Saturday, November 14, 2009

Code for 'We don't care'

When I first saw this article about Publishers Weekly and its all-male-author Best Books of 2009 (ah yes, it's that time of year again), it took me a minute to work out the title: 'Why Weren't Any Women Invited to Publishers Weekly's Weenie Roast?' I'd always thought 'wienie' as in 'wiener' as in 'frankfurter' was spelt with an 'ie' not an 'ee', and it's not clear whether 'weenie' is used here as a variant or a disparaging pun (though I'd like to think the latter), but either way it is, in this context, American for what we in Australia call a sausage fest. Boys' Own, if you like.

It was only yesterday that I was looking around the nation's various literary-cultural-political mags, blogs and websites and noticing with growing dismay that the general ratio of male to female writers represented -- both the people writing for the journals and blogs and magazines and the people being written about -- seems to have nose-dived*, even just since the beginning of this year, back to the good old days where 'male' meant the norm and 'female' meant some lesser variant; yet again I was reminded of the great Simone de Beauvoir, than whom nobody has ever described this phenomenon better. 'There are two kinds of people: human beings and women.'

And it was only last night that an otherwise apparently intelligent commenter on a literary blog referred disparagingly to 'the worst kind of 80s PC', apparently meaning that all that silly nonsense about considering the presence in the world of female people and black people and gay people that we used to have to bend the knee to is merely a memory of a now-despised fad , like satin jumpsuits and big hair, and it's über-cool in 2009 to have sunk right back into our straight white male supremacist good ole boy ways, as into a comfy yet manly chair, clutching the remote in one hand and a stubby in the other. (I'm sorry, I would have liked to have put that another way.)

And then up will go the passionate cry of 'But never mind all this gender nonsense, isn't it just about literary merit??', and back will echo faintly for the nine millionth time from a chorus of exhausted feminists that 'literary merit' is not an exact science, but is rather assessed by the values of the dominant culture, and if the dominant culture is a sausage fest, then, well, you know.

(Though one must look on the bright side: that list of ten books by blokes may ignore the fact that Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro have both had books out this year, but at least it doesn't include the most overrated writer and sausage fest ornament of the 20th century, Philip Roth.)

I wrote here earlier this year about how gobsmacking it was that the Miles Franklin Literary Award judges didn't notice that they'd come up with an all-male shortlist in a year when there were at least five realistic female contenders for the prize, and apparently this kind of 'human beings and women' thinking is once more rife in the US as well. After pondering last night with such disquiet on the turn things seemed to be taking, I wasn't as surprised as I wish I had been this morning to see a feminist Facebook Friend linking that post about the Publishers Weekly list. Here's that post's hook, a line strongly recommended as the default comeback next time some bloke -- or rogue girl trawling for the boys' approval -- accuses you dismissively of being 'just PC':

So is the flipside here that including women authors on the list would just have been an empty, politically correct gesture? When PW’s editors tell us they’re not worried about ‘political correctness,’ that’s code for ‘your concerns as a feminist aren’t legitimate.’ They know they’re being blatantly sexist, but it looks like they feel good about that.

* It is however a relief to see that the November issue of Australian Book Review, which arrived today and which I just finished reading, does honourably buck this trend a bit: writers/reviewers include an Alison, an Andrea, a Belinda, a Claudia, a Gay, a Jacqueline, a Jane, two Judiths, two Kates, a Kylie, a Melinda, a Rosaleen (the lead article), a Sarah and a Stephanie, while the written-about include an Anna, an Emily, a Jan, a Jeanette, a Jenny, a Jeri, a Mandy and a Ruth.

Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat


Anonymous said...

Great comment Kerryn ... it continues to gobsmack me too how regularly women do not feature or barely feature in the places you mention AND particularly in the "best of" lists. It gobsmacks me that noone talks of Thea Astley, to name just one tiny example, when they talk about major Australian writers of the 20th century. Why is she so often overlooked....not to mention our other women writers? Maddening. Still, pleased to see ABR is doing its bit!

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