On November 2, Publishers Weekly released their list of Best Books of 2009. While the long list included many women writers (Gillian Flynn, Jane Gardam, Zoë Heller, Yiyun Li, Nancy Mauro, Ana Menendez, Jayne Anne Phillips, Sarah Waters on the fiction list alone), the Top 10 was only men.
The maelstrom that followed was swift: In a statement titled "Why Weren't Any Women Invited To Publishers Weekly's Weenie Roast?" Erin Belieu and Cate Marvin of the literary organization WILLA (Women In Letters And Literary Arts) suggested blatant sexism among the editors of Publishers Weekly. "It continues to surprise me that literary editors are so comfortable with their bias toward male writing, despite the great and obvious contributions that women authors make to our contemporary literary culture," writes Cate Marvin.
Because they surely wouldn't suggest that the list is an active attack towards women writers, WILLA's condemnation must rest on the bias they perceive and condemn among the editors of Publishers Weekly. The criticisms seem to imply a cabal of Sexist White Male Writers are pulling the strings, gleefully banning The Ladies from their venerated list.
Yet women are well-represented in the senior staff of the magazine, according to their masthead. Among them are Senior Editor Lynn Andriani, Senior Reviews Editor Sarah F. Gold, Senior News Editor Rachel Deahl, and Reviews Director Louisa Ermelino. Women outnumber men 13 to 4 in their contributing editor list. Anyone suggesting a boycott of the magazine is in fact raging against a significant number of women who, as WILLA might argue on another day, fought hard for their place. Assumptions that the Top 10 emerged from the hazy cigar smoke of an old boys' club are likely misguided.
Perhaps the troubles of gender preference in these top lists are only reinforced by WILLA's growing wiki list of Great Books By Women That Publishers Weekly Missed in 2009. If the point of the argument is that great writing transcends gender, why create an entire gendered list?
On her blog, Kamy Wicoff writes, "Here's another one for you: 65% of books sold in the U.S. are purchased by women; women wrote 0% of the Best Books of 2009. Really?" The question suggests that women would naturally prefer to buy books written by women, an idea that itself toes sexism without making any suggestions to the contrary.
Publishers Weekly's gender-neutral stance may be appealing, but it's not entirely accurate. Once the editors noticed that their list was all male, they decided to run with it. It would have been easy to bump up a woman from the Top 100--Jayne Anne Phillips, for example, whose novel Lark and Termite was a National Book Award finalist. But Publishers Weekly decided to run the list as it was. Perhaps it was out of honesty to their selection process, or a desire to create linkbait fodder, getting people to talk about the magazine when publishing giants are forced to close their doors. Though it may not have been a stated intent, editors typically have a good sense of the kind of article that will be appreciated and ignored, and the kind that will raise questions and controversy.
Of the list, Publishers Weekly Reviews Director Louisa Ermelino noted that the editors ignored gender and genre, and that "it disturbed us when we were done that our list was all male." Is Ermelino disturbed in the same way that she would be disturbed at a penny landing on heads ten times in a row? Is she disturbed because, unlike a penny, the likelihood that a book written by a man will register a higher acclaim than a book by a woman is not a 50/50 chance?
After a recent call from Rose Metal Press urging more women to submit to their annual chapbook competition, I started to wonder how equal the gender line was drawn on the ladder rungs that most interest me, the small press and literary journals. The results of a small survey were surprising: across the board, male writers dominate submission numbers 2 to 1.
I asked editors to go through their past 100 submissions. Aaron Burch at Hobart reported rates of 2 to 1. Kathleen Rooney of Rose Metal Press reported the same numbers, though she noted that they were changing after the call. J.A. Tyler, of mud luscious/mlp reported that the last 100 general submissions broke down into 59 male and 41 female, but the chapbook submissions were 41 male and 14 female. Adam Robinson's Publishing Genius saw 80 male and 20 female submissions. From Roxane Gay's PANK, a journal some speculated would be more female-sub heavy, 65 submissions were from men and 35 were from women.
To vastly extrapolate, assuming that the number of top-quality male and female writers is equally distributed, most journals would publish more men than women, without even considering bias. If submissions numbers to the big publishing houses were similar to Hobart--which has the biggest print run and longest history among the journals and presses listed above--more men would be published in general. On any given year, it seems probable that a top ten list might happen to be all men. It's interesting that there are 29 women on the Top 100: "Only twenty-nine," Susan Steinberg laments on The Rumpus, but that number happens to fit just about perfectly with the submission stats in the small journals surveyed.
Perhaps the thing to remember through all this is the sentiment behind everyone's concern. Publishers Weekly's attempt to turn a loud blind eye and WILLA's counter-attempt to start a discussion benefitting women writers are each well-meaning and similar in purpose and good intentions. The ideal response is a kind-hearted interest paired with the ability to adjust the list to your own preference, remembering that bias is complex and inevitable and coincidence is ever-present.