excuse me, but my vagina is getting in the way of my writing
September 13th, 2009
So, last night, as part of the Brooklyn Book Festival, which I hope you’ll all go to today if you’re in the area, I went to a Literary Event and got a little hot under the collar. Or, should I say, under the corset.
Before I start, I should say that part of the event was meant to honor a female writer, one of color, no less, who’s an amazing writer (okay, I’ll stop being coy: Edwidge Danticat, who is from Haiti originally and who is awesome). The second part of the event was the awarding of a $50,000 literary prize to a writer who was midway through his or her career. The judges for this prize were some heavy-hitting authors (Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Heidi Julavits) and I have no idea if they read blind or how this worked. But something happened that pissed the hell out of me. Because all of the writers shortlisted were men.
I notice this a lot lately. When I read New York Magazine’s 2009 Best Books of the Year roundup, one book was written by a woman, and that was a memoir. It’s like ovaries and novels don’t mix. The 2008 nominees for the National Book Award in fiction? All but one written by men, and the winner went to dude.
But if you look on this week’s New York Times bestseller list for paperback trade fiction , you’ll find that three of the top five bestselling books are written by women. It seems the literary establishment puts up this pretentsious division between prizeworthy books and commercial books, but at the end of the day, the books that wind up on the bestseller lists—well-written “literary” ones like Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge (number three on the NYT list) and not so artful ones—are the ones that people want to read because they’re readable! And judging by the lists, women are just as skilled as this.
In the Utopia of YA, I’d say the playing field is a lot more level (in terms of prize nominees and best-seller lists, it’s pretty evenly divided between XX and XY-chromosomed writers). One of the things I love about YA is that much of the highbrow bullshit of the literary establishment—we ain’t got time for that. Our readers don’t have time for that! And I’d argue this democracy is filtering down to the work—and maybe even to sales. In a recent and much-debated Wall Street Journal piece, Lev Grossman looks at why so many adults are reading Suzanne Collins and Stephenie Meyer (ahem, note the ovaries) and other YA novelists. He writes that sales of hardcover YA novels are up 30.7% so far this year,while adult hardcovers are down 17.8% (granted, about 10 percent of that must be Breaking Dawn, alone). Though I disagree with his analysis (he says YA books appeal only because they have strong plots, which is true, but as someone who has a book without much of a plot, I’d add YA novels also have well-developed relatable characters, speak to a universal condition, and, generally, try not to be boring). Don’t want to generalize or anything but maybe chicks are good at not being boring. Suzanne and Stephenie sure are.
I know. I know. I should both be used to minor league sexism and literary annoyingness (and not go to any events except YA events, preferably ones where Tiger Beat plays) and not care about this stuff and be grateful that I live in the alt universe of YA. Except in 2009, when you discover vestiges of the Old Boys Club—as a woman, as a mother of two girls, as an author who writes for teen girls—it rankles. I’m sure the judges read blind and will say that the ManWriters were the most worthy, in which case I’d say, that like the SATs, this shit is biased. We need to rethink our idea of what is worthy literature and who writes it.
Because readers already have.