Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Stripping away the prejudice

Why the Washington Post saw fit to publish it is unclear—it has small news value and less new insight—but the novelist Julianna Baggott, who teaches in Florida State University’s creative writing program, complains in an op-ed today about the eight-week-old Publishers Weekly list of the year’s hundred best books, which contained (as everyone knows by now) no women in the top ten. There is, Baggott whines, a prejudice against women in the literary world. “So how do we strip away our prejudice?” she asks. “First, we have to see prejudice.”

No, ma’am. First we have to establish prejudice. Every single complainant against the dismal PW list has merely assumed prejudice. “PW hasn’t yet owned up,” Baggott hiccups—even though ten of the twenty-six titles listed in fiction and poetry, excluding mysteries, are by women. That’s thirty-eight percent. How high must the percentage be to evade the prima facie guilt of literary prejudice against women?

The accusation has become so commonplace that it has begun to sound like a pre-recorded sales pitch. The unavoidable truth is that literary posterity is ruthless: it accepts only the best. For a while you can get away with substituting irrelevant criteria for literary greatness, but over time they will be ignored. Lists of the year’s best books will be ignored too.

Creative writing functionaries like Julianna Baggott can yelp that “The top [literary] prizes’ discrimination against women has been largely ignored.” And perhaps they will even be successful in bullying prize committees into bestowing more awards upon women. But in the long run it will make no difference. One of America’s Nobel Prize-winners in literature was Pearl S. Buck, upon whom no one wastes criticism any longer. Few people even read her. Her international prize is irrelevant; her sex is irrelevant. All that counts to posterity is the literary gift, which Buck, sad to say, did not possess in superabundance.

While it is dismaying that someone who devotes her life to the teaching of writing places more importance on gender politics, Baggott is hardly unusual in doing so. For most people, almost anything is more important than literature. In literature there is a single overriding value—how well something is written—and few people are ready to strip away the prejudice that life is more meaningful off the page than on.


Mother of Invention Acting School said...

Boldly said.

I imagine you will catch some hell for this, but I also imagine you are well-prepared for that.

I have just finished a Ph.D. in German literature at Stanford. I wrote about Thomas Bernhard. I won't be pursuing a career in literary academia, for precisely the reasons I see you describe elsewhere: the academic interpretation factories.

But I am very happy to have found your blog. It seems you have many good things to say, and I will look forward to following them.

Steven Riddle said...

Dear Sir,

Beautifully said. I'm tired of the whining--who cares what PW thinks anyway--it's just another factory list. Provide evidence that there was something worthy to enter that list. (Although, given the nature of that list, I would say that the most recent Mary Daheim could best some of the books nominated. And please don't interpret that to mean that I think Mary Daheim not worthy--I enjoy her books every bit as much as I enjoy what some might call great literature--in the case of the PW list, a great deal more in some cases.)

Thanks for the great blog, the great year, the great recommendations. I have a couple members of my book group now engaged in Zoe Heller thanks to your cogent review. I know I shouldn't trust book jacket blurbs, but at times it's all you have to go on. Thank you for correcting the misapprehension that resulted from jacket-blurb reading.)

May this next year be one of peace, prosperity, and brightness for you and for those you love.



D. G. Myers said...

Thanks for the compliments, both of you.

About “the dismal PW list,” as I called it. This much should be said. Any list of the top ten books of 2009 that did not contain The Believers is not to be trusted. And not because Zoë Heller is a woman, who should have been included for representational purposes. No! Rather, because The Believers was the best book of the year.

Fawn Neun said...

Ye Goddes, the last thing literature needs is affirmative action.

rjnagle said...

First, a complaint. Using the word "yelp" here seems gratuitous here. I grow weary of loaded language.

Although I agree with your general points, it seems peculiar that the top 10 contains not one title by a female. From my point of view, the publishing world is dominated by women, and women comprise a huge percentage of readers and book club members (and perhaps English professors as well).

When I got my master's in creative writing in 1989, I was shocked to see that 75% of the people in my class were female. So I already accept the fact that if anything, females will be represented more than adequately on these lists.

(but as you correctly point out, women are well-represented in the fiction portion, so the complaint does not fully stand).

Frankly I could care less about the gender ratio on these lists. But I don't think she is implying the need to have prima facie guilt. Instead, she wants us to ask "why?" That strikes me as a reasonable thing to ask. Lists are crude indicators of quality. But the weird ratio would make me ask, "what forms are females opting for nowadays?" and "is there a reason why the list would be excluding certain titles"? I can talk about one literary form I know very well: oral storytelling (popular in Texas). A large percentage of the storyelling superstars in Texas are women, and deservedly so.

That said, I more than agree with your assessment that Beloved is an overrated title . I couldn't make sense of it. Oates and Smiley (and perhaps Lydia Davis, Mary Robinson and Lampiri) are writing exquisite things and even doing a lot of experimentation. Morrison is not a bad novelist; but she's among great company in her gender.

D. G. Myers said...

Instead, she wants us to ask "why?"

But why should we ask that about a writer’s sex and not about the many other aspects of her identity, especially religion? How many openly Christian writers were on the PW list?

Steven Riddle said...

Dear Sir,

I will look forward to the book on Roth. I trust you both finish it and place it within the year. Let us all know when you have done so!



Mother of Invention Acting School said...

I came back to say: hmmm, I read your piece on why the left dominates academia, and admit that makes me uneasy. I am an avowed progressive politically, but I don't like the academic left at all. Wittgenstain said that the trouble with academic life is that the temptation to fake thinking is too great. Insofar as it seems you sympathize with that, I can make common cause with you, and continue to look forward to future discussions. But I somehow felt the need to put out there where I cam coming from.

D. G. Myers said...

Not sure why politics should get in the way of rational inquiry. A Commonplace Blog is not written to defend or to stomp on any party line.

Anonymous said...

Amazing as always