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.
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.