The Blurb #12: On Disturbance


The deciders of the Publishers Weekly Best 10 list “ignored gender and genre and who had the buzz.” Which is kind of brilliant in a way. Because everyone knows if you ignore things, you can maybe make those things go away.

A few days ago, my colleague D. A. Powell’s book, Chronic, landed on Publishers Weekly’s list of the Best 100 Books of 2009, and though I don’t generally look at the “best of” lists, can’t even wrap my mind around the notion of “best” as a valid category in the arts, I was happy because my colleague kicks total ass, and his book kicks total ass.

I went to the Publishers Weekly website so I could forward the link to our other colleagues, but I couldn’t at first find their Best 100 list and found, instead, their Best 10 list (a new PW feature)—and then I was depressed, because the Best 10 list was comprised entirely of books written by men.

One could argue (and several have) that perhaps the editors just liked these books best. Or that, perhaps, one could argue (and too many have), it was yet another “bad year” for women writers. Though perhaps it was something else entirely. The PW editor explains in her short accompanying text that the deciders of the Best 10 list “ignored gender and genre and who had the buzz.” Which is kind of brilliant in a way. Because everyone knows if you ignore things—like how I sometimes try to ignore the homeless guy who blocks my path when I’m walking to work, because it’s just too much to deal with in the morning—you can maybe make those things go away. But the problem is it only works for a second, because there I am again the next morning walking to work, and there’s the homeless guy saying good morning, and there I am ignoring him again, and how long before I have to face him and say good morning back?

Which is to say, the real problem may be more about why we ignore what we ignore. And really. Did the PW editors ignore gender? Or did they ignore female? (And did they ignore genre? Or was it poetry? And how exactly does one choose “best” between a volume of poetry and a biography, anyway?)

The editor goes on to say, a few lines later, “It disturbed us when we were done that our list was all male.” Now, “disturbed” is a strong word. For me, it’s one notch stronger than “ignore.” When I’m disturbed by something it usually means I can no longer ignore it. When I’m disturbed by something, I know I have to make a change. I’m disturbed, for instance, by the Black Sabbath cover band that practices every Thursday night in the garage behind my building. I’m disturbed because the cover band is relentless and because it won’t let me ignore it. I bought earplugs, but earplugs, as it turns out, will not effectively block out a shit cover band. The only thing I can do now is make a real change. Either embrace Black Sabbath. Or sleep out on Thursday nights. Or have a talk with the band. Or a drink. But I don’t have to sit there being disturbed.

When the PW committee realized they were collectively disturbed that their Best 10 list was comprised entirely of male writers, instead of accepting the list, they could have reconsidered hundreds of books by women writers. Why would they choose to put out a list that disturbs them? Wouldn’t it also disturb others? Were they trying to send a message? I’m just saying a remedy for the disturbance may have been to call their list into question. A next step may have been to call their criteria into question. A next step may have been to stop consciously “ignoring gender” if an all male list was disturbing. “Ignoring gender,” after all, often results in the all-male list. We’ve seen how this works, and it’s certainly not limited to the literary world. And they did select women writers—like Jayne Anne Phillips and Heather McHugh, to name two of only twenty-nine—for the Best 11-through-100. Would it have upset the winnowing process to revisit the books by women which they already agreed were among the “best”? Besides, the editor says their committee’s process had already provoked “kicking and screaming.” Was not one scream or kick in defense of a book by a woman?

At turns out, it was not a bad year for women writers. Because—speaking of quality only (certainly not of quantity, certainly not of treatment, certainly not of exposure)—was there ever a bad year for women writers? If so, what year was that? Perhaps women writers haven’t always gotten the same attention as male writers, and perhaps one has to dig a little to find the books, and perhaps a lot of other shit that tends to happen when one stops ignoring. But the writing is right there. It’s always been there. Even good writing. Even in 2009. I decided to bring the issue to WILLA (Women in Letters and Literary Arts), a new organization for and about women writers, co-founded by poets Erin Belieu and Cate Marvin. And after a lengthy discussion about the market, the tedium, the predictability, we evenly, with no kicking nor screaming, decided to generate a list of books by women writers, published in 2009, which were possibly ignored by PW. We list a range of books. We don’t agree on them all. We’re not ranking them. We’re not calling anything the best. We’re open to additions. It’s a growing list. It’s a reminder. And if PW’s Best 10 is an annual thing, we hope they, too, will be a bit more inclusive. It could result in a list that’s a bit less disturbing.

Susan Steinberg is the author of two collections of short stories, The End of Free Love and Hydroplane. She teaches creative writing at the University of San Francisco. More from this author →