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.