Thursday, November 5, 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.


Elisabeth said...

Oh dear, oh dear , oh dear. What can we do about it?

Everytime 'The Monthly' comes out I check the ratio, male to female. In fact, I find myself checking this ratio regularly, everytime I look at an anthology of fiction, essays and the like.

It is all so subjective and gender biased, plus plus plus.

Yet elsewhere - in fact everywhere I go in daily life, every conference I attend, whether literary or psychological - the room is full of women, with the odd token male.

In the media and in the literary world, the men still get most of the significant Guernseys and women, with a few exceptions, fade into the background to organise events, make the tea, coffee and cakes and offer applause.

Still in daily life, I think men - again at the risk of generalizing - are undergoing a kind of crisis.

At a conference recently I met a man, Michael, who talked to me about his observation that women, many women in their fifties and sixties seem to be coming into their own.

Their children have grown, their familial responsibilities have begun to ease up and they can now begin to find new interests, new ways of fulfilling their lives, lives perhaps to some extent that were held off during the years before.

Men, on the other hand, hit sixty and they go into a decline, both physical and emotional. They feel that their best years are behind them. Whereas, Michael observed, women are now beginning to find their best years.

It’s a terrible generalization and I can think of many exceptions and yet it resonates with my own observations.

All these women, intelligent, articulate and fired up to explore new ideas and consider their own identities in the light of these new ideas – educated and bright women, who are interested in new horizons, but still we hit the so called glass ceiling.

lisette said...

i just posted a link to this post on my facebook thingy and the security words were 'defied speaking'

Anonymous said...

Interestingly, if I were to name the top half dozen or so Australian litblogs (non-group, non-MSM) there would only be one male on the list.

Perry Middlemiss

[And in case anyone is thinking I'm picking myself here, this tag is just an identifier. I have to sign my name as I can't get my Google login to work.]

Anonymous said...

OK, so this isn't about a writer, but all is not lost. This comment from the female 80 year old winner of the Dobell prize for drawing warmed the cockles of my 57 year old heart:
"The big drawing kept coming down off the wall and falling on my head, and I've got this little gang who help me carry this drawing and they say I must reduce the scale in the future," she said.
Here's to the future Pam Hallandal.

Seriously, why not demand proportional representation on such things as judging panels, number of female/male writers put forward for prizes? Could work in women's favour, given that we outnumber the sausage sizzlers (aka charred embers with little to offer to the taste buds). In a word, b.ll.cks to we don't care.

Bernice said...

Interesting response to this from Salon Media

Interesting in the sense of 'sigh'.

Gains for the equality of women have only come about after waves of militancy - suffragettes gave us the vote & changes to property and marriage laws; the 70s and 80s lead to anti-discrimination laws, opening up of the academe. But the push back that has followed each wave of advancement so often has meant the principle stands but inequality still is overtly or subtley the lived experience.

Advancement of civil rights and breaking down of prejudice is never a neat linear projection, but the stubborn resistance to examining and expunging sexism still shocks from time to time; in its pettiness such as the PW list or the grand cruelty of genital mutilation.

The continuing absence of women from either the gatekeepers panels and the resultant lists of worthiness isn't accidental; but is it in the new world of unmediated net-based information a straight win-win for the patriarchy? I suspect that's part of Miller's ambivalence about WILLA - the authority of Salon or PW is being undermined, however minutely. Each post, each comment is a rock thrown by a suffragette; a slogan painted on a wall; a bonfire at Greenham Common.

We know the beliefs and attitudes that underline the PW list - we need to keep pointing out the bleeding obvious, undermine its assumed authority, and provide alternatives. Over-running the valhalla.

Anonymous said...

Kerryn, I absolutely agree -- though it might cheer you a little to check out the gender ratio of Best Australian Stories this year. 16 women to 10 blokes. I had no quotas in mind, but have to admit I was surprised, and pleased, to see the result when I did a quick add-up at the end. Delia