Gender Confusion: On Literary Sausage Parties

November 25, 2009 | 5 books mentioned 12 4 min read

covercovercoverI originally thought I wouldn’t write about the Publishers Weekly Top 10 Books of 2009, a list that quickly became infamous not for who’s on it, but who isn’t. Namely: women. I noticed the absence immediately, but I was more puzzled than troubled. Come on, PW, have you not read Nothing Right by Antonya Nelson? This year, readers and critics have gone gaga for lady authors, from Hillary Mantel to Jayne Anne Phillips, and so it was strange that none would be included on the list. It didn’t seem like these editors would have to consciously choose a woman–it would just happen, like breathing. Perhaps I’m naive, or I just like lady authors too much.

I was happy to see Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon and Big Machine by Victor LaValle included, two novels I liked a lot and have championed here on The Millions. But, I also felt sad for these two wonderful writers: would they want to be associated with this list? Chaon and LaValle certainly deserve our attention, but the kind of attention they got from PW, I fear, is a reminder that they use the men’s room. See, that’s what’s happened: the maleness of the list is all people can talk about. A cynical part of me wonders if Publishers Weekly went with these picks precisely because of the outrage they were sure would follow. Nothing increases visibility–and web traffic–like outrage.

Lizzie Skurnick’s take on the list is compelling and worth a read; she writes about the topic with both perspicacity and good humor, and she (rightfully, I think) suggests that the term “ambitious”– as it’s defined by critics and prize judges–is questionable, partially because it is gendered. Like Skurnick, I also don’t find the list of notable books by women on the Women in Literature and Literary Arts (WILLA) website all that helpful, either. The wiki nature of the list means that the only requirement to get on this list is that you don’t use the men’s room. You see, women write good books, and they also write very bad ones. One’s gender, like one’s ethnicity, isn’t a sign of your literary merit or lack thereof. And anyway, ladies don’t really need this list. We’re doing pretty well for ourselves. After all, women read more than men, and women writers sell more books than male writers. And we do win prizes. Don’t forget that this year’s Nobel prize winner for literature was female, and that Elizabeth Strout won the Pultizer. In 2004, all of the National Book Award nominees for fiction were female. I remember my annoyance at how much gender was discussed that year. “What about the books themselves?” I kept crying. But, look at me now, lamenting that only sausages got invited to the Top 10 Publishers Weekly party.

My double standard, I suppose, comes from the fact that there’s a long and undeniable history of women not getting critical recognition for their writing. I read nearly equal numbers of male and female writers (I keep a record. Seriously.) but I’ve met numerous male readers (many of them booksellers), who rarely, if ever, read books by women. This argument also extends to work by writers of color. Books by white men are considered universal, while books by women, or people of color, aren’t. A male author wins a prize because he deserves it. A Latina woman wins a literary prize because, well… there was pressure… it was time. That’s a dangerous and unfair line of reasoning, for it undercuts the talent and accomplishment of these writers.

coverEdward P. Jones won the Pulitzer for The Known World, not because he’s a black dude, but because he wrote an exceptional, brilliant novel. Yes, by giving Jones the prize, the Pulitzer committee championed and validated a narrative about African-Americans, by an African-American, and that is significant. But the writer’s race was not the reason he won the prize.

Which brings me to why I’m writing about this when I figured I wouldn’t. Last week, the National Book Award winners were announced, and all of them were white men. You might expect me to be upset by this, but I wasn’t. A few people I follow on Twitter were, however, and on her blog, author Tayari Jones wrote a genuine and heartfelt reaction to the awards (she attended the ceremony): “I will admit that I don’t know what to make of it. I know how it felt to be a woman writer of color that evening. I had a number of weirdly marginalizing personal encounters that evening. I arrived in high spirits and left feeling a bit deflated.” This reaction makes a lot of sense to me, and I respect it. But it also must be acknowledged that the judging process was fair–or as fair as can be (Jones does acknowledge this in her post).

The judges for each genre–fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people’s literature–don’t talk to one another. That is, if the fiction judges choose a white male writer to win, they don’t know that the nonfiction judges have as well. Furthermore, the list of nominated books was varied and interesting, and the judges were diverse. (Quite frankly, I’d read anything deemed the best by fiction committee Jennifer Egan, Junot Díaz, Charles Johnson, Lydia Millet and Alan Cheuse.) So I’m all right with the results this year, as discomfiting as they might have been, coming on the heels of that terrible PW list. (And, perhaps it’s worth reiterating: do we even need the prizes? Do we need to “put a ring on it” so to speak?)

I’m most weary of lamenting this year’s National Book Award winners because it sets up an expectation for next year’s winners to be chosen on the basis of something other than literary merit. And if a woman and/or person of color wins the award, the last thing I want to hear is, “Oh, the judges felt pressure,” or, “It was time…” That kind of discourse is insidious.

In a dream world, the winners and best-of lists would always be diverse and surprising, and equality would just happen because people read widely, without any ingrained, problematic notions of what’s universal or ambitious or important. Now, the question is: how can we make that a reality?

is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. She is the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.


  1. Someone — I don’t remember who and I apologize — had a theory that during times of stress we subconsciously revert to reasserting the hierarchy — i.e., white men crashed the financial system and disrupted world peace for God knows how long, therefore we need to bulk up this whole idea of white men because what on earth will happen if we junk that?

    I tell you, I do think there’s a smidge of truth in it! Though Dan’s book is very good.

  2. Lizzie, that’s an interesting hypothesis. I’ll need to mull that one over–perhaps with a glass (or two) of wine…

    Lydia: Ha! Thank you. I like how our essays are in conversation with one another today. Lots of dick. Your review was wonderful (as usual).

  3. Great essay, Edan. I was sort of surprised (and then felt guilty for feeling surprised, but I chalk it up to being used to men getting the accolades) that four of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” were ladies. It was a great list of deserving writers.

  4. I posted this on the NYTimes article about this. I think it says more about PW more than anything–it’s not really a literary mag, just something people read to find out about fun reads and pop books, etc. Also, women took home the Booker Prize, Nobel Prize and Prix Goncourt. If anything, women should not have to worry about PW, they’re doing pretty damn good on their own. I personally wouldn’t get offended–just look at that list by itself and you’ll understand where I’m coming from, haha.

  5. Edan, I’ve observed the same thing re: who reads “across the divide,” i.e. women read a lot of “man books,” whereas men read few “women books.” (I’ve observed this slightly less with regard to race — I don’t see anyone hesitating to read Junot Diaz or Edward Jones or Bolano). Hmm…. I have no good hypotheses about this, other than the obvious — men are more narcissistic/close-minded — which would be I think oversimplistic and unproductive. What gives, literary men?

  6. I was just wondering if any guy has ever crashed one of these female hand-wringing parties by saying that just maybe men are better writers?

  7. I’m about to start Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel, Lacuna. Its had mixed reviews but she’s one of my favorite writers. Glad she’s back to writing fiction.

  8. Not being a published author or a voracious reader, awards don’t matter to me. When I’m at the library I let marketing guide me–I look for familiar names, and yes, I judge books by their covers. I don’t recognize the 3 authors/books you have images of, but I’d only pick up the middle one to see if it was interesting. “Nothing Right” looks like chick lit and the Phillips novel has a pretentious, literary look to it. Awards that I’ve never heard of don’t impress me, but I suppose it’s impressive if you live in those circles. I’d rather get on Oprah’s book club or the NYT bestseller list and collect a fat paycheck for doing what I love–that’s recognition enough for me.

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