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Is There a Bias Against Women Writers? Uproar Against Publisher's Weekly 2009 List

By November 12, 2009

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They knew they were doing us wrong but they did it anyway. Publisher's Weekly came up with their list of the Top 10 Best Books of 2009, and not a single woman was on that list. And PW was uncomfortable enough to notice:

We wanted the list to reflect what we thought were the top 10 books of the year with no other consideration....We ignored gender and genre and who had the buzz....It disturbed us when we were done that our list was all male. There was kicking and screaming for a science fiction title. A literary ghost story came so close, it squeaked.

What made the list? A graphic novel. A John Cheever biography. A book that's being called this generation's Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance.

What could have made the list that was penned by a woman?

Well, that literary ghost story that "came so close, it squeaked" is apparent to those of us who follow 'book talk' -- The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, a finalist for the Mann Booker Prize (no small potatoes there.)  It's at the top on my "gotta get it" list.

A possible science fiction choice? Try Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, a steampunk novel with zombies and a Sarah Connor-style heroine on a quest through a ravaged city to save her son; the fact that it's from Tor, an acclaimed science fiction/fantasy publisher with an award-winning author list, says something...as does PW's inclusion of it in their Top 100 Books of 2009.

Or what about a long-overdue look at the progress women have made since the 1960s? When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present by New York Times columnist Gail Collins is chock full of stories told by pioneering women over the past decades -- tales that critics have called "startling" and "heartbreaking" -- along with facts and statistics to back it all up. (When I'm finished with it I'll be reviewing it here.)

And more suggestions of women to populate a Top 10 list can be found in Lizzie Skurnick's article, "Same Old Story: Best-Books List Snubs Women Writers" for PoliticsDaily.com. As she tells us:

I, female, longtime book critic, longtime lover of males, writers, and male writers, must nonetheless point out an inconvenient truth: It has been a very strong two years for female writers and a weak two years for male ones, and the fact that the latter have garnered unseemly armfuls of praise and prizes for their tepid output is a scandal.

Even Dave Itzkoff on the ArtsBeat at the New York Times observed there was something amiss in "No. 1 Omission From Top 10 Book List: Women."

When we read, are we gender blind to the author? Anecdotal evidence shows we're not. As Skurnick writes:

[A]s someone who's worked as an editor, writer and critic for almost two decades in the literary world, I've concluded...that the publishing industry is no better at ignoring gender than your average obstetrician....

[L]ast year...I sat in a board room hashing out the winners for one of the awards for which I am a judge. Our short list was pretty much split evenly along gender lines. But as we went through each category, a pattern emerged. Some books, it seemed, were "ambitious." Others were well-wrought, but somehow . . . "small." "Domestic." "Unam --" what's the word? "-- bititous." ...

I watched as we pushed aside works that everyone acknowledged were more finely wrought, were, in fact, competently wrought, for books that had shot high but fallen short. And every time the book that won was a man's.

"I just want to say," I said as the meeting closed, "that 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."...

"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."

So women's writing is seen as small, domestic and unambitious, while men's writings are large and ambitious. Yet when men tackle 'women's topics,' they're applauded for what women would be criticized for. There are countless examples, two of which I'll share below.

Remember a few years back when Wally Lamb wrote She's Come Undone, the story of a sexually abused, overweight female's struggle to be thin? Critics praised him for sounding like a woman. Would they have been so positive had a fat woman written that same book?

Or what about a novel like Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro? The narrator, a 'carer' named Kathy, tells her story in a passive and matter-of-fact tone. But details of her life reveal a disquieting larger story that explores eugenics, organ harvesting, and the ethics of cloning. It's a brilliant book that was well-received, but would critics have raved about it if a woman had been responsible? Or would Kathy's voice have been labelled 'small' and her observation of fairly ordinary events 'domestic'?

Right now I'm in the midst of reading The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield, which reminds me of another novel, The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.  Both revolve around booksellers, family secrets, the love of reading, and storytelling. Both are well-written gothic page-turners. But from online reviews, I already see a harsher attitude toward Setterfield's work as compared to Zafon's (although Setterfield reportedly earned a million dollar advance in the U.S. for her novel.) Is this gender related? And if so, what can we do about it?

As consumers of reading matter, we're more powerful than we realize. Although the publishing industry doesn't seem to recognize that, Content Connections commissioned the study Women and Books 2007 which revealed that the average woman surveyed spends $500 a year on fiction and non-fiction books, gift books, audiobooks and e-books.

We can leverage this in a manner that lets publishers see our power and our commitment.

In a day of action intended to promote solidarity and get women to demonstrate their buying power, SheWrites -- a website for women writers and readers -- wants you to buy a book written by a woman in 2009, take a photo of yourself holding the book, post the photo at She Writes and explain what book you purchased and why.  The She Writes Day of Action is scheduled for this Friday, November 13.

You can also share your thoughts here. What female authors have you read in 2009 (or in previous years) that you'd like to share with the larger world? What books have resonated with you?

More on women writers:


November 12, 2009 at 8:12 pm
(1) Beth Fehlbaum says:

I am currently reading HATE LIST by Jennifer Brown. It is truly a revelation and a book I will never forget. It’s Jennifer’s debut novel– and it’s YA– but don’t let that dissuade you if you normally don’t read YA. My own novel, Courage in Patience, likewise features a teen protagonist, but readers– yes, WOMEN readers– of ALL ages– have written to me again and again, thanking me for writing a book that deals with sexual abuse, and what it’s like to be a person with PTSD. And what about PUSH, by Sapphire? The movie tie-in book is PRECIOUS– and it’s another important book.
I agree! Let’s show the publishing world that women authors count– and they should have been well-represented in the PW list.

Beth Fehlbaum, author
Courage in Patience
(Seeking new publisher!)

November 12, 2009 at 8:22 pm
(2) Alexis A Moore says:

Beth Fehlbaum Courage in Patience and also Elizabeth Patch, More to Love

November 14, 2009 at 11:21 pm
(3) Harry says:

Ok. I’m a guy. And I am a fantasy junkie.

Perhaps the genre is not considered “literary,” but I’ve noticed that my chairside shelf has more female writers than male – by a large margin. The writing tends to have more depth, better pace and more defined characters. As for action, it’s as good or better than recent male writers have produced.

I could go on, but I’m disgusted to hear that gender still stands in the way of recognition for superior work. Don’t let it get you down, ladies. There are still a few men who appreciate your work and who urge you to keep doing your best. Sooner or later we’ll wear the bast**** down and start giving out recognition where it is due.

November 15, 2009 at 10:46 am
(4) deonnanort says:

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