Jury, Meet Peers

Lizzie Skurnick:
"I just want to say," I said as the meeting closed, "that we have sat here and consistently called books by women small and books by men large, by no quantifiable metric, and we are giving awards to books I think are actually kind of amateur and sloppy compared to others, and I think it's disgusting." (I wasn't built for the board room.) "But we can't be doing it because we're sexist," an estimable colleague replied huffily. "After all, we're both men and women here."

But that's the problem with sexism. It doesn't happen because people -- male or female -- think women suck. It happens for the same reason a sommelier always pours a little more in a man's wine glass (check it!), or that that big, hearty man in the suit seems like he'd be a better manager. It's not that women shouldn't be up for the big awards. It's just that when it comes down to the wire, we just kinda feel like men . . . I don't know . . . deserve them.
(Be sure to read the whole essay; it's a smart and sharp attack on a problem that we should be past at this point.)

The good people at Publisher's Weekly are probably speaking what they think is the truth when they say, about their all-male list of 10 "best" books of the year, that "We ignored gender and genre and who had the buzz." I believe them when they say, "It disturbed us when we were done that our list was all male."

But being disturbed is not enough. What they have done is shameful.

This is not just some blogger's list of favorite books of the year. This is the publishing industry's trade journal telling the world what ten books from 2009 deserve most acclaim and attention. This list will affect how books are stocked in stores and it will affect what books are bought by libraries. The fact that the list only includes male writers contributes to a problem.

The editors who created this list have chosen to perpetuate sexism. They have deliberately and knowingly made it easier for male writers to have access to sales and publicity at the expense of women writers. Their list perpetuates the idea that the best, most serious, and most consequential books are written by men, and that idea will continue to have an effect out in the world.

Our society has made plenty of great strides over the past centuries and decades in terms of reducing institutional sexism, but moments such as this highlight just how entrenched the patriarchy is. Yes, patriarchy. Male dominated, male identified, male centered. It's insidious, and it is self perpetuating.

There is no objective, essential "best". There is stuff we like and stuff we don't -- texts we have developed techniques for appreciating and texts that we do not, for myriad reasons, appreciate. There are texts about which we have built large critical apparatuses for justifying as "great". Perceptions of gender, race, sexuality, class, and other broad social categories mix with our experiences as readers, our educations, etc., to produce the judgments we make. Though we may struggle to create vivid and convincing justifications for our judgments, there are still mysteries to any evaluation that strives for nuance. But even so, we can expand our awareness, question our gut instincts, analyze our justifications, wonder why we are doing what we do and saying what we say. To assume that we can simply "not pay attention" to some of the central forces structuring our perception of reality is naive. We might be powerless to change them, but we might also be in a position to avoid perpetuating them and adding strength to them. We don't have any choice about whether the society we're born into is racist, sexist, heterosexist, whatever. But we do have some choice about how we relate to that society, how we work within it, what we pay attention to, and how we choose to make our choices.

I'm not ranting from a position of innocence -- most of the writers I most deeply value are men (many of whom are white, middle class, born within the last 150 years, and not from the U.S.). I have some hunches for why this is, hunches related to early reading experiences, prejudices about language and its relationship to reality, etc. Personal taste and judgment are too complex to explain simply or conclusively. Individual readers are strange creatures, full of prejudices and whims and blind spots and allergies. Individually, I expect there are weird particulars other than race, class, and gender that affect our taste more profoundly, more forcefully than those social categories themselves (if those social categories could ever be isolated, which I am skeptical of anyway -- any discussion of them is provisional and strategic). But when we move beyond the individual, as lists try to do, we're moving into the realm of systems and social structures -- means of distribution and consumption, gravitational forces that shape and warp how we talk about the realities we perceive, the tides we choose to sail with or against. And that talk itself then goes on to shape some more realities and turn some tides.

All of which is just me noodling around and trying to say the same basic thing: An institution with the power of Publisher's Weekly has more responsibility than an individual has, because the power that institution wields is greater than the power of most individuals (certain folks like Oprah excepted, although I can imagine people could argue that "Oprah" should be considered more of an institution than an individual).

Or, more basically, what I said above: The editors at Publisher's Weekly should be more than disturbed. They should be ashamed.

Here's a book to add to a best of the year list: A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx by Elaine Showalter. I've got plenty of quibbles with the book, especially Showalter's dismissive attitude toward Gertrude Stein, but I'm also finding it (still reading; it's big) a rich source of information and delight. I've already begun seeking out writers I hadn't heard of until reading Showalter, and revisiting ones I had not paid enough attention to. Check out Katha Pollitt's review of Showalter at Slate or Rebecca Hussey's at The Quarterly Conversation or Sarah Churchwell's at The Guardian or Susan Salter Reynolds's at The L.A. Times.

Or watch Sarah Nelson, former editor-in-chief of Publisher's Weekly, interview Showalter.

I haven't read nearly as many books published this year as the editors at PW have, but I'm perfectly happy to propose A Jury of Her Peers as the best book of the year on a single criterion: It's the book we, the litterateurs and taste proclaimers, seem to need the most.

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