Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Book Wars

Remember the Publisher's Weekly list of Ten Best Books for 2009? How it included ten books written by ten guys? And the organizer's defense was wanting to pick the very best books, not be politically correct? This means, in proper English, that those damn chicks can't write.

Now we are in the next round of the fierce and bloody book wars: Can Chicks Write Or Not?

Juliana Baggot launches the first grenade today by telling us that to be a Good Writer you gotta be a Good Guy Writer. Or act like one:

In my grad school thesis, written at 23, you'll find young men coming of age, old men haunted by war, Oedipus complexes galore. If I'd learned nothing else, it was this: If you want to be a great writer, be a man. If you can't be a man, write like one.

No one told me this outright. But I was told to worship Chekhov, Cheever, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Carver, Marquez, O'Brien. . . . This was the dawn of political correctness. Women were listed as concessions. In the middle of my master's, a female writer took center stage with a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award -- E. Annie Proulx. Ah, there was a catch. She was writing about men and therefore like a man.

I ran out of things to say about men, however, and began my career writing about women. When I started as a poet, I was told -- many times -- not to write about motherhood because it would be perceived as weak. I didn't listen.

But when I invented the pen name N.E. Bode for "The Anybodies," a trilogy for younger readers, I had to choose to be a man or a woman. The old indoctrination kicked in. I picked man. The trilogy did well, shortlisted in a People magazine summer pick, alongside Bill Clinton and David Sedaris. I was finally one of the boys.


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.

In short, she tells us that you have to write about boyhood, boys becoming men, fathers-and-sons and wars if you want to be taken seriously. You can't write about girlhood, girls becoming women, daughters-and-mothers or childbirth, because then you write chick-lit and get promoted with a pink cover depicting stiletto shoes or hearts.

The counter-attack came swiftly, by Lydia Netzer, who stabbed her sisters (and herself) in the back. She argues that women writers just aren't as relevant as men. Men write of overarching human themes. Women? Not so much. In particular, Netzer offers this reason for the absence of women on the Ten Best Books list:

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.

Baggott mentions the deification of Faulkner, Chekhov, Hemingway. I have to ask: In the last decade, what woman would you put up against these giants? Maybe there were moderns that could carry the torch -- Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, or others from the 20th century: Harper Lee, Willa Cather, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison. But now? Where is my Gertrude Stein? Who can stand up against Junot Diaz and Khaled Hosseini and Kazuo Ishiguro? Is it really supposed to be Alice McDermott?

The lesson of the 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. Girl books are great; I like to read them and write them. But if we're writing girl books, we're not getting on "Best of" lists, and that is the reality. Do with it what you will.

To re-cap: Chicks can't write and what they write about is not relevant.

I'm sitting here reviewing the 37 Ways To Kill Someone Who Attacks You With A Knife. And then I wonder why writing a boy book WILL get you on those lists, why the Male Experience equals Human Experience and why a little book written by a man is never called a little book but a slender-but-powerful treatise of some shit or another. Which is all tremendously boring and unhelpful. Perhaps I should follow our Lydia into the hinterlands where the honorary guys live. We could work out together on our weapons control moves and compare our boyhood memories. And scratch our balls while tossing down a few beers.

Or I could just remain me and point out a few problems with our Lydia's thesis: Most research suggests that girls are either better writers than boys or equally good writers. Girls excel in writing in tests; the evo-psychos (the biased and twisted branch of the tree of evolutionary psychology) always tell us that the one thing chicks are good at is word-wielding. And controlled studies suggest that readers have an anti-woman bias:

Playwright Julia Jordan pointed me toward a recent study about perceptions of male and female playwrights that showed that plays with female protagonists were the most devalued in blind readings. "The exact same play that had a female protagonist was rated far higher when the readers thought it had a male author," Jordan said. "In fact, one of the questions on the blind survey was about the characters 'likability,'and the exact same female character, same lines, same pagination, when written by a man was exceeding likable, when written by a woman was deemed extremely unlikable."

That puts a wrench in Lydia's wheel of arguments. Because in a study like that the contents remain exactly the same, only the presumed gender of the writer is changed. But that change is enough to affect the reader evaluations. Which means, dear Lydia, that it's sex discrimination we see here, not some objective difference in the quality of the writing.

Here's my little pink theory: We still live in a society where men are the default form of human beings, and that affects everything. We still live in a society where ignoring women is much safer than ignoring men, and that affects everything. We still live in a society where "taste" and "objective quality of writing" are based on predominantly male norms and we fail to notice how that, too, affects everything.

This is why it is not only the men who rank male writers higher or mention them more often as the ones they admire. Women also do this though somewhat less often. After all, doing exactly that seems like neutrality, objectivity, being in the brotherhood of real writers and readers, because that's how the society works. Someone listing Ten Favorite Books All By Men is not viewed as necessarily biased, but someone constructing a similar list with all female writers would certainly be suspected of -- gasp! -- feminism. And we all know that's a Special Interest ideology.

Gah. I wanted to be cheerful today. For more on this topic, read what people have done with Twitter and how women don't have as many followers as men.