Monday, December 17, 2007

The Ten Best Books of 2007. Or On Women and Writing.

The Ten Best Books of 2007 were listed some time ago in the New York Times Book Review, right after the 100 notable books of 2007. I have kept from posting on the 100 notable books because I haven't had time to do the research on names it requires. But the Ten Best Books is interesting. It divides the books into five from fiction and five from non-fiction. The five best fiction books are all by men, the five best non-fiction books are by two women and three men.

Now, these are small samples of books, and it is quite possible to have a year when all the best novels are by men or by women, so it could well be that we just happened to have one of those years of all-men in 2007.

This suggests that keeping an eye on the Ten Best Books of each year would be a useful feminist exercise. So would looking at the number of books the Book Review picks for closer examination each year and the gender of the authors as well as the reviewers, not because of any fanatical feminist quota demands, but because judging books is very much like judging ice-skating in the Olympics, influenced by whom you know and like and also influenced by social norms of what one expects to see or read. And because my own impression is that the Book Review is tilted towards favoring male writers and male topics.

The area of writing is an interesting one for feminism, partly, because the evolutionary psychology arguments are usually that the special skills of women (the area where the poor puny-brained women indeed excel) are in language use. But then their arguments crash straight into the relatively few women who are historically viewed as Great Writers. Of course one can always marshal auxiliary arguments to explain the dominance of men in the field (for example, that men are always dominant, even when less endowed by those helpful language genes). But these arguments don't quite explain why women did so well when the novel was a new and untried field , why the very first known novel is by a woman, and why things changed when the industry of novel-writing developed those social structures that then made it harder for women to get into print. (This theory of new areas being more open for women and minorities is one which I think can explain quite a few of the handful of female scientists who excelled, too.)

To return to the judging of writing, I remember once reading a male critic say that Jane Austen is uninteresting because she only writes about getting married. This points out that the question of gender in literature is not just about the sex of the writer but also about which topics are regarded as important and which topics are not. For example, war books (or books about trying to kill the species) are always viewed as serious and important and worthy of inclusion, but books about getting married (or about reproducing the species) are not. It is easy to think of a system of deciding what to include in the Book Review which is arrived at on totally neutral-seeming grounds but which ends up biasing the field against female writers and reviewers.

But it is also true that women submit fewer articles and book proposals in general. Why this happens is unclear to me. It could be that women hold their own work to a higher standard or that women don't care as much about getting published, or that women know they will have a harder time to get accepted. Or it could be that the way the markets work is geared towards male writers and the way they work best. After all, labor markets in general are based on the outdated assumption that every worker has a full-time housekeeper at home, so it's not too far-fetched to ask whether the current system of acquiring manuscripts is the one that results in the best possible works being published.