The Manly Art of List-Making

They probably saw it coming.

Publishers Weekly is catching some flak for its list of the 10 best books of 2009, all of which were written by men. "We wanted the list to reflect what we thought were the top 10 books of the year with no other consideration," explains the magazine's reviews director, Louisa Ermelino, introducing the list, which includes Blake Bailey's Cheever: A Life, Dan Chaon's Await Your Reply and Neil Sheehan's A Fiery Peace in a Cold War, among other man-made works. The magazine deliberately ignored gender, she writes, but allows, "It disturbed us when we were done that our list was all male."

Not surprisingly, the PW editors, whom Ermelino notes have "no regrets," aren't the only ones who were disturbed. The organization Women In Letters and Literary Arts (WILLA), which was founded in August "to bring increased attention to women's literary accomplishments and to question the American literary establishment's historical slow-footedness in recognizing and rewarding women writers' achievements," immediately issued a press release under the provocative headline "Why Weren't Any Women Invited To Publishers Weekly's Weenie Roast?" The controversy has since been picked up by the Guardian and, subsequently, the New York Times.

WILLA's founders, Cate Marvin and Erin Belieu, gripe that, in a year when Lorrie Moore, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Rita Dove, Heather McHugh and Alicia Ostriker published books, an all-male list is particularly galling. "The absence made me nearly speechless," Marvin says in the release. "It continues to surprise me that literary editors are so comfortable with their bias toward male writing, despite the great and obvious contributions that women authors make to our contemporary literary culture."

WILLA has set out to right what it terms a "blatantly sexist" wrong by launching its own list wiki, allowing readers to add their favorite books published by women in 2009. It's an interesting list, though it's worth noting that Publishers Weekly's expanded list of best books of 2009 features some of the same selections.

What do you think? Should Publishers Weekly have included any books by women in its list of the 10 best books of the year? If so, which books? -- post your thoughts in the comments field below.


by Melissa_W on ‎11-06-2009 12:02 PM

I've got a background in statistics so my assumption would be that a "best of" list would have a male/female proportion similar to that of the the entire field of critically acclaimed books - IF the selection process were to be totally free of bias and since humans are very subjective, the process is full of bias.


That aside, what completely blows my mind is the exclusion of Kathyrn Stockett's The Help from the list period.  When a book is a "word of mouth bestseller" plus has the tumbs-up from the critics that absolutely screams best-of inclusion.

by MLucero on ‎11-08-2009 03:23 PM

Literary taste is subjective anyway.  If I made my own "best of year" list, I probably wouldn't have listed any of the PW choices, nor probably any of WILLA's.  A particular person's or institution's choices of what they feel to be best should not be offensive, at least not on these types of regards. 

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