Sunday, January 17, 2010

Making the List

In December there was a to do when certain “best of” lists didn’t include many women authors. Lots of writing about it. Much of it interesting.

In an Op Ed in the Washington Post, Juliana Baggot talks about why this might be. She notes this:

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.

Lydia Netzer stirs the pot and responds.

She notes:

As December wanes, it's the traditional time for women everywhere to scan the names on the "Best Books" list, realize they are woefully underrepresented, and complain.

But, she says, complaining gets you nowhere and, she thinks, Baggot is right to examine why this is happening.

While Baggott and others call out a sexist bias, Baggott goes a bit farther, asking why this imbalance in artistic recognition exists. Too often feminists and other axe-grinders reel around shaking their little fists and saying "This is bad! Bad list!" Then they totter away, ending the train of thought in comfortable outrage. But this isn't about morality, or whether something is right or wrong. This isn't church, and we don't get points for being right. It is what it is. The interesting question is "Why is it the way it is?"

Baggott suggests the lists favor men because they favor male themes: "war, boyhood, adventure." She says that she was discouraged, early in career, from writing about motherhood, a female theme, because "it would be perceived as weak." So, maybe the reason women aren't "Best of" is because they don't write about "Best of" things.

I have to agree with Baggott's theory.

At first I thought that Netzer was going to say that “Best of” themes aren’t necessarily the best themes, they are just themes that are more likely to get you on the “best of” lists. I thought she was going to tell the women who care about “best of” lists that they need to learn to play the game. Which I think is very practical advice. But she goes further.

Netzer examines three theories one can have about the list:

The list is real. The numbers are what they are. As I see it there are three possible explanations:

1. The list is sexist, purposefully oppressing women. The solution in this case would be, I guess, to burn down the list. Make a new list. Get those bastards. This seems kind of weak and paranoid.

2. The list is false, reflecting a lame and lingering cultural bias that is on its way out. The solution is to wait. After all, we didn't count the black writers, or the South American writers. It will all come around, given more time. I guess this is what I would like to believe.

The third possibility is more alarming than the others, because it is the simplest explanation, and therefore the most viable:

3. The list is right. The things that women write about are neither culturally nor historically significant, and the books that women write are not the best books.

Yes, she is being intentionally provocative. And at first I chafed at the idea in number 3. But I keep coming back to her next point which is very much based on the work of women in the last decade:

Baggott mentions the deification of Faulkner, Chekhov, Hemingway. I have to ask: In the last decade, what woman would you put up against these giants? Maybe there were moderns that could carry the torch -- Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, or others from the 20th century: Harper Lee, Willa Cather, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison. But now? Where is my Gertrude Stein? Who can stand up against Junot Diaz and Khaled Hosseini and Kazuo Ishiguro? Is it really supposed to be Alice McDermott?

Netzer concludes in a very practical vein which goes back to where I originally thought she was going – there are “best of” topics. They may not be the best topics in your opinion but they are the topics likely to get you on a “best of” list:

The lesson of the list is that nobody's going to do us any favors. We're not going to get prizes just for showing up and writing our little books. Girl books are great; I like to read them and write them. But if we're writing girl books, we're not getting on "Best of" lists, and that is the reality. Do with it what you will.

There’s something I like about this attitude. It is realistic. Personally, I don’t think getting included on someone’s “best of” list means a hill of beans as far as merit goes. There are lots of very good authors out there, not only women, who don’t have a large readership and are never going to catch the attention of the people who make “best of” lists, at least “best of” lists that anyone cares about.

But being on a “best of” list probably does mean something in terms of book sales and financial remuneration. And, lets face it, it probably does mean something in terms of having a work that will last in the consciousness of the public. It doesn’t mean it will one day be deemed a classic; but at least it brings the book to the attention of the people who might decide to teach it and thereby make it a classic.

So if it is important to a woman to get on the “best of” list, start writing the type of thing that gets picked for a “best of” list and stop writing the stuff that doesn’t.

This seems very practical to me.

But at the end, when she softens her advice a little, she again got back to that nagging question she had asked above. Speaking of novels about motherhood she says:

Yeah, motherhood is important, we wouldn't be here without it. But we wouldn't be here without eating either, and I don't see a lot of cookbooks winning Pulitzers. Maybe it's not about writing about "man themes" but about human themes. Maybe it's not about pandering to the list, but evolving, as a gender, into people who address the important stuff, the big stuff: death, war, sex, adventure, as it pertains to women and men.

Evolving as a gender. Where is our Kite Runner she asks?

Personally I wouldn’t put Khaled Hosseini on a par with Faulkner and Woolf either. But I get what she is saying. He does paint on a large canvass.

Everything I read tells me that women make up the vast majority of readers. And the ranks of would-be writers are full of women. I read a lot of women authors. And I enjoy much of what I read. But I do think that most of the time, even when the women is writing about what I think is a culturally or historically significant theme, the women paints on a small canvas.

I compare a novel like Brick Lane to A Thousand Splendid Suns. I consider both of those novels to be stories of individual women and novels about political situations. Although I thought both authors succeeded with many things in their novels I wouldn’t elevate either of those novels to “great” novel status. But I do recognize that the (male) author of A Thousand Splendid Suns decided to work with a broad canvass while the (female) author of Brick Lane chose to work on the small canvass. It is almost as if the (male) author of A Thousand Splendid Suns told his tale to a large audience gathered in the living room while the (female) author of Brick Lane told her tale to the women in the kitchen shelling peas. I felt that Hosseini expected that men and women would read his tale of two women in Afghanistan where I felt that Monica Ali assumed that mostly women would be reading her novel.

I was thinking about this as I was reading Ted Genoway’s current piece in Mother Jones: The Death of Fiction. That’s a somewhat misleading title. He’s really writing about the death of literary magazines. He compares the situation that editors of Lit Mags in years past face compared to the situation today.

Consider this: When Wilbur Cross was elected governor of Connecticut in 1930, an unlikely Democratic victor in an overwhelmingly Republican state, his principal qualification was his nearly 20 years as editor of Yale Review. Indeed, Cross essentially invented the modern quarterly when he reshaped the sleepy review to more closely mirror The Atlantic in its discussion of current events alongside literature and criticism. While preparing to take office, he was in correspondence with Aldous Huxley, Sherwood Anderson, and Maxim Gorky about their contributions to the next issue. In fact, through four successive terms, Cross never left the helm of Yale Review—publishing John Maynard Keynes on microeconomics and Thomas Mann on the threat of Nazism—at the same time he was pushing back against legislated morality (such as Prohibition) and enacting tougher child-labor restrictions. When the New York Times asked how he found time to read manuscripts and review proofs while performing his responsibilities as governor, Cross deadpanned, "By getting up early in the morning."

Cross could do this because the number of submissions to a Lit Mag at that time was manageable. Then everyone began writing. Submissions increased. Creative writing programs proliferated across the country. Universities started new Lit Mags and Journals to publish all these new writers. And yet. And yet their circulation was and remained tiny. No one was reading them.

Consider this for a moment: If those programs admit even 5 to 10 new students per year, then they will cumulatively produce some 60,000 new writers in the coming decade. Yet the average literary magazine now prints fewer than 1,500 copies. In short, no one is reading all this newly produced literature—not even the writers themselves. And with that in mind, writers have become less and less interested in reaching out to readers—and less and less encouraged by their teachers to try.

My emphasis, not his. Genoway doesn’t fully develop, in my opinion, this idea of writers becoming more insular in what they write about. And he doesn’t focus primarily on women writers. But I found the idea interesting and I’ve been thinking about it in conjunction with Netzer’s comment about writing “culturally and historically significant” works.

Genoway points out that, as the topics that authors were writing about became less commercial (more insular) the commercial outlets for short fiction dried up. Magazines that would regularly publish short stories pretty much stopped including fiction. I’m not sure if there really is a cause and effect here. I remember when Glamour Magazine published short stories but it might be that it wasn’t a problem with the stories that caused them to stop but, rather, a different profit model. In any event:

One would think that the rapid eviction of literature from the pages of commercial magazines would have come as a tremendous boon to lit mags, especially at the schools that have become safe harbors for (and de facto patrons of) writers whose works don't sell enough to generate an income. You would expect that the loyal readers of established writers would have provided a boost in circulation to these little magazines and that universities would have seen themselves in a new light—not just promoting the enjoyment of literature but promulgating a new era of socially conscious writing in the postcommercial age. But the less commercially viable fiction became, the less it seemed to concern itself with its audience, which in turn made it less commercial, until, like a dying star, it seems on the verge of implosion. Indeed, most American writers seem to have forgotten how to write about big issues—as if giving two shits about the world has gotten crushed under the boot sole of postmodernism.

That’s my emphasis, not his. Again, he doesn’t really develop this thought about the content of the fiction. But it brought to mind Netzer’s advice to women writers who want to be on “best of” lists (and as the editor of a lit mag, Genoway is the kind of person whose opinion is representative on these types of lists).

So how do you write a ‘culturally and historically significant novel’ or short story that shows you give ‘two shits about the world”? Got me. I’m not a writer. I do know that writers are told to “write what you know”. And I’m reminded of the latest John Irving novel in which his literary main character scoffs at that advice:

What bullshit was this? Novels should be about people you know? How many boring but deadeningly realistic novels can be attributed to this lame and utterly uninspired advice.

Irving is, of course, writing a novel that has lots of characters based on people he actually knows and experiences he actually had. But I think there is some truth in his character’s scoffing. Everything you write about doesn’t have to be based on your experience; some of it can be things you imagine.

And if you can imagine living in town different than your own or having a job different than your own why can’t you imagine your characters are caught up in a “culturally and historically significant” event?

Again, it doesn’t personally matter to me in my reading if a novel is on a “best of” list. That’s not what this is about. But “best of” lists do exist and getting on them does matter to many women authors.

And I do find that I applaud the idea of reading more books by women that are the equivalent of War and Peace. Or even The Kite Runner. Or today’s equivalent of To Kill a Mockingbird. I would like to read more novels written by women that may have strong women characters but that also intend to start a political discussion that is not only a political discussion of issues that concern primarily women. I like the idea of reading women authors writing about what Netzer calls "the big stuff."