Gender Bias in PW’s Best Books of the Year?

Matt Cheney:

The good people at Publisher’s Weekly are probably speaking what they think is the truth when they say, about their all-male list of 10 “best” books of the year, that “We ignored gender and genre and who had the buzz.” I believe them when they say, “It disturbed us when we were done that our list was all male.”

But being disturbed is not enough. What they have done is shameful.

This is not just some blogger’s list of favorite books of the year. This is the publishing industry’s trade journal telling the world what ten books from 2009 deserve most acclaim and attention. This list will affect how books are stocked in stores and it will affect what books are bought by libraries. The fact that the list only includes male writers contributes to a problem.

The editors who created this list have chosen to perpetuate sexism. They have deliberately and knowingly made it easier for male writers to have access to sales and publicity at the expense of women writers. Their list perpetuates the idea that the best, most serious, and most consequential books are written by men, and that idea will continue to have an effect out in the world.

Of course Matt is absolutely right when he says that this will have a real effect in the world, and he’s likewise right that PW should do some soul searching, although I find it hard to cast too much blame on PW unless I can at least know who was involved in picking these books and how it was done. Granted, though, this should have them scratching their heads and trying to figure out something a little more diverse next year, just as the NYTBR’s all-Knopf classic should have them re-examining their processes (fat chance).


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This is an interesting dilemma, specifically BECAUSE of that large industry-clout you point out PW has; knowing their list would have a real financial impact on writers and bookstores, should the editors at PW have made that list gender-diverse, even if they themselves (by majority vote, I’m assuming) genuinely thought this year no books by women made the ‘top 10′ cut? Is their list irresponsible, even if it honestly reflects their critical appraisal?
(not that I don’t think their list is daffy – three of the best novels I read this year were by women, and two of those were YARDS better than any new novel by a man I’ve read this year)(but it’s still fascinating to think about)

As the industry’s leading trade journal, PW has certain obligations regarding what books/authors it chooses to promote; however, forcing it to comply to political correctness is just as dangerous as letting it stir up controversy. After all, why stop at women? Why not demand that a gay writer appear on the list? An African American? A Native American? etc. etc.
The point is, maybe PW just didn’t find a woman’s book that it considered among the very best of the year. Is this so terrible? The Oscars go year after year without nominating a female director. My point is this: being overly sensitive and shackled to notions of political correctness is a quick way to make such banal lists (and top ten lists are inherently banal) even more irrelevant.

Tom,
I don’t want to put words in Matt’s mouth, but my read of his comments (and my own opinion) is that PW should not institute a quota-type system for reasons of political correctness. My take is that PW should take a look at the processes it used to arrive at this list and see if they can uncover some methodological bias. Obviously, any list-making scheme is going to be biased in some way, and you can certainly find bias in this list in more ways than the male-to-female ratio. However, given that it was 10 – 0, it doesn’t seem like this is asking too much.

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