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.

  1. Gayle you are going to piss off a let of men. But I don’t blame you.

  2. First, I loved your post. Second, I loved your Dad’s comment.

  3. get it, girl! and i agree, your dad’s comment made me laugh.

    wait, how does if i stay not have much of a plot?! i think it has the best plot..that would be even better with a sequel. (are my motives too obvious?)

  4. What a fantastic post! I just came to visit your website because my local indie bookseller highly recommended your book (If I Stay) and I have a habit of checking out author websites when I’m interested in a book. I love reading YA even though I’m a 33 yr old mother of three. Frankly, I think YA is where all the good books are nowadays. I can’t wait to go get your book now!

  5. Saw this post after I think Jen posted it on Kristin Cashore’s blog, and I gotta say I agree.

    I’d rather read a book where you relate to the characters and actually LIKE them, than some ‘well written’ multi award winning piece that leaves you feeling like crap.

  6. I remember getting into fight with my lit professors in college about the language of literary criticism. “But it’s not English,” I’d say and they’d just look at me disdainfully. But really, there was no reason for stuff to be that boring. I feel the same about certain novels that are Very Important and so boring that no one really wants to read them. I mean, there are amazing writers out there like Junot Diaz and Jumpa Lahiri who are both literary and make you want to turn pages fastly, so it can be done.
    In YA, boringness just Will Not Stand. Librarians and booksellers are too invested in getting teens to read to try and push dull books. They want quality books, but readable ones. The two things need not be mutually exclusive.

  7. This is an excellent post. I hate it when people get off on literary vs. commercial and why one is so superior to the other. I’ve read so many commercial books that back a heavy emotional punch, and literary books that felt like 400 pages of a writer a little bit too obsessed with himself. In the way of personal experience, I encountered some sexist attitudes a few years ago. I attended a seminary to do some grad work. Men were constantly asking me if I was there to find a husband. They said it “jokingly” – but it stung. It bothered me because they would never make jokes like that with other men. It’s pathetic that even at this point in history, women are still overlooked in so many fields simply because of their gender. Or, worse, that women are a convenient joke for men who are, obviously, very insecure in their own abilities.

  8. amazing post! thanks for actually speaking up about this issue. frankly, in this day and age it’s unbearably annoying.

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