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.


13 Responses to “How to make it as a writer: be a man”
  1. Laura says:

    I don’t think it’s such an “unconscious” sexism; it’s a very obvious sexism, and here’s why: men don’t LIKE reading “women’s books,” but women WILL read men’s books. It’s a culturally supported version of sexism, where men typically don’t like to read about relationships and slowly unfolding dramas and interior monologues–despite what you said about Virginia Woolf–so when it comes time for them to nominate books for awards, they will choose things about the war/boyhood/adventure themes. It’s sexism, however you want to slice it, and I think it’s pretty horrible that women’s writing is still viewed as “women’s writing.” It’s not. It’s good for everyone, if you read the authors you mentioned in your last paragraph, and I think our society should try a little harder to be conscious of this view that somehow, writing about emotions or interior landscapes or relationships is not something “for the ages.”

    Oh, and yes, it really does help to “be a man” if you’re a writer. See: James Chartrand of the “Men With Pens” copywriting website (

  2. Yes, yes, and yes, and what can we do about it? The situation sucks!

    Zadie Smith, of UK, is a big talent, even if she doesn’t always get it right. I love her humour, in On Beauty.

  3. Kerry Clare says:

    It’s worth noting that any book I’ve ever read by Kazuo Ishiguro (which are Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go) could not have not been written by a man, in stereotypical terms. And I loved these books very much, but they, along with their characters, possess the very opposite of psychological depth (which, of course, Ishiguro uses brilliantly to show their actual psychological depth, but that’s not the point. A lack of psychological depth is his very device.)

    Also, did you read the piece by Rachel Cusk in The Guardian that came to much the same conclusion as Netzer, but fearfully, lamenting what will be lost from literature if women cease to write their “little books” that matter so much to so many of us, as they do.

  4. Brian Palmu says:


    Perhaps you missed the nuances of Steven’s post.

    1) To add to the list of Dostoevsky, H James, and Proust, there’re also the “relationships” novelists Hardy, D H Lawrence, Julian Barnes, Tolstoy, not to mention the hybrids — Findley and McEwan, among others. Most in that catalogue wrote pre-deconstructionist-era, where men had the positions of power in the literary infrastructure. Men not only CAN write and read, enthusiastically, about so-called “womens’ issues” (lazy dichotomy), they DO, and they applaud the approach, as well.

    2) A point not elaborated upon is the make-up of the juries on the GG, Booker, Pulitzer, and National Book Awards the past 16 years. As Steven mentioned, women now have much power as to acquisitions, but also by the channels of teaching positions and influence, administrative and disseminative means, editorship, and, unless I’m completely out to lunch, on the make-up of those very juries. Sexism against women, if it’s a cause, or THE cause, ( I’m far from qualified to pass judgement),and whether blatant OR unconscious, would be the sin of both men and women, then.

    My question to Steven, and one that I think is more pertinent, with direct reference to points brought up in the post, is: what percentage of the 80 total winners of the 5 major awards wrote on war/adventure/aggression, and what percentage wrote on relationships and domestic troubles? (I realize there are many harder-to-pigeonhole books that encompass both, as well as themes which don’t fall easily into either putative gender camp.) The sub-category would be more illustrative — that is, of the 53 or so male winners, what were the concerns and themes in those books?

    The reason I bring up the last point is because — and here I agree with Steven’s frequent cavil in other posts — I think Canadians (men AND women) prefer a certain type of theme or subject matter in what they crown. In novels, it’s the historical multi-generational drama. And I’ve done my own research the past while on cash awards doled out to the poetic community’s blind-screened contest winners. Since the gender of the entrants is/was unknown, one can only deduce that winners’ poems share certain traits pleasing to the jurors. It’s important to note that those jurors are split evenly between men and women. By far the greatest number of winners and runners-up are women, in many prominent contests by a 3 to 1 count. Now, this brings up two immediate follow-up questions: (1) is this because three times as many women enter than men (and, in a parallel sense, what’s the ratio amongst Canadian novelists who are published?); (2) are the winners exhibiting certain styles, subject matter, and moods, popular in the aggregate? I can’t answer the first question, but I can definitely answer the second. The domestic, the sensitive, the fragile, the subdued — all attitudes and sensibilities commonly associated with women — are heavily favoured by both men and women poetry jurors. The minority of men who win display those same concerns. And obviously, men jurors reward the same. So that’s the basis for my curiosity about what, if any, the novels’ qualities are for the majority of winners of the five major awards Steven’s mentioned. To be more concise, are those historical sagas focusing on indoor squabbles or outdoor bloodshed? (Again, I realize there could be much middle ground here.)

    Another point follows from here: Sept 11, 2001. Since this span encompasses half the intervening 16 years of the research, could it be that both men AND women jurors focused on war, aggression, politics, and adventure more than in a less globally anxious decade? (Again, this only matters if it can be established that the stereotypical gender themes have some basis among the 80 or so winners in the 16 years of these 5 major awards.)

    There’s far more nuance involved here than the comments so far have picked up on.

  5. You know it’s a power structure when the subjugated willingly eat their own.

    Kate Riophe’s article in the NYT this past weekend provokes more than a few of the questions raised above
    – Sex and the American Male Novelist –

  6. August says:

    The Guardian linked to an interesting, if short, rebuttal to Riophe’s NYT article. You can read it here:

  7. August says:

    Of course, reading it again, Riophe’s missing one other thing that happened between the two generations she describes that might put a shot of fear into sex (and therefore writing about sex): AIDS.

  8. Brian Palmu says:

    “Subjugated”? Are you speaking of all women authors in the free world? If Riophe is subjugated, what adjective would you have used for Osip Mandelstam?

    Also, I read the link provided, and I didn’t see any cannibalism among women members of the same tribe. I read an accusation of male sexism (she used the very word at least once) against both yesterday’s novelists of “aggressive male sexuality” AND today’s ironic and overly sensitive male authors. That her attitude toward the former is ambivalent doesn’t negate the charge. Joyce Carol Oates praised Saul Bellow about fifteen years ago as an author “off the charts — nobody comes close to him”. Is Oates, then, eating her own, as well?

    But let’s not let careful analysis and perspective get in the way of hysterical agenda-mongering.

  9. Andrew S says:

    I spent much time composing the finest tract on this subject ever written. Then my hotel decided that my Internet access had expired (the fuckers); all is lost. Instead, I give you these numbered points, uttered drunkenly by a man who has recently witnessed a hockey game of no particular distinction and who is, accordingly, without hope.

    (I fear that, through that statement, I have failed to establish my feminist credentials.)

    1. Remember, this entire discussion is based on events in the US.

    2. Quick, name major living Canadian writers, as defined by consensus. Atwood and Munro loom large; to pretend otherwise is disingenuous.

    3. How many of the three major Canadian prizes went to women this year? (Hint: 1 + 1 = 66.666%)

    4. Quick, name an important Latin American woman writer. Just one. Bonus question: is Latin America culture known for “machismo?”

    5. Can we now agree that cultural differences exist? That the situation of Bolivian women writers is not the situation of Canadian women writers, or American women writers? (And can we hasten to add that we in Canada are not perfect?)

    6. Quick: name major living American writers, as might be selected by people making silly end-of-decade lists (rather than by feminists seeking to correct the situation).

    8. Can we now agree that American literature is, for whatever reason, male-dominated?

    9. There is no 7.

    10. What is the percentage probability of parity between woman and men on any given shortlist of five titles, assuming a perfectly random system?

    11. That there is no 7 has no significance. Stop fretting about it, and do the damn math.

    12. Which is more productive: complaining about the absence of unlikely outcomes (i.e. parity), speculating about causes, or engaging critically with the work of women writers?

    13. Which is more difficult?

    14. There is no 14.

    15. The fact that there are no multiples of 7 may or may not be significant, depending on your ideological position regarding that number.

    16. There is no 16, either. I bet that screwed up your nascent theory that I’m anti-7-ist.

    Finally: it is a grave error, I think, to accuse women who fail to toe the gender line of eating their own. This is like complaining that someone is not black enough. To propose that women writers should write using some “feminine voice” or on “feminine subjects,” or should promote certain views, is equivalent to proposing that Canadian literature has proper subjects, including Wendigoes, snow, and the suitability of the sixteen-foot Prospector canoe as a venue for an amorous tryst. That is, it’s dumb, and counterproductive, and confines what it seeks to liberate to a ghetto of its own manufacture. That way lies mediocrity.

    Literature is not a team sport.

    If you want to watch a team sport, watch hockey.

    Just don’t watch the Oilers; they suck.

  10. Kerry Clare says:

    My understanding was that “eating their own” pertains to those women (and these do exist) who say the solution to this disparity is for women to STOP writing those “little books” about women’s lives that male readers happen to show absolutely no interest in. So that yes, perhaps men and women would be writing on a even playing field, but once again, I would fear for what would be lost (as did Rachel Cusk in her excellent Guardian piece: )

  11. I mean that we all are equally responsible for problems and solutions. Some argue that a problem doesn’t exist because a woman participated or supported a list or is a woman. This isn’t true.

    Then, on a new line, I linked to an article that is partially about gender and books because I thought some of you might be interested.

    Sorry about the hockey. I love that there is no number 7 or 9.

  12. Andrew S says:

    In that sense, I agree with you, Kerry. In skimming the comments, I thought Claire was referring to Roiphe’s article.

    Incidentally, regarding the rebuttal to Roiphe that August links to, The Sportswriter is a poor example. The simple fact that Ford doesn’t write explicitly and brashly about sex doesn’t make Bascombe’s treatment of sex and women in any way similar to the recent writers Roiphe was discussing. The feminist critical reaction to The Sportswriter was not gentle.

  13. Andrew S says:

    Parenthetical addendum to first sentence of my comment above: and Claire.

    Fortunately, I’m not an Oilers fan, so I recover quickly from disappointment and am even capable of behaving with grace, or so I like to think.