“If you want to be a great writer, be a man”

The lack of women authors on one best-of list might not mean much by itself, but it's part of an ugly big picture

Topics: Women writers, Broadsheet,

More than a month ago, Salon’s Laura Miller addressed the controversy over Publishers Weekly’s failure to include books by women writers among its top 10 of the year. “Anyone who’s ever had to compile such a list — and admittedly, there aren’t many of us — will feel an awkward sympathy for the P.W. team,” she wrote. You don’t even need to have done exactly that to relate; the Democratic voters among us need only recall the 2008 primaries, when voting for the first woman meant not voting for the first African-American, and vice versa — and before all hell broke loose for John Edwards, a lot of people struggled with weighing the desire to cast a historic vote against a genuine belief that the best choice was yet another white guy. For as much as we all swore up and down that we would never be so small-minded as to vote on race or gender alone, there was no getting around the fact that choosing the person you felt most passionate about meant abandoning the opportunity to support one or more candidates from historically underrepresented groups. Which sucked.

But the real suck, of course, issued not from the Clinton vs. Obama contest specifically, but from that historical underrepresentation itself, which made the decision between two candidates with very similar positions on major issues so symbolically loaded. The same basic problem arises when compiling a list like P.W.’s; even if you sincerely feel that the best books of this particular year were all written by men, the historical lack of women on such lists and continued existence of systematic sexism mean that the omission of female authors is automatically — and reasonably — suspect. Which is why, even though Miller acknowledges that there was most likely no conscious sexism driving that decision, she also wisely notes that, “Writing off such qualms as mere ‘political correctness’ is, in its own way, just as dishonest as exaggerating your admiration for a book simply because its author is female, or dark-skinned, or from a far-off nation.” After this country has lived through a few generations of women writers being taken seriously and earning approximately half of the most important honors and awards, an all-male top 10 list will indicate nothing more than an unusually good year for the guys. But in 2009, there is no such thing as an unusually good year for the guys, because seeing the top honors go to men is still so painfully usual. To pretend that’s not the case just because Lorrie Moore arguably had an off year is not only intellectually dishonest but an expression of the core problem.

In the Washington Post today, author Julianna Baggott examines the way women writers continue to be marginalized, and why the anger over that P.W. list continues to reverberate. “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,” she writes. But since none of those things is true, what gives? Well, in grad school, she learned a simple truth:

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.

Baggott writes that early on, she discovered that using a male pseudonym had a positive effect on her career. She points out that only 11 Pulitzer Prizes have gone to women in the last 30 years. She mentions “a recent study about perceptions of male and female playwrights that showed that plays with female protagonists were the most devalued in blind readings.” When told that a play with a female protagonist had a male author, subjects found the same words better crafted and the same protagonist more likable than when they were told it was written by a woman. Yet questioning the exclusion of women from various honors and award lists is still dismissed as political correctness gone mad, as feminists “looking for something to get angry about.”

As I’ve said countless times, really, we don’t have to go looking — the problem is not feminists searching the horizon with high-powered binoculars for any slight, but too many other people’s deliberate decision to wear blinders. As Baggott puts it, “how do we strip away our prejudice? First, we have to see prejudice.” Recognizing how much sexism is still there, right in front of our faces, doesn’t mean we’re obligated to excoriate the editors of P.W. or pretend we liked Margaret Atwood’s latest more than we did, any more than anti-racist, anti-sexist Edwards supporters were morally obligated to change their allegiance when he was still in the game. It just means we should look at little things like one year-end list in the context of the big picture — the one where “If you want to be a great writer, be a man” remains pretty good advice — instead of always insisting that this one little thing, like that other little thing, and that one and that one and that one, ad damn near infinitum, couldn’t possibly mean anything.


Kate Harding is the co-author of "Lessons From the Fatosphere: Quit Dieting and Declare a Truce With Your Body" and has been a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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