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Nearly speechless

Ignoring gender

Publishers Weekly made a list of its top 10 books of 2009, ((I have not read any of them!)) but it “failed” to include any books that happened to have been written by women, or, to put it another way, it “excluded” women writers.

“The absence made me nearly speechless.” said poet and creative writing professor Cate Marvin.

But not actually speechless?

Another non-speechless respondent, Erin Belieu, says:

When PW’s editors tell us they’re not worried about ‘political correctness’, that’s code for ‘your concerns as a feminist aren’t legitimate’. They know they’re being blatantly sexist, but it looks like they feel good about that.

If the editors did say they were “not worried about ‘political correctness'”, that would be a warning flag. All I can find independently that resembles this, though, is the claim from the woman who introduced PW’s list, Louisa Ermelino:

We ignored gender and genre and who had the buzz.

If you make a list of your favourite books of the year and then notice that they are all written by men, ((“It disturbed us when we were done that our list was all male,” Ermelino said.)) should you remove some of the books and insert some written by women? If you don’t do so, are you “ignoring gender” or “excluding women”?

What are your favourite books of the year, readers?

  1. 1  Martin Wisse  November 13, 2009, 9:39 am 

    It is a Whopping Great Clue that your sources for the list aren’t all that, this lack of female authors.

  2. 2  Steven  November 13, 2009, 1:11 pm 

    It would be interesting to know how many women were among the people polled by PW for their list, but I can’t see that information anywhere.

  3. 3  organic cheeseboard  November 13, 2009, 1:26 pm 

    Jeff in Venice? Oh dear. I’m a big Dyer fan but it’s not a particularly good book.

  4. 4  Steven  November 13, 2009, 1:31 pm 

    When I first heard of it, imagining it was going to be spelled Geoff In Venice, I thought it was the most brilliant title ever; but then he went and added another piece of title and actually wrote the book, and I was so disappointed that I didn’t read it.

  5. 5  Sanguine Artichoke  November 13, 2009, 10:12 pm 

    For what it’s worth, I think most feminists would point out that any percentage of female respondents doesn’t necessarily mean the poll ignores gender.
    They in fact would probably assert that it’s impossible for anyone to ‘ignore gender’.

  6. 6  Mona Albano  November 14, 2009, 7:26 am 

    Women tend to be invisible or perhaps inaudible. I noticed long ago that male authors tended to thank a whole list of men, their typist, and their long-suffering wife, while women thanked a whole list of people of both sexes. It has been better in the last several years, but it’s still not equivalent.

    I don’t always notice if the author of a magazine article is male or female but I do tend to notice book authors. I’ve no comments on the book choices. It could be coincidence. It could be that male authors are more self-promoting. It could be that publishers are biased towards books by males and send out more of them as prospects. (I have no idea how books are selected for consideration.)

  7. 7  roger migently  November 14, 2009, 7:39 am 

    I wonder if the original title might have been Jeffin’ Venice. This would make sense to an Australian reader.

    Jeffrey (Jeff) Kennet, now somewhat rehabilitated – and mourned in a reconstructed Stalinish way by many – was a ruthless, late 20th century Premier of Victoria. To have dealt with Kennet and been mindlessly steamrollered by him is now celebrated in the Australian language as having been “Jeffed”.

    What “Jeffing Venice” would mean is difficult to imagine but it sounds possible it might be a lot more fun to read about than the Dyer offering…

  8. 8  roger migently  November 14, 2009, 9:13 am 

    In other news, at least PW is reviewing books (I assume). WaPo published its last edition of Book World in February and the LA Times stopped in July. It has caused enough concern, according to ABC Australia, that “Last month, editors and academics gathered to discuss the demise of the book review at Princeton University and Peter Stothard, editor of England’s Times Literary Supplement joined them.”

    So ABC’s Book Show has a very entertaining interview with Stothard.

    He also discusses two new books which reveal how Sir John Franklin’s doomed Arctic expedition in the mid 19th century ended in cannibalism on a scale beyond even Victorian England’s darkest imaginings.

  9. 9  Steven  November 14, 2009, 11:57 am 

    I noticed long ago that male authors tended to thank a whole list of men, their typist, and their long-suffering wife, while women thanked a whole list of people of both sexes. It has been better in the last several years, but it’s still not equivalent.

    It hadn’t previously occurred to me to check, but I see now to my shame that only 25% of the thankees in Unspeak are women. I shall try to make up for this next time by thanking “all the laydeez, wherever they may be”.

  10. 10  Leinad  November 14, 2009, 1:23 pm 

    Unspeak II: For Da Shorteez, Yo

  11. 11  Mona Albano  November 14, 2009, 3:01 pm 

    I’m not saying that you should have gender equality in your acknowledgements, but you might want to consider whether you are listening to women. Spend a little time in any public place and notice how much of the time, in a mixed-sex couple, the male is holding forth on whatever interests him and the female’s opinions remain unsaid, ignored, or denigrated.

  12. 12  democracy_grenade  November 14, 2009, 11:34 pm 

    I wonder if this type of reaction would be engendered (hurr) by an overtly ‘personal’ list that produced ultimately the same results?

    The nature of the PW column (from what I just skimmed of it…) seems to be consciously ‘authoritative’ and depersonalised — it appears under a general by-line and the comments for each book seem as though they could have been copied verbatim from press releases (not suggesting that that happened, just noting the style being used). Therefore, the article seems to be more about ‘endorsing’ works and noting their importance than rapaciously arguing for their merit.

    I think that people would find it harder to get around the “well, it’s just an opinion” argument if the article were more opinionated in style. The idea that personal tastes should not be treated with ex post facto elutriation of a ‘political’ nature is pretty resonant. But the pseudo-objective register of the piece in question kind of acts against that.

    Sorry: my comment isn’t very clear, but I hope people get what I’m driving at. I think I’m ultimately neutral on the question of whether Marvin et al have a legitimate grievance. I agree that they have an unspeaky one, at least in the mode reproduced here.

  13. 13  roger migently  November 15, 2009, 2:54 am 

    unsaid, ignored, or denigrated

    Let’s sink a little further into stereotyping and add that, by contrast, in private places you will generally find the female’s opinions very definitely said, ignored at one’s peril (yes, dear) and denigrated only in the safety of a same-sex gathering at the pub, while the male’s knuckle-headed opinions remain unsaid (for personal safety, or because there’s no point), completely ignored, and denigrated both in person and in the shrill forum of a same-sex gathering such as at the hairdresser’s, or with the girlfriends over lunch.

    If a woman’s opinion is “unsaid” is it the (presumably bullying and blustering) man’s fault, for not letting her get a word in edgewise, her own for choosing to be so shy, unconfident and unassertive, or perhaps Jane Austen’s “Society”‘s for teaching her an inappropriate, demure modesty?

    I have never agreed with Johnson’s “dog standing on its hind legs”. For me there is nothing quite so attractive as the prospect of conversation with an intelligent, articulate woman with opinions that owe more to Paris than to Paris.  

  14. 14  roger migently  November 15, 2009, 4:29 am 

    btw, this passionate article by Harriet Evans in the Guardian‘s Books Blog – “Don’t Patronise Popular Fiction by Women” – points out quite a few women writers she considers excellent.

  15. 15  Steven  November 15, 2009, 10:49 am 

    democracy_grenade, that is a nice point. The impersonal cast of objectivity that the PW list inevitably has (notwithstanding the introductory spiel referring to arguments among the judges etc) does perhaps give more grounds for complaint re sex balance than any individual’s list would. Maybe they ought to have had a bylined description of each book by the judge who most wanted it to appear in the list, for example.

    And thanks for the use of “elutriation”!

  16. 16  richard  November 16, 2009, 9:08 pm 

    I’m puzzled by “personal tastes should not be treated with ex post facto elutriation of a ‘political’ nature” – what’s are the lighter and heavier components, here? Are the tastes held in a political matrix or vice versa? Could we describe the analysing of unspeak as “precipitating” – or even “titrating” – the hidden agendas out of seemingly inert verbiage?

    I think I feel a school of critical theory coming on!

  17. 17  democracy_grenade  November 17, 2009, 10:23 am 

    Ha! Hopefully I’m right in my belief that “elutriation” has a more general/non-technical meaning of “purification”.

    The “story behind the story” is that I just really like the word “elutriation.” I think all of my life up until November 14, 2009, 11:34 pm had consisted in an a quest to find a way of using it publicly, in fact.

  18. 18  democracy_grenade  November 17, 2009, 10:25 am 

    Yes, that’s right, “an quest.”

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