Repressive Anti-Sentimentalism: Best [Male] Writers of 2009

by zunguzungu

I find it hard to regard “best” lists as anything other than an expression of taste, as anything other than basically subjective. I have nothing against subjectivity, of course, and I’m not saying that the enterprise isn’t valid or useful in some important sense, but it means that I regard the pretense of objectivity that judges so often assume as they attempt to justify their choices as delusory at best and disingenuous at worst. If you disagree with that sentiment, then I bet you will disagree with what follows. But I think you will do so because of where you place value, because of how you subjectively define objective truth.

Publisher’s Weekly, it seems, has produced an all male Best of 2009 list, which they introduce as follows:

“From more than 50,000 volumes, we valiantly set out to choose 100, and this year we’ve upped the ante with a top 10 list…We wanted the list to reflect what we thought were the top 10 books of the year with no other consideration…We ignored gender and genre and who had the buzz. We gave fair chance to the “big” books of the year, but made them stand on their own two feet. It disturbed us when we were done that our list was all male.”

It’s interesting to me that it didn’t disturb them all that much. Because while a certain kind of male-bias in taste proceeds without an awareness of itself, there is something perverse and bizarre in the spectacle of people who are explicitly aware of their bias proceeding without regard to it. After all, an all male list doesn’t just happen. Or, rather, unless you really and truly believe that over half the population of writers just happened to produce truly sub-standard work; unless you really believe that, of all the novels produced by women writers, not one was as good as the tenth best novel written by a man; unless you believe that there is something about having ovaries that disables one from producing great literature, this is the sort of experimental result that absolutely screams experimental error. If you flip a coin and it comes up “male” ten times in a row, you are working with a bad coin. But the list of judges who compiled this list find the fault, it seems, in the writers with ovaries who failed to measure up.

The first thing to say, however, as Matthew Chaney nicely puts it, is that the whole pretense of objectivity is just silly:

“There is no objective, essential “best”. There is stuff we like and stuff we don’t — texts we have developed techniques for appreciating and texts that we do not, for myriad reasons, appreciate. There are texts about which we have built large critical apparatuses for justifying as “great”. Perceptions of gender, race, sexuality, class, and other broad social categories mix with our experiences as readers, our educations, etc., to produce the judgments we make.”

But the problem isn’t that the question of what we like is completely mixed up with who we are. The problem isn’t even that, as Lizzie Skurnick puts it, “the publishing industry is no better at ignoring gender than your average obstetrician.” The problem is that there are a lot of people in the world who would prefer to believe in a standard of value that produces only male writers as “best” than to imagine that maybe, just maybe, that standard is a function of a desire to privilege a standard of literary value that is derived from a sense of what masculinity is.

Now, this might not be a desire on the part of the judges themselves; it might simply be something they’ve inherited from a two century long American tradition of regarding real literary value as something threatened by a “damned mob of scribbling women,” using words like “domestic” and “sentimental” as a short-hand for what Nina Baym calls “the encroaching, constricting, destroying society” against which an American writer has to struggle manfully in order to be considered literary.[1] Her argument — which, to my mind, is unanswerable — is that the entire American canon of great books, on which the standard for American literary greatness gets derived, isn’t just male in a descriptive sense, but is subjectively male: to be an American writer is to write about struggling with a feminized domesticized society embodied by the figure of the woman. As a result, since the “great” books seem to be overwhelmingly about men on boats running away from women, the woman writer, as Baym puts it, enters American literary history as the enemy.

It may not be sexism. It may just be this. But what’s the difference, in practice? When the need to believe that it is possible to “ignore gender” trumps, in practice, the need to consider whether it is possible to do so, what are we to conclude? If you assume that it is possible — and that this panel of judges has “ignored gender” — then how is any conclusion possible other than that women are just not good writers? How is it possible for men to write every one of the top ten books without there being a failure either in judgment or a failure in women? And how is that not sexism, simple and plain? Arguing that you’re not a racist but that black people just happen to be less smart than white people doesn’t cut the mustard, nor should this.

In this sense, while Lizzie Skurnick is willing to at least rhetorically give the judges credit for observing their complete ignorance of female writers (in the sense of having ignored them), I find such rhetorical gestures much worse than blithe lack of awareness. It isn’t, and can’t be, a passive voice decision, a list that was made up of all men writers. The people who created this list chose to assert that “the best, most serious, and most consequential books are written by men.” They are taste makers, and they have made taste.



[1] Skurnick’s description of how the taste-making enterprise proceeds according to a long-established and clichéd process of gendering rings true to me, for the ways attributes marked “female” just happen to be regarded as less than literary. As she describes “[sitting] in a board room hashing out the winners for one of the awards for which I am a judge,” she noted how:  “Our short list was pretty much split evenly along gender lines. But as we went through each category, a pattern emerged. Some books, it seemed, were “ambitious.” Others were well-wrought, but somehow . . . “small.” “Domestic.” “Unam –” what’s the word? “– bititous.””