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The key to literary success? Be a man -- or write like one.

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By Julianna Baggott
Wednesday, December 30, 2009

This fall, Publishers Weekly named the top 100 books of 2009. How many female writers were in the top 10? Zero. How many on the entire list? Twenty-nine.

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I wish I were scandalized, or at least surprised. I'm not. I understand the invisible prejudice -- from the inside out. I'm a woman, but I've been a sexist, too.

In my grad school thesis, written at 23, you'll find young men coming of age, old men haunted by war, Oedipus complexes galore. If I'd learned nothing else, it was this: If you want to be a great writer, be a man. If you can't be a man, write like one.

No one told me this outright. But I was told to worship Chekhov, Cheever, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Carver, Marquez, O'Brien. . . . This was the dawn of political correctness. Women were listed as concessions. In the middle of my master's, a female writer took center stage with a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award -- E. Annie Proulx. Ah, there was a catch. She was writing about men and therefore like a man.

I ran out of things to say about men, however, and began my career writing about women. When I started as a poet, I was told -- many times -- not to write about motherhood because it would be perceived as weak. I didn't listen.

But when I invented the pen name N.E. Bode for "The Anybodies," a trilogy for younger readers, I had to choose to be a man or a woman. The old indoctrination kicked in. I picked man. The trilogy did well, shortlisted in a People magazine summer pick, alongside Bill Clinton and David Sedaris. I was finally one of the boys.

I could understand Publishers Weekly's phallocratic list if women were writing only a third of the books published or if women didn't float the industry as book buyers or if the list were an anomaly. In fact, Publishers Weekly is in sync with Pulitzer Prize statistics. In the past 30 years, only 11 prizes have gone to women. Amazon recently announced its 100 best books of 2009 -- in the top 10, there are two women. Top 20? Four. Poets & Writers shared a list of 50 of the most inspiring writers in the world this month; women made up only 36 percent.

When asked about its choices this year, Publishers Weekly said it chose books that "stood out" and weren't trying to be "politically correct," as if this were the only reason female writers could have gotten on the list. Or is it that we have stamped the publishing industry post-feminist and can now slide back to comfortable stereotypes?

What are the stereotypes that drive these biases? Over the years, I've developed many theories. Let me offer one here.

I often hear people exclaiming that they're astonished that a particular book was written by a man. They seem stunned by the notion that a man could write with emotional intelligence and honesty about our human frailties.

Women, on the other hand, are supposed to be experts on emotion. I've never heard anyone remark that they were surprised that a book of psychological depth was written by a woman.

So men get points for simply showing up on the page with a literary effort.

What's interesting, however, in the Publishers Weekly list is that the books are not only written by men but also have male themes, overwhelmingly. In fact, the list flashes like a slide show of the terrain I was trying to cover in my graduate thesis, when I wrote all things manly -- war, boyhood, adventure.

Playwright Julia Jordan pointed me toward a recent study about perceptions of male and female playwrights that showed that plays with female protagonists were the most devalued in blind readings. "The exact same play that had a female protagonist was rated far higher when the readers thought it had a male author," Jordan said. "In fact, one of the questions on the blind survey was about the characters 'likability,'and the exact same female character, same lines, same pagination, when written by a man was exceeding likable, when written by a woman was deemed extremely unlikable."

So how do we strip away our prejudice? First, we have to see prejudice. The top prizes' discrimination against women has been largely ignored. We can't ignore it any longer. PW hasn't yet owned up. Neither has the Pulitzer committee -- though there's hope. This year's Pulitzer for fiction went to a woman (Elizabeth Strout) writing about -- of all things -- a woman ("Olive Kitteridge").

What are the best books? The answer is always subjective, and I'm not a literary arbiter. But the message I received from this year's lists was painfully familiar. It forced me to explain to my students -- the next generation of writers -- that the men in the class have double if not five times the chance of this kind of recognition. I'll hand over the statistics and explain that an industry kept afloat by women is sexist. I'll confess to my own sexism. And I'll tell them that we have failed, but they don't have to.

Julianna Baggott is an associate professor at Florida State University's creative writing program. Her most recent novel is "The Ever Breath."


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