Newsflash: authors don’t write their own cover blurbs

April 26, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

As a political scandal, it’s a bit of a non-starter. Seems the Conservatives, perhaps in an attempt to divert attention away from the tawdry spectacle that is the Jaffer/Guergis affair, were hurling accusations last Friday at Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, claiming that he was engaging in “dishonesty” and “deceitfulness.” What did Ignatieff do to deserve such disparagement? Conceal information about detainees in Afghanistan who were knowingly handed over to the local government to be tortured? (Presumably, this is a subject the Conservatives have more fluency in than their Liberal counterparts.) Prevaricate about the true extent of a disgraced MP’s lobbying activities? (Ditto.) Well … no. Conservative MPs were upset because they thought that Ignatieff had manipulated press blurbs on the cover of the trade paperback edition of his memoir, True Patriot Love.

Seems the paperback quotes a review in the National Post as reading: “Plenty of scope for a rich story … Some wonderful anecdotes, particularly about George P. Grant … Well written.” Unfortunately, that doesn’t quite jibe with the spirit of what the Post‘s reviewer, Robert L. Fraser, actually wrote. “True Patriot Love offers little that is new on the Grants save some wonderful anecdotes, particularly about George P. Grant,” Fraser opined. “As an exploration of patriotism, it offers up clichés about modern Canada but little more. True Patriot Love is a well-written disappointment.”

According to the CBC’s website, that was enough for the Conservatives to suggest that dishonesty of this kind simply proves that Ignatieff is unfit for the Prime Minister’s office:

“This is the type of dishonesty that not even a first-year university student could get away with,” Alberta Tory MP Chris Warkentin told the House of Commons.

“I am wondering if the leader of the Opposition really believes that this is honesty or if this is maybe a case of deceitfulness.”

That Warkentin is completely ignorant of the publishing process is not in itself a problem – why should an MP from Alberta concern himself with the niceties of how books are printed and marketed? Unless, that is, that MP wants to use this process in a blatantly misguided attempt to smear a political opponent. In which case it should be incumbent upon someone to point out what should be blindingly obvious: authors have zero input into the blurbs that appear on the covers of their books. True, authors will often suggest names of people who might be expected to blurb a first edition, but the review blurbs on a reprint are settled upon in-house. It’s rare for an author even to see these blurbs before the finished book appears.

The use of ellipses to string together apparently positive words and phrases in an otherwise negative review is something that publishers have been doing for decades: not entirely cricket, undoubtedly, but not something for which the author can be blamed. Unfortunately for Warkentin, no one in Penguin’s marketing or editorial departments is running for elected office.

Kobo preps for a digital world

April 1, 2010 by · 2 Comments 

April 1, 2010 is the deadline for Kobo, the digital books company spun off from Indigo Books & Music, to complete its  agreements with publishing companies moving from the wholesale model of pricing to the agency model, which effectively means that publishers will be responsible for setting prices on their e-book titles, and Kobo will not be allowed to offer discounts, 2-for-1 promotions, or specials. Writing on the Kobo blog, Michael Tamblyn, vice-president of content, sales, and marketing comments, “When the dust settles, it’s going to be a different world, whether you’re an e-book reader, industry watcher, publisher, or retailer.”

“A different world” may turn out to be an understatement. TSR has learned, through a source close to Kobo who spoke on the condition of anonymity, that the company is preparing for a world in which life itself is digital. “This is no longer the realm of science fiction,” the source said. “It’s quickly becoming science fact.”

In the same way that Indigo decided it couldn’t survive by selling only books, and began to stock its stores with everything from scented candles to Pilates balls and yoga mats, the digital side of the business is looking to expand its suite of offerings in preparation for a world lived 100% online. “We’re thinking totally outside the box,” said the source. “This ain’t your grandma’s Second Life.”

Recognizing that the development of e-ink was essential for electronic readers to catch on, the source said that Kobo’s R&D department is currently studying other revolutionary advancements, such as e-food, which would be downloaded directly into a user’s stomach. “No longer will users have to stand in line at the grocery store or go out to a restaurant to consume actual food. Digital food is faster, healthier, and much less hassle.”

Another intriguing advancement is the e-booze feature, which will apparently be customizable for individual user experience. “E-booze comes with a range of compatibilities,” the source told TSR. “Users can download an e-scotch, which will provide a pleasant, warming sensation, while e-tequila and e-Jägermeister will actually induce vomiting.” Downloaded in the morning, e-Jägermeister can also simulate morning sickness or provide an excuse to call in sick to work.

Won’t this cannibalize the company’s e-baby feature? Absolutely not, says the source. “If you’re faking morning sickness, you’re either doing it out of revenge or in an attempt to hang on to a failing relationship. E-baby is intended for people who actually want the physical experience of raising children, without the bother of having to undergo pregnancy or birth.” The e-baby feature also includes e-poop and e-urine, which set the product apart from earlier-generation devices such as the Tamagotchi digital pets created in Japan in the mid-1990s. “The e-urine feature is still under development,” says the source. “We’re trying to modify it so that it hits the user in the eye every time, but we can’t seem to replicate this peculiarity of actual babies. Still, it’s only a matter of time.”

Early estimates indicate that the world will be 100% digital in 20 years. Although a 2030 deadline seems tight, the anonymous source TSR spoke with has every confidence that technological development will keep up with incessant demand. “Users are sick of the physical world,” the source said. “We’re committed to giving them what they want: a completely digital life. No longer will people have to deal with the messiness of reality. The future isn’t virtual; it’s digital. Get ready.”

Compare and contrast

March 29, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Publishing 101: Choose your title carefully

March 22, 2010 by · 2 Comments 

“We are not farm teams”: Rebecca Rosenblum explains her decision to remain with Biblioasis for her second book

March 22, 2010 by · 2 Comments 

Rebecca Rosenblum is the author of the 2008 collection Once. That book, published by the small Ontario-based press Biblioasis, won the Metcalf-Rooke Award and received almost universally positive reviews. In the wake of her success with her debut, Rosenblum was in a perfect position to jump ship to a larger house. But, for her second book, the upcoming collection The Big Dream, the author decided to stay with Biblioasis. In its ongoing series inquiring into the gulf between large and small presses, TSR asked Rosenblum about her decision to remain with her originating publisher, and her feelings about how her association with Biblioasis has benefited her as an author.

Why did you choose to stay with Biblioasis for your second book?

1) Because I had a really good editorial relationship with John Metcalf – he pushed me, but only in the directions I wanted to go, and it was exciting to be challenged like that. I think the book is better than it would have been – much better – without that relationship.

2) Because I liked the “book-creation process,” for lack of a better term. I got to lay down a piece of art on a table with Dan (Wells, publisher) and John and say, can this be my cover? And the answer was yes. A lot of work was done to make sure I didn’t have to cut the book’s length at all. The copy edit was solid. I like the title page design. These things matter.

3) Because the promotion of Once exceeded my expectations. I was really thrilled with the review coverage Once got – more like shocked, really. I got to go to a few festivals, I got to be on the radio, do readings, do interviews. I am very much aware that not every unknown author of short stories gets to do this stuff. Some of it was luck, sure, but some of it was because Biblioasis worked really hard for me.

Did you ever consider the bigger payday you might have received from a larger house?

No. I mean, I should make it clear that I think I was paid decently for Once and will be for The Big Dream. My agent, Samantha Haywood, negotiated the latter deal and was very positive about it – she would never have let me sign anything inappropriate. Beyond that, no, money was not a factor.

What do you think small presses can provide an author that larger presses can’t?

I’m not really an expert on this, having only had the one experience, but I would think: flexibility – both in terms of what they publish and how they do it. I’m pretty sure that, without corporate oversight, independent houses have a lot more freedom to publish books that are outside the mainstream or controversial or just not super saleable. And they can fiddle with production timelines – my first book was out of my hands and onto store shelves in six months, which I think is unusual.

And, at least for me at Biblioasis, there is a sense of community. I admire a number of the other authors there, and it’s been cool for me to get to meet them and, in some cases, read with them. And of course, I like John a lot, I like Dan a lot, I like their wives, I like Dan’s kids. And all of those people have been kind to me, gone out of their way for me, given me hugs.

But I’m not sure what I’m talking about is a small-press experience; it may be just the experience that I have had at a small press. I know lots of writers who have really wonderful relationships, professionally and personally, with publishers both small and large. I certainly know editors at houses of all sizes who are warm, delightful people I would be thrilled to hang out with or work with. I also know writers who have had terrible, alienating experiences with houses of all sizes – there are a few people at every level of the industry who are jerks, or bad at their jobs, or both.

I think by making this a binary – big vs. small – the real issue is obscured. And that issue is, how can we create the best books and get them read by the most people? That question is being answered in different ways at different houses, with varying levels of success. I like the way Biblioasis does things, but not because they’re small – because they’re good.

By staying with Biblioasis, you were able to maintain a relationship with John Metcalf, your editor there. How important is the author/editor relationship in your experience?

I think I pretty much answered this above, but yes, for sure. He was really generous with support and encouragement, and considered it worth his time and long-distance telephone charges to make me feel better about things. Although I don’t doubt he was fully cognizant that I work more – and better – when I’m happy.

Aside from the personal relationship, the best editors offer their writers a kind of tacit promise: I will not let you fuck up, I will not let you chicken out, I will save you from your worst tendencies so that you are free to embrace your best ones. That’s worth its weight in gold, and John did, I think, do that for me.

“We are not farm teams”: Robert J. Wiersema on the small press/large press divide: UPDATED

March 18, 2010 by · 4 Comments 

The recent discussion about the relative merits and drawbacks of publishing with a small, independent press versus a large multinational got me thinking it would be interesting to hear first-hand from an author who has had experiences with both. Accordingly, I contacted Robert J. Wiersema, who has published a novel (2006’s Before I Wake) with Random House Canada, and a novella (last year’s The World More Full of Weeping) with the small Toronto-based press ChiZine Publications. The two houses could not be more different: Random House is a major multinational, part of the Bertelsmann media empire. CZP began as a two-person operation, co-owned and run by husband-and-wife team Brett Alexander Savory and Sandra Kasturi.

Wiersema was kind enough to reply to some questions about the experience of being a large press author who moved to a small press for his second book. (NB: Wiersema is back with Random House for his third book, a novel, due out this fall.)

TSR: Why did you choose to go with CZP for your novella?

Robert J. Wiersema: Well, you don’t get any smaller than ChiZine – at the time I signed with them for The World More Full of Weeping, I think Brett and Sandra were running the company off their kitchen table. Now, I think they might have a desk. Just one between the two of them.

As to why I chose ChiZine? Well, for starters, they asked.

It was never a matter of choosing ChiZine over Random House – I’ve been very pleased with my experience with Random (and I think that feeling is mutual, though I suspect there are days when I put it to the test). But I’m sufficiently aware of the realities of the industry to know that there was no way that Random was going to publish a novella as my second book. It wasn’t even a conscious knowledge, just one of those inherent truths: novellas don’t get published as standalone books (yes, there are exceptions, but they don’t make the generalization any less true). So it was a non-starter. Such a non-starter that it didn’t even occur to me to try for it.

I submitted TWMFoW (under its previous name) to CZP for their online magazine. Online magazines are great, because they don’t have the length restrictions that come with print mags, and there truly is an online mag for every sensibility. And some of them – like ChiZine – pay. I figured, “Why not?” It was either that or the drawer and the “stopgap collection of short fiction” down the road.

It was Brett who suggested actual, print publication. They had published two books at that time, and they were lovely – high-end production values, they felt good in the hand. When faced with the choice between having a manuscript languish in a drawer vs. having a signed/limited edition hardcover and a trade paperback edition, what would you do?

And Random House was terrific with it. They have the option on my next book of fiction (after the upcoming novel), but they were very generous in allowing TWMFoW to appear with CZP.

The money? Well, I was under no illusions there. I actually took my advance in extra copies of the signed/numbered edition (my son, Xander, refers to that stack as his college savings account – I’m not ready to shatter his illusions quite yet). But the first round of royalties are due to arrive just as I need to replace my computer – they’ll more than cover that, and a couple of dinners out, and a stack of new comics, so all is right with the world.

TSR: How did the publication process compare to that of a larger house?

RJW: The publication process with ChiZine was … different than with Random House, due largely, I think, to economies of scale. CZP published four or five books the season that TWMFoW came out (which was only their second year in operation, and marked a huge increase in output for them), and every one of them got a blinding level of attention. The books are labours of love, and Brett and Sandra have a hand in everything. They’ve put a lot of themselves on the line for this venture, so they stand or fall with their authors.

And they’re willing to take chances, and be a bit indulgent. When I had the brainstorm to include the essay “Places and Names” as a way of explaining (primarily to my mother and myself) that Henderson, the setting for the novella and a bunch of my other fiction was, in fact, not at all Agassiz (the town I grew up in) – except in the ways that it was – I sent Brett an e-mail, and within five minutes he had said, “Sure, what the hell.”

“Brett, I’d like to include notes for the novella and the essay.”

“Sure, what the hell.”

“What would you think of including an extra short story in the hardcover?”

“Sure, what the hell.”

There weren’t any levels or committees to go through, no one to run ideas past. It was all very easygoing.

That said, I realize that I’m writing from a position of considerable privilege. I wouldn’t trade my experience with Random House for anything – I’ve worked with great editors, a great publisher, great designers, one of the best publicists in the trade. I have no complaints whatsoever. The experiences are just different – steak and chicken, you might say. They satisfy in different ways.

TSR: Do you think it’s harder for a book from a small press to get noticed amid all the marketing buzz from the multinationals?

RJW: Definitely. Marketing budgets are smaller and, more significantly for a new small press, profiles are lower. It’s hard enough introducing a new house, let alone trying to get attention for the books on an early list …

Which means that you end up having to go different ways – lots of grassroots stuff. A week in Montreal at WorldCon (at the author’s expense). Online stuff.

TSR: You said that you thought the format of TWMFoW (i.e. a novella) wouldn’t fly with Random House. Might another issue have been the genre (i.e. psychological horror)? As a general principle, do you think the majors are more conservative in what they’re willing to take a chance on publishing?

RJW: I think the perception is that the majors are more conservative, and that’s true to an extent, but it overlooks Penguin’s very impressive sci-fi and fantasy lists, Random’s mystery titles, etc. And it overlooks … well, me, as the novel that Random House is bringing out this fall will attest …

[This post contains material that has been corrected: An earlier version of this post stated that ChiZine Publications was a two-person operation. There are now seven people on staff. TSR regrets the error.]

The End of Publishing

March 18, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

(via Bookninja)

Sam Hiyate vs. Dan Wells: Two visions of small presses

March 15, 2010 by · 4 Comments 

This past weekend, The Afterword book blog ran another instalment in its ongoing “Ecology of Books” series, this one dealing with authors who are lured away from small houses to major multinationals, usually with the promise of a bigger payday and a more powerful marketing push. The article included a quote from Sam Hiyate, founder of The Rights Factory, a Toronto-based literary agency:

“I’ve always seen the small presses as like the farm teams, to find and build writers … They shouldn’t ever expect to keep them once they reach a certain level unless they can match what the big publishers can give them.”

This comment raised the hackles of Biblioasis publisher Dan Wells, who is also quoted in The Afterword article. Wells responded in an e-mail, which The Afterword has posted online. Wells’s response reads in part:

We are not farm teams and this isn’t baseball. It doesn’t do justice to what actually happens in publishing … and it does not do justice to the authors on our lists. The quality of play on a farm team is almost always far below that of the majors: that just isn’t necessarily the case here. In baseball, if you’re one of the best, you move up to the majors, at least in part because excellence in the sport and commercial reward are very closely aligned. It just does not always work that way in publishing. Everyone, especially in the industry, or reporting on it, knows this. It’s simply not a question of a writer hitting their peak … then leaving. And how we judge “excellence” is not always the same. Are we speaking commercially? Aesthetically? There’s much more at play here than the quality of the work. No self-respecting publisher would view their press as a farm team. It’s a tired cliché, and an extremely disrespectful one. Coach House, Cormorant, The Porcupine’s Quill … they’re just damn good presses, with proud histories, who have made lasting contributions to Canadian literature and culture, and for frankly often very little reward. Perhaps it’s time that they get some.

Wells’s point is well taken, although the clear emphasis of The Afterword piece is on writers who defect to larger houses for financial reasons: the two writers used as examples, Joan Thomas (whose second novel, Curiosity, is published by McClelland & Stewart) and Andrew Kaufman (whose second novel, The Waterproof Bible, is published by Random House Canada), both cite financial considerations in their decisions to decamp from, respectively, Goose Lane and Coach House.

It’s interesting to note that the design of The Waterproof Bible is reminiscent of the books published by the American independent press McSweeney’s – in other words, it’s a large press book masquerading as a small press book. This is perhaps appropriate given Kaufman’s sensibility, which at first blush is more Coach House quirky than Random House mainstream. Wells envisions a day when Kaufman returns to a small press, and he may be right: the multinationals demand a return on their investment. If a first book doesn’t do well, they won’t sign an author for a second. (Kaufman, who signed a two-book deal, gets two kicks at the can.) Gone are the days when houses like McClelland & Stewart stuck with authors like Mordecai Richler through a series of lacklustre books on the understanding that the house was grooming him for the breakout they knew was coming.

This is where the smaller independent houses, far from being farm teams that publish authors’ apprentice work before sending them off to the majors, perform a valuable function. Smaller presses are more willing to invest in an author over multiple books, and a number of authors – such as Russell Smith, Cordelia Strube, and Maggie Helwig – have actually returned to small presses to publish books that are too esoteric (or, in Smith’s case, pornographic) for the multinationals to touch, or simply because that’s where they are most comfortable.

The aesthetic quality of the work does not, however, necessarily improve once an author makes the jump from a small house to a large one. Indeed, Canada’s small presses are publishing much of the most innovative, interesting, and aesthetically powerful books in the country. Money talks, but with the larger houses offering ever smaller advances, we may soon see more small press authors remaining with their initial publishers – and some large press authors returning to the fold.

Authors tell Google to suck it

February 23, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

In what amounts to a strong rebuke to Internet behemoth Google’s proposed plan to digitize the world, the Guardian is today reporting that court documents show some 6,500 authors, from Thomas Pynchon to Philip Pullman, have opted out of the controversial Google Book Search settlement. The deal is an amended version of a similar agreement reached in October 2008. That version of the settlement was widely contested by international bodies, and prompted an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice as to whether it violated American antitrust laws. The new agreement, which was meant to address the most contentious issues, was to be ruled on in a fairness hearing last Thursday. However, U.S. District Judge Denny Chin declined to make a ruling, saying that there was “just too much to digest.”

From The Associated Press:

In court papers submitted last week, Google Inc., which is based in Mountain View, Calif., defended its deal with authors by saying its digital library lives up to the purpose of copyright law, which is to create and distribute expressive works.

“No one seriously disputes that approval of the settlement will open the virtual doors to the greatest library in history, without costing authors a dime they now receive or are likely to receive if the settlement is not approved,” Google said.

The Department of Justice said Google and the plaintiffs have made substantial improvements to the original settlement, but it said “substantial issues remain.”

One of those “substantial issues” appears to be the fate of so-called “orphan works,” that is, out-of-copyright works for which no rightsholder can be found. American Libraries quotes Judge Chin as specifying orphan works as one of the key issues in the settlement: “’I would surmise that Google wants the orphan books and this is what it is about – orphan books that will remain unclaimed,’ Judge Chin conjectured.”

Regardless, the number of authors who have decided to opt out of the agreement whether or not it gets judicial approval is going to be a tough hurdle for Google to surmount. One of the authors who opted out, Ursula K. Le Guin, famously resigned from the Authors Guild because of their support for the deal. In an open letter to the Guild last December, Le Guin wrote:

I am not going to rehearse any arguments pro and anti the “Google settlement.” You decided to deal with the devil, as it were, and have presented your arguments for doing so. I wish I could accept them. I can’t. There are principles involved, above all the whole concept of copyright; and these you have seen fit to abandon to a corporation, on their terms, without a struggle.

In addition to copyright and antitrust concerns, critics have also suggested that the deal raises serious privacy issues.

While confessing aggravation over the way this entire procedure is dragging itself out, yr. humble correspondent must express sympathy with the authors and others concerned about the implications of the settlement for copyright, and nervousness about the prospect of vesting so much in one set of corporate hands. Google’s proselytizers claim that the Borgesian digital library the company is proposing, which would feature ready access to everything ever written (as someone who was once in charge of a publisher’s slush pile, I can only shudder with horror at that prospect), would be an unqualified boon to humanity. My own view is that in addition to taking significant control out of the hands of content creators, the settlement also represents a dangerous step along the road to media and corporate consolidation. Call me crazy, but I don’t particularly want one single gatekeeper in charge of allowing access to the world’s accumulated knowledge. Particularly if that gatekeeper is a publicly traded company.

How to make it as a writer: be a man

January 6, 2010 by · 13 Comments 

The shortlist for the Charles Taylor Prize was released yesterday, and it consists of four books:

  • The Boy in the Moon: A Father’s Search for His Disabled Son by Ian Brown
  • Just Watch Me: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, 1968–2000 by John English
  • René Lévesque by Daniel Poliquin
  • The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Life of William Randolph Hearst by Kenneth Whyte

Now, if you’re like me, the first thing you’ll notice about this list is that all four books are written by men. Not only that: all four books are written by men writing about men. The authors are all white, all of a certain age, and in all but one case (Brown’s) the books’ subjects are dead white guys.

This is particularly noticeable coming so soon after Publishers Weekly released its list of the ten best books of 2009, not one of which was written by a woman. Much was made of the longlist for the 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize, which contained 12 names, only two of which were men. Both made it onto the shortlist, and one of them (Linden MacIntyre) went on to win the award. Indeed, in Giller’s 16-year history, the prize has gone to a woman only five times, and there have been only four female honourees (Alice Munro won twice). In a December 30 op-ed piece for The Washington Post, Julianna Baggott points out that there were only two women in Amazon’s top ten for 2009, and four in the top 20.

The raw numbers seem to point to an ingrained institutional sexism, which is odd for an industry supported by women (who statistically consume more books than men) and powered by women (who make up the vast majority of influential acquisitions editors in Canada – think Louise Dennys, Ellen Seligman, Iris Tupholme, Nicole Winstanley, Alana Wilcox, Lynn Henry, Anne Collins, etc.). Baggott does not limit her analysis to a recapitulation of the numbers; instead, she attempts to settle on an explanation as to why books by men get trumpeted more often and more loudly than books by women:

I often hear people exclaiming that they’re astonished that a particular book was written by a man. They seem stunned by the notion that a man could write with emotional intelligence and honesty about our human frailties.

Women, on the other hand, are supposed to be experts on emotion. I’ve never heard anyone remark that they were surprised that a book of psychological depth was written by a woman.

So men get points for simply showing up on the page with a literary effort.

What’s interesting, however, in the Publishers Weekly list is that the books are not only written by men but also have male themes, overwhelmingly. In fact, the list flashes like a slide show of the terrain I was trying to cover in my graduate thesis, when I wrote all things manly – war, boyhood, adventure.

The idea that “men get points for simply showing up on the page” is fatuous, especially given that many novelists, such as Henry James, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Marcel Proust, who historically trafficked in books of deep – not to say extreme – psychological depth, were possessed of a Y chromosome. I hardly think that James, Dostoevsky, or Proust are given points “for simply showing up on the page.” In a similar vein (since we’re speaking anecdotally), I’ve never heard anyone say of Kazuo Ishiguro’s extraordinary 2005 novel Never Let Me Go (a mainstay of the ubiquitous “Best of the Decade” lists that have been cropping up in the last few months), “That’s a terrific novel. I can’t believe it was written by a man.” Most people I’m aware of (both male and female) would stop after the first of those two utterances.

What’s more interesting is Baggott’s theory that women get passed over because they don’t write about masculine themes – war, boyhood, and adventure. One 2009 novel written by a woman – Annabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean – features all three, and was nominated for the Giller, the Governor General’s Award, and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Award (it won the last of these). By contrast, Bonnie Burnard’s highly anticipated second novel, Suddenly, also published in 2009, is about three women whose lifelong friendship is changed when one of them is diagnosed with terminal cancer. It wasn’t nominated for any major awards. Does this have to do with the respective themes these two authors chose?

It’s tempting to say yes, until you realize that one of the four female Giller Prize recipients is Bonnie Burnard, who took the award in 1999 for her debut novel, A Good House. Set in the aftermath of World War II, that novel is about three generations of an ordinary family. In other words, Burnard’s first novel contains none of the themes Baggott specified, yet it went on to win this country’s richest prize for English-language fiction. Is it possible, then, that her follow-up was passed over for award consideration not because of its subject matter, the gender of its author, or an institutionalized sexism, but because it simply wasn’t as good as other novels from the past year?

Perhaps. Of course, one book is too small a sample size to be statistically significant. So we can look at the five books by females out of 16 Giller Prize winners since 1994, as well as the number of women over the same period who have won the Governor General’s Literary Award for English-language Fiction (five), the Man Booker Prize (six), the Pulitzer Prize (six), and the National Book Award (six). The largest of these numbers – six – accounts for 37.5% of the total winners of any given prize for the period.

If the numbers don’t lie, and if Baggott’s explanations are unsatisfactory to explain them, where do we go from here? Writing in the Norfolk Books Examiner, Lydia Netzer engages with Baggott’s analysis and comes up with three possibilities to explain the exclusion of women from the Publishers Weekly list:

1. The list is sexist, purposefully oppressing women. The solution in this case would be, I guess, to burn down the list. Make a new list. Get those bastards. This seems kind of weak and paranoid.

2. The list is false, reflecting a lame and lingering cultural bias that is on its way out. The solution is to wait. After all, we didn’t count the black writers, or the South American writers. It will all come around, given more time. I guess this is what I would like to believe.

The third possibility is more alarming than the others, because it is the simplest explanation, and therefore the most viable:

3. The list is right. The things that women write about are neither culturally nor historically significant, and the books that women write are not the best books.

It is this last hypothesis that Netzer ends up endorsing: “The lesson of the [PW] list is that nobody’s going to do us any favors. We’re not going to get prizes just for showing up and writing our little books.” If women want to get their books on the major prize lists and roundups of the year’s best, they need to “address the important stuff, the big stuff: death, war, sex, adventure, as it pertains to women and men.” Which brings us full circle to Baggott’s idea of “masculine” themes – i.e., the big stuff, the earth-shattering warp and woof of history.

Except that one of the women writers Netzer mentions as being historically relevant is Virginia Woolf, who didn’t exactly write about “adventure.” On the contrary, Mrs. Dalloway is the prototypical domestic novel, focusing on the title character’s preparations for a dinner party. (Yes, this is the crassest of oversimplifications, but I’m attempting to make a point.) The novel is resolutely interior, yet it has been heralded as a modernist classic. Another classic from the early 20th century, this one written by a man, takes up similar quotidian themes. James Joyce’s Ulysses is not about war or adventure, it’s about two gents who wander around Dublin while one of them gets cuckolded. It would appear the whole focus on “masculine” subject matter is a bit of a non-starter, then as now.

While I’d like to believe that Netzer’s second hypothesis is the correct one, my suspicion is that the truth is closer to her first suggestion. It’s probably the case that there is an unconscious sexism afoot in our literary culture, which props up the work of men at the expense of equally worthy books by their female counterparts. There are female writers working today – Mary Gaitskill, Jeanette Winterson, Ali Smith, Alice Munro, A.L. Kennedy, Barbara Gowdy, Monica Ali, A.M. Homes, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Lynn Coady spring immediately to mind, all of them writing about different subjects and in wildly different styles – whose work is easily as good as that of their male contemporaries; they deserve greater recognition than they have historically received.

« Previous PageNext Page »