This Post Is Not About Political Correctness

Publishers Weekly has released its list of the top ten books of 2009. None of the books are by women. It should come as no surprise that a lot of people — particularly, but not exclusively, feminists and women writers — are angry about this.

It should also come as no surprise that the response to this criticism is “political correctness;” that is, that the only reason to include books by women on the list is to be politically and culturally correct. Even Laura Miller of Salon, who is generally a fine reviewer and critic, falls into this trap:

If you insist on a list that’s ideally representative of gender, race, class, nationality (i.e., including at least one translation), publisher size (small as well as large), fame, length (short story collections as well as novels), region, genre and so on, you can easily wind up with, say, a list of nine books you kinda like and maybe one you truly love. That’s a tepid dish to serve up to readers, and not likely to inspire much enthusiasm, either.

But political correctness is not the point. Logic is. Given the number of excellent women writers publishing books in any given year, it is highly improbable that a list of the ten best books of the year would not include any women authors. It might be possible — if you toss a coin ten times, there’s a 1 in 1,024 chance that you’ll get all heads — but it’s not particularly likely. What is likely when you see such an outcome is that whoever made the list drew from a limited selection of books that was heavy on male authors. Even Miller agrees with this point:

I don’t doubt that P.W.’s editors are entirely sincere when they say their list reflects their unvarnished preferences. Still, the fact that those preferences can’t encompass one woman author among 10 books (fiction or nonfiction) picked from the 50,000-plus titles they claim to have sifted through suggests that their horizons might need a bit of deliberate widening.

Since it’s obvious that no one person, or even one editorial staff, can read 50,000 books in a year, PW is clearly sifting books using its own algorithm, which just as clearly has a few flaws in it. For example, while I’d heard about most of the nonfiction books PW recommended — and had even put a couple of them on my library list — I had never heard of any of the fiction or of any of the fiction authors. I make no claim to read everything, but I do follow book reviews and publishing news; you’d think I’d at least recognize a name or two.

Of course, if anyone created a list of the ten best books of the year and all the authors were female, they’d immediately be charged with being politically correct and no one would credit their argument that it just happened that way. But if it’s an all-male list, it’s OK, because everyone is willing to assume that work by men is probably superior to work by women.

It should go without saying that it is actually impossible to create an objective list of the ten best books of the year. Reading is a highly subjective activity. If I create such a list, for example, it is likely to be heavy on SF/F, women writers, and books by friends of mine, because I tend to read those things. But I’d call it the list of the best books I read, not the list of the best books of the year. Even though I read a lot, I know I barely scratch the surface of what’s available out there.

But there is a great love in all media of “ten best” lists. What makes the subjectivity parading as objectivity of such lists particularly irritating is that they boost sales. So when PW and other publications with a reputation put out lists that are skewed by their own subjectivity, they are doing harm.

The “politically correct” defense just doesn’t wash.

The Way of the Warrior series will return next week when I’m feeling less cranky.

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Nancy Jane’s flash fiction for this week is “Blogpost Seen on etisreal.blogspot.com on November 12, 2009.”  Her collection Conscientious Inconsistencies is available from PS Publishing and her novella Changeling can be ordered from Aqueduct Press.

Check out The Nancy Jane Moore Bookshelf for more stories.

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This Post Is Not About Political Correctness — 11 Comments

  1. This sort of list drives me crazy–not just because of the unacknowledged subjectivity, but because it seems to be mis-labeled. The ten best reviewed books, perhaps (in which case, which reviews are they including?). The ten best novels? No, some of them are non-fiction. The ten best non-fiction books (and are we privileging memoir over history over current events over self-help?). On second thought, it’s not the list itself that drives me crazy, it’s the unexamined nest of assumptions behind it.

  2. Yes, it’s those unexamined assumptions. Here’s an interesting analysis of those assumptions, a blog post titled Repressive Anti-Sentimentalism: Best [Male] Writers of 2009.

    Applying analysis he got from reading Prof. Nina Baym, the author observes: “Her argument — which, to my mind, is unanswerable — is that the entire American canon of great books, on which the standard for American literary greatness gets derived, isn’t just male in a descriptive sense, but is subjectively male: to be an American writer is to write about struggling with a feminized domesticized society embodied by the figure of the woman. As a result, since the “great” books seem to be overwhelmingly about men on boats running away from women, the woman writer, as Baym puts it, enters American literary history as the enemy.”

  3. “So when PW and other publications with a reputation put out lists that are skewed by their own subjectivity, they are doing harm.”

    And how would you suggest they be purely objective and logical? Don’t you admit above that such objectivity is impossible?

    “Logic” has nothing to do with it–and it’s frustrating how often those with no understanding of how to apply statistics turn to bogus statistical substantiation of their claims.

    In short, you can’t make backward inferences from a single statistical axis. You say the odds of an ‘objective’ no-female list is 1-in-1024. That would only be true if they were picking books truly at random from an equal pool. The fact that they explicitly were NOT picking at random means that such statistical probabilities are worthless. No value at all, even as fuzzy guidance.

    The real problem here is that you *suspect* them of bias but have no clear way to prove it, so you (and many others) resort to muddled logic in an attempt to objectify your inherently unobjective, moral outrage.

    Notice that I’m not defending PW here, I’m just saying that your arguments don’t hold water. I still haven’t heard a coherent solution to this issue anywhere. What are the alternatives? Tokenism? Would you reorganize the PW editorial board until it contained enough guaranteed votes for women that your desired outcome was preordained?

    And a final question: if the top ten list had been ten women, would you–truly–be as incensed? If not, then why not?

  4. Starting backwards:

    If the top ten list had been all women, I would be amused but skeptical. And if the top ten list had been all women, it would have been condemned for political correctness in big black headlines in every publication in the US that cares at all about books.

    And yes, I think it is equally unlikely that the ten best books of the year are all written by women. I’ve read a some very fine books by men lately.

    If you go back and read carefully, you’ll find that I did not say that there was a 1 in 1,024 chance that there could be an all-male list. I quoted a statistic related to coin tossing just to give some perspective on randomness. I don’t have the list of the 50,000 books PW claims to have reviewed, so I don’t know how many are by men and how many are by women. With that figure, you could create odds on whether a random list of books would be all male or all female. You are welcome to track down the list and do a complete statistical analysis.

    Of course a list of great books is supposedly not random. But if the gender of the total authors in the group is more or less 50/50, or even 60 men/40 women, it is mathematically unreasonable to assume that the great books on it will only be by men.

    And of course there’s no way anyone creates a purely objective list of “best” anything. But if, like PW, you’re pretending your list really is objective, then you’d better look at it twice when it comes out that skewed. That’s even more important if people take your lists seriously.

    Look at my earlier comment to see one reason why a list might be all male — a definition of good literature that assumes women are the enemy. That’s not my theory; that’s Prof. Baym’s. She’s probably smarter about this stuff than I am.

  5. The problem a worldview which assumes the individual members of any group are all “the enemy”, is that it can never be disproven (religious extremists, anyone?). Any set of facts whatsoever can be turned to support such self-defined structures.

    The thing that really annoys me is the extra baggage that people like Baym put on this event. Rather than starting with a more plausible, simple theory (the PW editors are mostly men, and maybe men prefer to read books by other men because they are more relevant to their own experience), you get ludicrous claims like:

    “to be an American writer is to write about struggling with a feminized domesticized society embodied by the figure of the woman. As a result..the woman writer [is] the enemy.”

    Oh really? Is that your best explanation for this particular event? Now you’ve shifted the debate about the cause of this particular incident to a debate over whether there is an insidious, systematic conspiracy against all women writers. And you’ve made it harder for me to acknowledge possible bias in this list because, now, to do so implicitly supports the woman-as-enemy hypothesis.

    But I’m not interested in helping promote Baym’s career, no more than she is interested in actually understanding the dynamics of this particular PW process.

    And again, mathematics are irrelevant to this issue. Statistics can only be meaningfully applied to human behavior over large sample sizes.

    In sum: was there bias of some sort in the creation of this list? Of course. Bias is unavoidable. Is the proper conclusion that the editors are hypocritical woman haters? No. There are countless other possibilities.

    I’d love to find someone interested in understanding this event rather than ranting about it. Maybe someone will do an interview with the editors?

  6. Please feel free to do an interview with the PW editors, who include women, btw. It would be interesting if they did provide some kind of analysis. I suspect they’re patting themselves on the back for resisting the urge of political correctness, and, like you, refusing to acknowledge that there might be a reason why their list turned up all-male.

    I did not say the PW people were hypocritical women haters. I said that they appear to be looking at books through a distorted prism that favors male authors. This sort of bias can often be unconscious, which is why when evidence of it shows up — like an all-male “best of” list — someone should examine the process.

    The real problem is that PW presents this as an objective list made by arbiters of taste, when it’s clearly a subjective one created by a faulty process. The editors at PW should reexamine how they developed their list.

    If someone out there is looking for a dissertation topic in English literature and criticism, this would make an excellent topic. I’m just writing a blog post observing that the list violates basic rules of logic and mathematics and suggesting places where PW might have made a wrong turn.

  7. “and, like you, refusing to acknowledge that there might be a reason why their list turned up all-male. ”

    Yup, the reason could EVEN be that out of the 50,000 books they read 49,990 didn’t come up to the standard they thought was necessary to be called a top ten book of 2009 (written by male, female or whatever)

    Woah! Now that, surely, must be thinking outside the box, eh?

    Get over yourselves bookviewcafe authors, methinks the ladies tend to protest too much…

  8. You really think they read 50,000 books? How did they read 50,000 books? If someone could read 250 books a year — and that’s a lot — that’s at least 200 people involved in this, which adds in even more variables.

    I think some people — probably both men and women — are a tad defensive, since they seem to be compelled to defend the ridiculous. (Since those commenting on this post have declined to identify themselves, I can’t tell if they’re male or female, so I don’t know if they are men who don’t want to admit men get an edge in these things or women who want to be sure to get male approval.)

    I repeat: simple math tells us that there’s a flaw in a top ten list of books that only includes male authors.

    BTW, don’t attribute opinions on this blog to Book View Cafe. The opinions expressed in the posts are those of the individual authors.

  9. Readers might be interested to know that people who actually review for PW are paid $25 per review. It is supposedly anonymous to ensure fairness in reviews, and to be fair – I think overall they are doing a very good job under the circumstances. They do horrible, snarky nonreviews with much less frequency than Kirkus used to. I have known a couple of PW reviewers who admitted their task several years later.

    There’s only one book written by a female on Amazon’s top 10 list, and it varies from the PW rundown, with only a couple of crossovers. The Amazon list mentions Crazy for the Storm, one of my favorites (Norman Ollestad) and of course . . . proof that “sci fi” is NOT dead – China Mieville’s book. That’s because at Amazon, they use computers more.

  10. By the way, I just completed a book about Mississippi (not world literature . . .) and in writing it, I listened to a lot of oral history tapes taken from people who lived through the voting rights era in the Delta, such as Fannie Lou Hamer. I’m 5th generation Californian, so the environment in MS, which included extreme racism and physical oppression, was alien to me. I had to listen to the tapes several times to comprehend that the speakers weren’t making anything up, they were understating and controlling their emotion.

    I think this past election season answered some questions as to which was more endemic in our society – racism or gender bias. In another way, violence against women (and children) is still largely tolerated, and women get “passes” on their behavior, with those who are of a violent or manipulative nature easily able to abuse others with no repercussions to themselves because of the “double-standard.” One can find examples where black-on-black violence in the early to mid-20th Century was totally overlooked and black victims had no legal recourse whatsoever. As a female victim of harassment, violence and cyberstalking – I didn’t have too much recourse either in the present day. This is a hallmark of institutionalized bias.

    We’re not living where many of us may have thought we were. Some of these critical comments made about the list remind me of “The Women Men Don’t See.” If only it would be so easy to do something like that; unfortunately – it’s a fantasy. There are no nurturing Greys waiting to take us all off on an adventure because of how special we are.

  11. In addition, the PW list is also 8 white males, one Pakistani male, and one African-American male. In the case of the two nonwhite authors, both of their works are about their racial and ethnic backgrounds.