A few words about wordy writing women

 If you pay any attention to the book business and the mainstream media, you’ve heard the uproar about the list Susan McDougal In-Store Appearance At Barnes & Nobleof Top Ten Books of 2009 that Publishers Weekly announced a couple of weeks ago. Aside from the fact that it came out with nearly two months left in 2009 – is it like the award-eligibility period for the Grammys, where 2009 also includes the end of 2008? – people noticed pretty quickly that the list didn’t include any books by women writers – no novels, no poetry, no genre fiction, no nonfiction of any kind. To be fair, the extended “Best Books of 2009” list, which breaks down by genre and is included in the above link, does have books by women listed in nearly every category; it just seems that none of them were able to make the Top Ten cut – which is, of course, the list that gets all the attention.

On the Chicago Moms Blog, Susan Bearman reacted to the announcement:

I’m a writer, and I can’t turn a blind eye to the fact that the recently released Publishers Weekly list of the Best Books of 2009 did not include a single female author. Not one. In fact, all but one of the authors on the list was a white male — not that there’s anything wrong with being a white male author. I’m all for them. I’m all for any author achieving any form of success in a publishing industry that is struggling mightily to survive.

So, why is it such a big deal, that a top 10 list doesn’t include any female writers? It’s a big deal because it shows that women are still not held in the same regard as men who do the same job. PW claims that they “ignored gender and genre and who had the buzz,” but what makes these guys “the best”? Any top 10 list is fraught with subjectivity, so not including a single female author on such a list is making a statement — to the world, to writers and readers, and especially to our daughters — that women writers just aren’t good enough…To me, the PW list represents the idea that a woman’s voice, a woman’s story, a woman’s experience is less valuable than a man’s.

I don’t pay all that much attention to publication dates, and chances are that I won’t read some of those “Best of 2009” books until 2010 – or much later, given the state of TBR Purgatory. But as I try to narrow down the best books I’ve read in 2009, women authors are most certainly in the running:

Gods Behaving Badly, by Marie Phillips
The Senator’s Wife, by Sue Miller

The Unit, by Ninni Holmqvist

Admission, by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Goldengrove, by Francine Prose
Still Alice, by Lisa Genova

The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, both by Suzanne Collins

I’m currently reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett on my Kindle, and I already know it’s going to be part of this group too.
The books I put on my “potential” reading list for the Women Unbound Reading Challenge are not only about women, they’re all by women as well, and that’s just one of the reasons I’m excited about doing this:
The Faith Club: A Muslim, A Christian, A Jew– Three Women Search for Understanding, by Ranya Idilby, Suzanne Oliver, and Priscilla Warner
Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, by Susan Jane Gilman
Olive Kitteridge: Fiction, by Elizabeth Strout
American Wife: A Novel, by Curtis Sittenfeld
Losing Kei: A Novel, by Suzanne Kamata
I’ve added a few other titles as I’ve checked out other challenge participants’ lists (there are over 75 so far!):

When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, by Gail Collins (in TBR Purgatory, Kindle division)
Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper, by Diablo Cody (in TBR Purgatory)
Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith and/or Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith, both by Anne Lamott (in TBR Purgatory)
Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation, by Elissa Stein and Susan Kim (NOT in TBR Purgatory – yet!)
Again, they’re all books by women and about women.

Just for fun, I checked out my LibraryThing statistics to see the breakdown between male and female authors in my collection; over 70% are women. This doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. I’ve always been drawn to books about women, and I tend to feel that women have a slight, innate advantage at writing those. That’s not to imply that men can’t write good female characters; I really think it’s more of a style preference, to be honest, and I’m sure it’s connected to the types of books I most like to read (general/literary fiction and memoirs).

I’m not looking to start a “girls vs. boys” argument here, or carp about “fairness,” or claim that women are better writers than men just because they’re women. I’m not trying to say that women deserve recognition for their writing any more than men do. There are plenty of women who write crap, and there are plenty of men who do the same. But there’s no shortage of women creating good literature either. All I’m really getting at here is that if the same quality standards are applied to all books regardless of the sex of the author, I just think it’s questionable that not one woman wrote a Top-Ten-quality book this year.

In any case, I think it’s clear that I support, and seek out, the work of women writers. The fact that none of them are represented in PW‘s Top Ten Books of the Year certainly seems like an oversight, at the very least, and just plain farfetched, in truth. (You can search Twitter under the #followreader and #fembook hashtags for more lively discussion about this and related issues of recognition for women writers.) What do you think?

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  1. Great post, Florinda. I do think it's rather suspect that not one of the many wonderful female authors writing today was considered worthy of this list.
    I know there are plenty on my personal top 10 list for this year.

  2. I think that there is a difference between the books that men and women read. That lists looks as though it has been compiled by a man. I don't have a problem with men enjoying different books to me, but it is a shame that the female element seems to be lacking from the list.

    I just had a quick check of my top 12 for 2009 and found there to be 7 male and 5 female authors, so a rough split.

    I'd add The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey as one of the best books written this year – she was robbed of the Orange and Booker prizes!

  3. Care – I'd already posted most of the list when I signed up; I love your Women Unbound Reading Challenge :-)! I'm excited about getting started on it, but I do have to get some other TBR's cleared first.

    Becca – Evidently, there are plenty on mine too…which is not to slight some of the outstanding books I've read this year that were written by men!

    Jackie (FLB) – I think that's true; it's been noted that men are more likely to read nonfiction and genre fiction. I don't know what the makeup of the PW panel was, but it does seem like the male sensibility took precedence.

    I haven't heard of that novel – I'll have to find out some more about it. Thanks!

  4. What upset me about the whole PW thing was the realization that yes, men get more of the marketing money.

    So I started a meme. Women on Wednesday. Post about a woman writer, or a book written by a woman. Link up at my new rocks 'n reads blog. Visit. You get the idea.

    Come join the fun!

  5. Hi, Florida. This is a great post, and you have listed some truly gifted women writers (love Prose and Lamott, as well as most of the others. The Nora Ephron book was a hoot, although it was published in April 2008.

    As you point out, this is not about bashing male authors, it's more about women writers being ignored. And I completely agree with the other Susan about men getting the marketing dollars from publishers. That is one of the forms of discrimination we still face.

    Thanks for the shout out to my Chicago Moms Blog Post. I'm going to check out of your commenters links for promoting women writers.

  6. Susan HG – I saw your post about that, and I really would have liked to post this yesterday so it could get in for your meme, but I had something already scheduled.

    I love your idea, though, and will definitely be checking it out!

    Susan – Most of the books on my reading list for Women Unbound are a little older; it's a good excuse to dig some stuff out of TBR :-).

    Great post at Chicago MB, and you should think about signing on for the reading challenge!

  7. Thanks for a great post. My list of books to read is already about 90% female. So my only complaint with your post is that you've now given me even more titles to add to my pile.

  8. Kim – I read Honeymoon in Tehran earlier this year and knew I wanted to go back and read Lipstick Jihad. I've had Hypocrite… in TBR for a couple of years, and I'm glad this challenge is nudging me to get it out!

    Darryle – I'd say I'm sorry for adding to your TBR stack, but I really wouldn't mean it :-).

  9. My first year blogging, 2008, made me take a look at the books a I read and I was surprised to see that I read more men authors that year. So, this year I have made a concetrated effort to make sure women came out on top 🙂 Since women are buying most of the books, don't we hold the power of the pursestrings>

  10. Stacybuckeye – I think I've always been more inclined to read women writers, and I don't know if it's been an entirely deliberate choice, but I do like your approach!

  11. Gender isn't something I really take into account when I pick up a book to read. I think I'm running about even right now if you count by author–the women have the lead if you count by number of books I've read by women this year as I've read multiple books by a few.

    I really tried to see it from the PW perspective, of why they might have chosen books by all male authors. I don't really know enough about their criteria to know how much of a bias there may be. It seems off to me and I can definitely see why so many are upset about it. Of the titles on their list two are ones I've heard of and want to read. The others I'm completely unfamiliar with. Not that it matters considering how many books are published a year and how little I am able to read.

    There certainly are books by women that are amazing and of such good quality that they deserve to be on a top 10 list. And I can say the same about novels by men.

  12. Wendy (Literary Feline) – I wasn't familiar with some of the books on the PW list either. I think that may point to a distinction between the books that get mainstream-media reviews vs. those that get the attention of the book blogiverse as much as anything else.

    I tend to find that the kind of stories that appeal to me are more likely to be written by women, but some of the top spots on my "favorite authors" list are held by men…men who usually don't write those kind of stories. I have no explanation for that at the moment :-).