The blogosphere is rife with indignation over Publisher's Weekly's 2009 best book picks. Why? Because the authors of its top ten, apparently picked by staffers who prefer to remain anonymous, are male -- right down to the last man. Women writers were given no place at this table.
But, strangely enough, there's more to it than just the male names on the books' covers: These "best" books also cover topics that at first blush (I'm female, after all) seem to be designed with men in mind. Pretty understandable, but still. Take "Shop Class as Soulcraft," by Matthew B. Crawford, a well-done meditation on how white-collar workers have become the drones of the 21st economy while much satisfaction lies in working with your hands. The concept is equally applicable to women, of course, but the testosterone ring of the title sends your mind in a certain direction, doesn't it?
Moving on to "Cheever: A Life," by Blake Bailey: As we know, Cheever was a closet homosexual, but his writing -- in typical "I'm in denial and would never tap my foot anywhere" fashion -- was hetero to the max. Of all the biographies that were released in the past year, I don't doubt that it deserves to stand near the top. But this would be an expected choice in a list that PW touts as full of the unexpected. More exotic by far would have been picking a biography such as "The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels," by Janet Soskice. This critically acclaimed work follows on the heels of other fascinating books that track the genteel Victorian women with a taste for adventure, such as Janet Wallach's "Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell."
The memoir "Stitches" is a graphic novel by David Small that tracks his terrible childhood. Not a bad choice, but just for the sake of argument, how does it compare to "Lit," the latest book from the madam of dysfunctional family memoirs, Mary Karr?
Karr, of course, has had plenty of plaudits, so I'm glad to see a lesser known writer get the attention. Which brings us to what's really at stake here: In a world of over-supply, such selections help readers sort through the pile as the make-or-break season arrives for book publishers and booksellers. In other words, anyone who's intellectually honest knows you can't really compare different kinds of fruit (or, in this case, books). The best you can do is separate the wheat from the chaff, and even then you'll have an argument. So the practical value of such "best" lists is to spur sales, and -- here's a revelation -- being on them is better than not because the books singled out are more likely to sell.
I'm past the stage where both genders and every ethnic group needs to be represented when the lists and the prizes are doled out. But blogger Lizzie Skurnick is right when she finds dirt under the carpet of this latest boys' club to which the girls weren't invited. Male bias continues to be an issue when it comes to honoring writers. Men lean toward them, for obvious reasons, but women, too, are often caught in the trap of taking men writers more seriously. It's a bias that comes naturally in a culture that still kowtows to the guys.
I can't t tell PW how to pick its favorite books. But I know I can think for myself and speak out for work that resonates with me and my life as a woman. A modest ambition, this, but the beauty of it is that anyone can do the same. It just takes a little homework.