On the whole, the past year was a pretty good one for literary women: Huerta Mueller won the Nobel, Hilary Mantel the Booker, Annette Gordon-Reed the National Book Award, and Elizabeth Strout the Pulitzer. We appear to have come “a long way, baby” since the days when Nathaniel Hawthorne declared that “[a]ll women, as authors, are feeble and tiresome” and Norman Mailer wrote “[t]he sniffs I get from the ink of women are always fey, old-bat, Quaintsy, Gaysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic.” (Too dykily psychotic?) But the fact that women are winning major literary prizes makes it all the more troubling when the books magazines continue to give the most attention to continue overwhelmingly to be those written by men.
Publisher’s Weekly “first-ever Top 10” was a list of books written exclusively (that’s ten out of ten) by male authors. Newsweek last summer, in a 50 books list of “What to Read Now” included only nine women; this year, the number of women included in their “What to Read Now” piece was a little higher, but not much. Amazon, in its “Best Books of the Year,” included only two books written by women in the top ten – both sporting male protagonists – and in its longer list of 100 books included more than three times as many books written by men as by women. And now we have a lot of excitement over Jonathon Franzen getting the cover of Time.
I don’t have any opinion on whether he deserves the cover or not; the book isn’t out yet. But I did receive by email (compliments of Ilana DeBare) the following list of authors who’ve made the cover in the past:
Stephen King – March 27, 2000
Tom Wolfe – November 2, 1998
Toni Morrison – January 19, 1998
Michael Crichton – September 25, 1995
Scott Turow – June 11, 1990
Neil Simon – December 15, 1986
Garrison Keillor – November 4, 1985
Erma Bombeck – July 2, 1984
John Updike – October 18, 1982
John Irving – August 31, 1981
Mario Puzo – August 28, 1978
John Le Carre – October 3, 1977
Marabel Morgan – March 14, 1977
Alex Haley – February 14, 1977
In case you don’t know who Marabel Morgan is (I had to look her up), her bestseller, A Total Woman, offers the advice that “A Total Woman caters to her man’s special quirks, whether it be in salads, sex or sports,” and proposes we great our husbands at the door after their busy days at work (while we’ve been, say, home eating bon bons?) wrapped in clear plastic wrap.
Which is not to say there aren’t exceptions. The Los Angeles Times lists come to mind.
And it’s not to say that there aren’t reasonable explanations either, ones that don’t necessarily wrap misogyny labels around the editors putting together the lists.
The world of American literature has been historically dominated by men: male writers, male publishers and editors, male prize committees and critics and, indeed, male magazine editors choosing covers and listing books which far more often than not address the stories of male protagonists. It should be no surprise that American readers, steeped in the history of a literature largely shaped by men, might have a male bias in deciding what new books deserve to be labeled the best.
Clearly, prize committees have begun to question those biases, and found much to praise in women author’s books. But I’m left wondering how many of the rest of us have. I’d like to think that Anita Brookner was right in refusing to participate in the Orange Prize for fiction – a prize reserved for women – on the rationale that “literature is without gender.” Surely it is. And yet … here’s an NPR piece about reviews in the New York Times, suggesting that from January 2009 to February 2010 95 percent of US authors reviewed in the publication were white, and 87 percent were male.
The title of this piece is borrowed from a piece in Harper’s a dozen years ago, The Scent of a Woman’s Ink: Are women writers really inferior? It’s written by Francine Prose, who put me onto these discrepancies 15 years ago, at the Sewanee Writer’s Conference. I commend it to you as, sadly, still relevant.
Okay, climbing off my soapbox. - Meg