The long-simmering question of how to elevate the status of women writers when it comes to major review coverage and awards drew scores of smart comments and many new faces in a rousing discussion on November 13, 2009, with the #followreader and #fembook hashtags on Twitter.
Intially prompted by the sidelining of important books by women from various year-end “best books” lists and awards, the #followreader #fembook conversation explored some reasons why women writers may be judged differently from men; which books by women rightly deserved major attention this year; and whether or not a women-only literary award might help draw greater attention to the best women writers in the U.S.
Tweets came fast and furious, leaving my guest, Bethanne Patrick (@thebookmaven), host of WETA’s The Book Studio and a National Book Critic’s Circle member, and me (@charabbott) – doing our best to keep up. By the end, many participants said they would like to revisit the topic, in a discussion focused on possible solutions to the problem…and not just for women’s history month!
For highlights from the #followreader #fembook conversation, keep scrolling.
Keeping Score on Women Writers
For those who are curious about the how women writers have been faring in the weeks since the #fembook discussion was first sparked by announcement of Publishers Weekly’s all-male Top Ten Best Books of 2009 and Amazon’s male-dominated Best Books for 2009, here are some updates.
No women writers won a National Book Award this year, but there were a number of very strong female finalists, including Bonnie Jo Campbell, who talks here about her novel American Salvage, and Jayne Anne Phillips, who talks here about her novel Lark and Termite. In nonfiction, there was also Adrienne Mayor, who talks here about The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy.
On a much more encouraging note, four of the five novelists on the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35″ were women: Ceridwen Dovey, author of Blood Kin; C.E. Morgan, author of All the Living; Lydia Peele, author of The Reasons For and Advantages of Breathing; and Karen Russell, author of St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.
On Library Journal’s list of 31 Best Books, 11 were by women, or about one third of the list. That’s marginally higher than on the PW and Amazon long lists, where women were 30% and 25% of the total, respectively, as EarlyWord.com pointed out.
On the Atlantic magazine’s Best Books list, two women were on the list of the year’s top five writers (A.S. Byatt with The Children’s Book and Alison Light with Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury). Nine women were on the Atlantic‘s long list of 25 authors, which amounts to a 36% showing for women. That’s the highest percentage of women on the Best Books lists we’ve seen.
EarlyWord also noted that there was little consensus between the “best books” on the Atlantic, PW and Amazon lists, except when it came to women. Interestingly, four books by women got the nod from two of the three lists – making them slightly more critically acclaimed than the books by men that appeared on only one list. Here are the favored women:
- Byatt, A.S., The Childrens Book — Amazon #88 and Atlantic Top Five
- Davis, Lydia, Collected Stories — Amazon #56 and Atlantic Runner Up
- Mantel, Hilary, Wolf Hall — Amazon #3 and Atlantic Runner Up
- Munro, Alice, Too Much Happiness — Amazon #30 and Atlantic Runner Up
Highlights of the #Followreader #Fembook Discussion
Why Do Men Get the Lion’s Share of the Critical Attention?
@thebookmaven: I interviewed Mary Gordon today, and she said “Notice WHO REVIEWS.” #fembook #followreader
@jenwgilmore I had a prof-and this was grad school-tell me women didn’t write big books. except ship of fools,and that was a mess! #followreader #fembook
@thebookmaven See? That prof and others like him are why I think we need to keep talking about this. #fembook #followreader
@CapitolClio No “domestic details” and the home = no 19th century literature. No Austen, Trollope, Thackeray. #fembook #followreader
@bookladysblog Reactions to work by Wally Lamb if he = female? #followreader #fembook
@charabbott When Roth and Updike write domestic novels, they are praised for their versatility! #fembook #followreader
@toofondofbooks Yeah, THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU by Jon. Tropper is totally “family fiction!” #fembook #followreader
@bookladysblog What about THE CORRECTIONS. If that’s not family fiction… #fembook #followreader
@Wordlily Robert Morgan writes some family/domestic fic too. #fembook #followreader
@words_lover: The Corrections, East of Eden, Faulkner, Cheever – all “family fiction” #fembook #followreader
@Eugenia_Kim MEMOIRS GEISHA also interestngly compounded as Asian female story by White Male #fembook #followreader
@hmccormack Would be interesting to do male/female writer book pairings in book groups. See how common themes are handled #fembook #followreader
@hmccormack I, for instance, would pair Carson McCullers’ Heart Is a Lonely Hunter w/Lester Bangs’s Psychotic Reactions & C Dung #fembook #followreader
Women and Awards
@charabbott Three women won the Nobel in last 6 years, but there were v. few U.S. reviews of Elfrede Jelenik’s work #fembook #followreader
@charabbott Also, I don’t see male critics and readers putting Jelenik, Lessing and Muller on their must-read lists. #fembook #followreader
@bostonbibliophl I’ve heard more ppl say Muller didn’t deserve to win than say kudos. #fembook #followreader
@thebookmaven Those big wins…NOT IN THE U.S. — which is kind of why I’m here today. We need to woman up! #fembook #followreader
@charabbott Yes, the U.S. is far behind the UK and Canada, where many women contend for major awards every year. #fembook #followreader
@DavidRozansky: Many prize juries read manuscripts without names, race or gender, though. #fembook #followreader
@charabbott Awards comms are mixed & still pick male aus -deeper issue is assumption that men are more important #fembook #followreader
@charabbott It’s the same on Twitter: men have more followers and RTs, even though Twitter is female-dominated. #fembook #followreader
@DavidRozansky Prize submissions should be stripped of author ID. #fembook #followreader
@charabbott Elaine Showalter says that since 1850s, women have dominated US book market & men have had more literary esteem. #fembook #followreader
@Bookgirl96 I think it’s interesting, all this focus on prizes. They don’t seem to help book sales. #fembook #followreader
@batpoet What a great #followreader #fembook disc.! More women reviewers, bloggers, booksellers will help equalize too.
Would a Women’s Award Help?
@charabbott Would a prize for women writers like the Orange Prize in the UK help address this problem? #fembook #followreader
@charabbott I believe that this is part of the solution. #fembook #followreader
@Wordlily I’m loathe to think separate prizes are the best answer. #fembook #followreader
@charabbott I am genuinely surprised that we don’t have a national prize for women’s lit already. #fembook #followreader
@FlossieTeacake: Continuity now noticeable between Orange lists & other prizes later in the year (cough, Booker) #fembook #followreader
@charabbott But some worry that an award for women only, will ghettoize women’s writing #fembook #followreader
@thebookmaven I have thought about that, about separate prizes reinforcing this gender gap. BUT! #fembook #followreader
@thebookmaven I think in order to get past the gap, to jump over it for good, we may need a US women’s lit prize. #fembook #followreader
@charabbott Let’s hear from those who don’t like the idea of a prize for women – why?
@Wordlily It could ghettoize female writers, & assumes they won’t win major prizes. May keep from winning “majors”? #fembook #followreader
@thebookmaven It hasn’t done so for women in UK. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have a point. Need to keep discussing. #fembook #followreader
@Wordlily Just that it’s separate, in some ways means not equal. #fembook #followreader
@jenwgilmore yet there’s a Jewish Book Award, Asian Book Award,etc. You think these bad? Anything to get bk noticed. #followreader #fembook
@Wordlily I can def see US women’s lit prize as a potential part of the solution, but it can’t be the only thing. #fembook #followreader
@jenwgilmore although: I have felt ghettoized by the Jewish book stuff, but that’s a whole other thing. #fembook #followreader
@charabbott Why can’t the two co-exist – effort to make existing awards more fair, and also prize for great women? #fembook #followreader
@myfriendamy Maybe separate prizes says….we realize you won’t acknowledge us but we aren’t going to be quiet #fembook #followreader
@charabbott Wouldn’t a women’s lit prize draw more attention to excellent women’s work, if judged by high standard? #fembook #followreader
@rosewhite22 ideally yes, but i think there’s the danger of it not being taken seriously, like we can’t compete #fembook #followreader
@charabbott If women’s writing is as good as men’s, why wouldn’t women’s award use same standards? #fembook #followreader
@Wordlily Hopefully the two efforts (natl women’s prize + changing system) can coexist. Just a danger, I think. #fembook #followreader
@charabbott Would look pretty bad if other prizes said, “Women have their own award now, we can ignore them!” #fembook #followreader
@thebookmaven With prizes, we enhance visibility. Must know that a prize is simply that. More to be done. #fembook #followreader
@hollowaymcc: Wouldn’t a women’s prize be a natural step in “vertical” marketing? #fembook #followreader
Women to Read
Bookgirl96 Who would you pick as top 5 women writers today? #fembook #followreader
thebookmaven Thanks for asking! GREAT question. World, or US? #fembook #followreader
thebookmaven US: Toni Morrison, Lorrie Moore, Jayne Anne Phillips, Jane Smiley, Annie Proulx…that’s five, but NOT all!! #fembook #followreader
@thebookmaven World: Hilary Mantel, Kiran Desai, A.S. Byatt, Elfriede Jelinek, Sarah Waters. #fembook #followreader
@thebookmaven Also: I heart A.L. Kennedy. #fembook #followreader
@Bookgirl96 Two of my favorite female writers: Carol Shields and Susan Minot. #fembook #followreader
@janiceharayda Top 5 female writers not mentioned by others? Joan Didion, Nadine Gordimer, Wislawa Szymborska #fembook #followreader
@nicholemcgill Other female writers who rock: PD James, Marie Helene Poitras, Lynn Crosbie, Evelyn Lau… #fembook #followreader
@thebookmaven I’d also like to recommend Kristoff/WuDunn HALF THE SKY to all of us here today. Great book about women. #fembook #followreader
Women’s Writing Stuffed in a Nutshell
@charabbott I was an avid reader, but never read a black woman novelist until I got to college. #fembook #followreader
@jenwgilmore right,but I bet you’d read the Bell Jar. (great book, but reinforces women as crazy!) #followreader #fembook
@jenwgilmore The Bell Jar is totally great. But it’s an unstable woman story, that was my point.I’m a big Plath-head. #followreader #fembook
@SarahABA Today’s #followreader makes me appreciate all-female (by chance) AP Lit class and all-female (on purpose) college #fembook
@nicholemcgill I went to school post-sexual revolution and believe me, I am thankful! So all should be. #fembook #followreader
@Bookladysblog I think 1 problem is women’s fiction is automatically considered commercial. #fembook #followreader
@Bookgirl96 Very true. Hard to market a woman who writes literary fiction. #fembook #followreader
@thebookmaven We shouldn’t! I think women are sometimes PUSHED towards those genres, consc or unconsc #fembook #followreader
@thebookmaven I think that in US, women often get diverted from developing as fiction writers. #fembook #followreader
@thebookmaven We are a Puritan nation; woman “taught” to do industrious things. Fiction can be cast as frivolous. #fembook #followreader
@adevries18 When do we get to blame (or praise) Oprah? #fembook #followreader