentions were more serious and more literary. I’m not sure that it’s a large number of writers, and this is a bit by the bye.

        I take your point about being interested in literary fiction, and most genre fiction doesn’t seem to be reviewed widely in serious book pages anyway. I do feel though there is a tangental relevance – after all, crime fiction has a higher status than romance. In fact, I suppose I’m arguing that the reviewing issue is just one – an important one – of the ways in which women’s writing is generally still treated as second.

        I have never read Onna Zaka and indeed never heard of it, I shall investigate immediately. I’ve hardly read any Japanese fiction, something I should like to remedy although it’s not something I can get to for a while, alas.

  5. Stefanie

    Oh Michelle, what a fantastic idea! I can hardly wait to see what you do with your flashlight year. I have Gordimer on my reading list this year because of you. I haven’t gotten to her yet, but the year isn’t over and she moved from the shelf to the table next to my reading chair last weekend and I am hoping in the next few days I might actually start reading The Pickup.

    • Michelle

      Stefanie – I’m so curious to hear what you think of The Pickup! I’m glad it is inching its way toward your thoughtful reading brain. 🙂

  6. litlove

    I don’t mind at all! Although I realise what I said was horribly ambiguous. I meant that Eugenides was getting big attention for the sort of subject and style that were usually doomed to the word ‘middlebrow’ literature, often written by women. But you’re quite right that all the assumptions in this need to be held up to that light – flashlight or blowtorch! – and challenged. Personally, I think there is a big gender bias in publishing. Genre has a huge and obvious gender divide – crime and thrillers are still mostly written by men, romance still mostly written by women. In the upper echelons of writing, the literary texts, men still take precedence, in terms of numbers and acclaim. I’ll be very interested to follow your progress in your new project – and may I just encourage you towards Ali Smith if you haven’t read her already. She’s a formidable literary talent, I think.

  7. Rebecca H.

    This sounds like a great project, and I can’t wait to see the results! For some reason, I don’t know why, my reading stats, which are usually equally divided between men and women, are way off this year, with many more women authors I’ve read. I like your point about not caring about fairness when the situation is so obviously messed up. Hopefully next year will be another great year of reading many wonderful women writers — for both of us!

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