Thursday, December 13, 2007

News for 2007: Literary Scientists Prove Men Are Better Writers!!

Disclaimer: angry ranting post to ensue.

My dad brought me up to be a big women's basketball fan (probably because I'm tall and he had some vicarious dreams for me, all put definitively to bed when it became obvious how clumsy I was). But he would do things like by us tickets to go see UConn play out in Storrs (even on weeknights!!) when I was little, and then, even through college, he managed to get tickets to a couple NCAA Final Fours and the like.

I remember my freshman year in college, when I took off four days of class to go with Dadrat to San Antonio to see the Huskies basically walk all over everyone else. A boy on my dorm floor was a big basketball fan, but he actually scoffed when I told him where I was going (apparently he thought I was joking). His explanation: "I don't think anyone actually likes women's basketball, or wants to watch it. It's the same as with any women's sports. It's like watching birds or dogs play basketball. Then first five minutes or so, it's like, cool, birds and dogs playing basketball! But then you get bored and want to go back to watching real sports." (Alas, he wasn't a stupid asshole either, so I can't even write off what he said.)

Anyway, the point is, I've now learned that the same goes for women and fiction writing!! They give it a nice go, and it's really cute the efforts they make, but let's face it, folks--in the end, when we're appreciating fine literature that can actually open our minds, we should really let the men do their work.

My incontrovertible proof? There aren't any women making any mainstream Top 10 of 2007 lists. Here's the New York Times list; here's the Washington Post Book World list. Not a lady in their midst.
Here's the PW Best Books of 2007 list, which is a little bit daunting in its comprehensiveness but, I think, is more fair, since basically they've rehashed here things their reviewers have starred over the course of the year. HOWEVER even there, on their list of mainstream fiction, there are only 4 titles by women (out of a total 25). And of course, let's not forget that goddess of female empowerment, the great Oprah, and her book club, which hasn't deigned to recognize a female writer in the last 3 years. Not even one. (NYT longlist of notables is also incredibly male-heavy, btw. Give it a glance.)

I'm not about affirmative action here, since women do write (and read!) more books already. I'm just surprised that so many books by boys jump so obviously to buzzworthy when no women's books seem to make the cut, particularly BECAUSE there are more books by women being published. I'm also wondering about how reviewers are addressing content. Forgive the crass generalizations here; I'm allowed to use them because I work in publishing and get to think about packaging and target audiences all the time. Is a book with content driven more toward a male readership (take, for example, a war story, like Denis Johnson's TREE OF SMOKE) automatically more interesting to a wider group of people than a book driven toward a female audience (you know, any book with a female protagonist, since men don't want to read about that)?

The trouble is, of course, there are thousands of wonderful books published each year that all deserve to change lives, but everyone in the world doesn't have the money to buy them all nor the time to read them all (and book stores don't even have the space to stock them all). So through a confluence of circumstance and bad luck (and sometimes just randomness) some of the best works in the English language are totally and completely overlooked. Check out New York Magazine's The Best Novels You've Never Read (compiled May 2007). I've only read one book on this list--Carol Shields's UNLESS--but it was in fact one of the best books I've ever read, and is one I have bought again and again as a gift. She already knew she was dying when she wrote it, and the entire novel is pregnant with wisdom and sadness and honest personal philosophy.

But that difficulty aside, can you seriously tell me that Amy Bloom's universally proclaimed AWAY, Annie Dillard's famously last (and supposedly wonderful) THE MAYTREES, or (my favorite of 2007) Andromeda Romano-Lax's THE SPANISH BOW weren't rich enough to compete with any of these books by boys? Not even one of them?

So a next question (which came up when I realized how few great women's novels of 2007 I could cite off the top of my head)--why are there so few? Does the glass ceiling even come into the money-making side of publishing? Are female authors more poorly marketed unless they're serving up genre fare? HOW CAN IT BE POSSIBLE that, when the majority of fiction readers and book-buyers (this is for both commercial AND literary fiction) are female that it's not books by women or marketed toward women that are being 1) highlighted and offered for awards by publishing companies, and 2) recognized by readers? If any of the published books by women that were given mid-level treatment this year had been seriously framed and trotted about, would these lists look significantly different?

Don't get me wrong--I love books by men. I'm not a "pink" girl, although taking on my current job, I'll admit my tastes have necessarily become a LITTLE pinker, but those who know me well know I really happily read from a wide range. But I am an editor of predominantly "women's" fiction (meaning literary and commercial fiction by women and marketed for a predominantly female audience, NOT meaning genre fiction). This is my axe and grind it I shall. Other people have other axes, and a lot of them can be ground on these booklists, too, so please feel free to grind away. I'd love to hear your thoughts/opinions.


Anonymous said...

Amen and thank you.

angelle said...

This is my dream (dream #4 it seems we're on... or maybe it can be an extension of dream #2):

One day, you know, after I've become a successful published author and all, I am going to be a kickass book publicist. No, no, "publicist" is too limiting. I am going to be a book GURU, the kind that flips the whole industry upside down, pushes out books written by women (and minority authors, incidentally) out to the general public in such a force that people forgot they ever didn't read that stuff. I am going to use my powers of persuasion, charm and super-schmooze to convince everyone in the world that they need to read these books.

Okay, but really, I do agree. I'm surprised Annie Dillard and Amy Bloom didn't hit those lists. And in general, female authors get so much less buzz and credit. I wonder at what point of the process this happens though. Is it the reviewers? Are they mostly men? Is it the publisher? Who is it? What cog in the wheel starts filtering out the women? Who decides to put more money towards male author marketing?

Is it because people assume female writing is more "wishy washy"? And thus not to be taken seriously?

I'm looking for the faulty spoke so that I can change it. Who decides what is "literary", what is "significant"? What makes a book notable?

I have so much more to say about this. But I actually have to go back to my real job and pitch the media on something completely unimportant. More later, after more ppl chime in.

Kaytie M. Lee said...

Still formulating thoughts on this but I do want to say that UNLESS is an awesome book, and everyone who has a mother should read it.

writtenwyrdd said...

Great and thoughtful post. Thanks for sharing. I am predominately a genre reader but I hadn't realized how few literary novels were talked about or in the news. More stuff to be cynical about, I guess.

writtenwyrdd said...

That should have read "how few literary novels by women are in the news." forehead slap...

Anonymous said...

"I'm looking for the faulty spoke so that I can change it. Who decides what is "literary", what is "significant"? What makes a book notable?"

Great post and good points, but to the above comment (by Angelle), what *is* "literary"?

I love some of the "great" writers (Steinbeck for one), but a lot of the books people go on and on about just bore the doo-dah out of me - they're depressing as hell. I don't mean sad either - I mean *depressing*. I good heartfelt story that's inspiring and maybe even sad where you cry your eyes out can be fab; but some of these things are absolute boring downers. Makes me wanna go jump off a bridge or something - they're awful. Sorry, but that's not inspirational to me, and I don't think just because it made me dwell in the depths of dark thinking for 3 days it's high brow, or even philosophical. Some of it is whiny BS.

Are they "literary" because some snob thinks they're great? Some of it I cannot, *cannot* get through (and I read *everything* I can get my hands on).

So, who's to say there isn't great "literary" work by women in the "genres"?

I think all good writing has something to say (note I said "good"). Just because it's genre writing doesn't mean it's automatically bad or even mediocre. There are some genre writers (men and women) who are writing beautiful, literary stuff in my opinion - but, they aren't making those "lists". Who cares? I don't - I think great writing is what it's all about - whether it's officially "literary" or not, whether it makes a "list" or not.

Precie said...

I'm going to be optimistic about this...I took a peek at the NYT Best lists for previous years, and they're more balanced in terms of gender...

2006 included Claire Messaud and Marisha Pessl.

2005 included Zadie Smith, Curtis Sittenfeld, and Mary Gaitskill.

Maybe this was just an off year...I'm confident 2008 will be better. :)

Conduit said...

At the risk of being castrated by women scorned...

I blogged about the issue of gender and fiction some time ago, and my own perception (and I'm willing to concede the possibility of being very wrong) was that the publishing industry is skewed towards women, from readers, to writers, to agents to editors. At a guess, I'd say my local chainstore's shelves are about 50% dedicated to women's fiction, with another good proportion given over to the kind of mysteries and thrillers that both genders read and write. Which doesn't leave a lot of room for the kind of books an adult male like me wants to read.

What's my point? I'm not sure actually. If the 'Best Of' lists are exclusively by men, but the majority of books on the market are by women, then there's clearly something wrong somewhere. Or it could be a temporary aberration.


Merry Jelinek said...

Okay, here's my philosophy on this dilemma... some things haven't changed. Men still automatically go toward the male author and women will read both male and female author equally, provided it's a subject/book type they're interested in... so I think what you have here is a wider consensus on male books from both men and women simply because it takes more to get most male critics to read female authors with an open eye... I was actually hoping this had changed some, but it's enough to make me wonder whether I should be using first initials rather than full name.

The other thing is that most men want to read a male protagonist and women can get into a book from either sex's vantage point, so I guess you have to look at the amount of literary fiction written by women with a male protagonist and a good grasp of character..

As far as what makes literary fiction, I'm kind of a 'know it when I see it' type person anyway... Literary fiction, to me, runs deeper, searches the inner recesses of the character's turmoil as well as the outer conflict and balances on beautiful prose that invade your senses in a way that straight 'showing' cannot. The journey in literary fiction is more fraught and more felt - these are the stories that stay with you for years, sometimes lifetimes... that's how I judge literary fiction..

Now, I will freely admit that I've picked up some novels that were deemed literary and found them to be a lot of psuedo-intellectual chest thumping without much going on that wasn't geared to impress the reader with the author's stunning mastery of the language... I don't label that literary, I call it swill, but perhaps that's just me.

But what about books like, The Time Traveler's Wife, The Red Tent (which dripped like utter poetry, I must say), hell, going back a ways... how about A Tree Grows In Brooklyn? or The Bluest Eye?

Maybe it's an oversight, possibly it's the old boys club, but clearly, men are not the only ones who can write evocative literary fiction.

angelle said...

anon- yeah. good writing is good writing, whatever the genre. i recently had a friend, someone who doesn't read often and def has no clue about anything industry related, ask me what "genre" vs "commerical fic" vs "literary fic" was. I tried to explain and then realized i was getting confused, mostly because i really didn't know what was considered "literary". I mean, how do you define that?

Shameless said...

I love those lists of books we might've missed, books that went under the radar, books that should've been in the top 20. Thank goodness papers and the like do this. :-)

pacatrue said...

I think this is a great post, moonbat. I'm glad to see from Precie's research that this might be a slight aberration, but still. My best guess is along the same lines as Merry'; i.e., men read men and women read men and women. IF IF IF this is the case, I don't think it has anything much to do with the genders per se as much perhaps as training. My wife tells a story of begging a high school English teacher to read one, just one!, coming-of-age story with a female protagonist, since all the others had been male. At the same time, I remember reading Maya Angelou and Alice Walker, but we never did Catcher in the Rye. But I'm probably an oddball as I took an elective course single year called Women writing about Women.

I've always wondered how much input Oprah has in selecting her books. Surely, someone gives her a small list to choose from each month. But maybe she does have time to run a media empire, host a show, and be widely read in all sorts of current fiction.

I hope everyone solves the mystery.

Charles Gramlich said...

Wow, interesting. I see I'm out of the loop quite a bit. Honestely, and this shows how uninformed I am, I thought almost all of Oprah's selects were for women authors. Wasn't "White Oleander" on her list?

And maybe it's the company I keep, but I hear about women authors and their great books far more than men authors it seems to me. Let's see, White Oleander is an example. The Lovely Bones. The Secret Life of Bees. These have all been recommended to me lately by other writers/readers that I know.