Monday, November 09, 2009
Repressive Anti-Sentimentalism: Best [Male] Writers of 2009
I find it hard to regard “best” lists as anything other than an expression of taste, as anything other than basically subjective. I have nothing against subjectivity, of course, and I’m not saying that the enterprise isn’t valid or useful in some important sense, but it means that I regard the pretense of objectivity that judges so often assume as they attempt to justify their choices as delusory at best and disingenuous at worst. If you disagree with that sentiment, then I bet you will disagree with what follows. But I think you will do so because of where you place value, because of how you subjectively define objective truth.
Publisher’s Weekly, it seems, has produced an all male Best of 2009 list, which they introduce as follows:
“From more than 50,000 volumes, we valiantly set out to choose 100, and this year we’ve upped the ante with a top 10 list…We wanted the list to reflect what we thought were the top 10 books of the year with no other consideration…We ignored gender and genre and who had the buzz. We gave fair chance to the “big” books of the year, but made them stand on their own two feet. It disturbed us when we were done that our list was all male.”
It’s interesting to me that it didn’t disturb them all that much. Because while a certain kind of male-bias in taste proceeds without an awareness of itself, there is something perverse and bizarre in the spectacle of people who are explicitly aware of their bias proceeding without regard to it. After all, an all male list doesn’t just happen. Or, rather, unless you really and truly believe that over half the population of writers just happened to produce truly sub-standard work; unless you really believe that, of all the novels produced by women writers, not one was as good as the tenth best novel written by a man; unless you believe that there is something about having ovaries that disables one from producing great literature, this is the sort of experimental result that absolutely screams experimental error. If you flip a coin and it comes up “male” ten times in a row, you are working with a bad coin. But the list of judges who compiled this list find the fault, it seems, in the writers with ovaries who failed to measure up.
The first thing to say, however, as Matthew Chaney nicely puts it, is that the whole pretense of objectivity is just silly:
“There is no objective, essential “best”. There is stuff we like and stuff we don’t—texts we have developed techniques for appreciating and texts that we do not, for myriad reasons, appreciate. There are texts about which we have built large critical apparatuses for justifying as “great”. Perceptions of gender, race, sexuality, class, and other broad social categories mix with our experiences as readers, our educations, etc., to produce the judgments we make.”
But the problem isn’t that the question of what we like is completely mixed up with who we are. The problem isn’t even that, as Lizzie Skurnick puts it, “the publishing industry is no better at ignoring gender than your average obstetrician.” The problem is that there are a lot of people in the world who would prefer to believe in a standard of value that produces only male writers as “best” than to imagine that maybe, just maybe, that standard is a function of a desire to privilege a standard of literary value that is derived from a sense of what masculinity is.
Now, this might not be a desire on the part of the judges themselves; it might simply be something they’ve inherited from a two century long American tradition of regarding real literary value as something threatened by a “damned mob of scribbling women,” using words like “domestic” and “sentimental” as a short-hand for what Nina Baym calls “the encroaching, constricting, destroying society” against which an American writer has to struggle manfully in order to be considered literary. Her argument—which, to my mind, is unanswerable—is that the entire American canon of great books, on which the standard for American literary greatness gets derived, isn’t just male in a descriptive sense, but is subjectively male: to be an American writer is to write about struggling with a feminized domesticized society embodied by the figure of the woman. As a result, since the “great” books seem to be overwhelmingly about men on boats running away from women, the woman writer, as Baym puts it, enters American literary history as the enemy.
It may not be sexism. It may just be this. But what’s the difference, in practice? When the need to believe that it is possible to “ignore gender” trumps, in practice, the need to consider whether it is possible to do so, what are we to conclude? If you assume that it is possible—and that this panel of judges has “ignored gender”—then how is any conclusion possible other than that women are just not good writers? How is it possible for men to write every one of the top ten books without there being a failure either in judgment or a failure in women? And how is that not sexism, simple and plain? Arguing that you’re not a racist but that black people just happen to be less smart than white people doesn’t cut the mustard, nor should this.
In this sense, while Lizzie Skurnick is willing to at least rhetorically give the judges credit for observing their complete ignorance of female writers (in the sense of having ignored them), I find such rhetorical gestures much worse than blithe lack of awareness. It isn’t, and can’t be, a passive voice decision, a list that was made up of all men writers. The people who created this list chose to assert that “the best, most serious, and most consequential books are written by men.” They are taste makers, and they have made taste.
 Skurnick’s description of how the taste-making enterprise proceeds according to a long-established and clichéd process of gendering rings true to me, for the ways attributes marked “female” just happen to be regarded as less than literary. As she describes “[sitting] in a board room hashing out the winners for one of the awards for which I am a judge,” she noted how: “Our short list was pretty much split evenly along gender lines. But as we went through each category, a pattern emerged. Some books, it seemed, were “ambitious.” Others were well-wrought, but somehow . . . “small.” “Domestic.” “Unam --” what’s the word? “-- bititous."”
Whether there are objective standards for literature or not, your argument that the top 10 novels in a year couldn’t possibly be all-male by random chance is pretty ridiculous.
“If you flip a coin and it comes up “male” ten times in a row, you are working with a bad coin.”
No, not necessarily. If you flip it 100 times and it comes up the same every time, it’s probably a bad coin. But a streak of ten isn’t that unlikely. Indeed, if you flip a coin a few hundred times, statistically it’s almost certain you’ll get a streak of 6 or more.
It’s not really that unlikely that out of the novels published in a single year, the 10 best could be all written by men and it certainly doesn’t scream “experimental error” other than by the fact that the sample size is much too small to make a judgment. Which is really more of a meta-error with your attempt to put scientific authority into your argument.
You will be interested to know that coin flipped 10 times will come up all heads or all tails a grand total of twice (statistically) if you flip it 1024 times. That’s pretty scarce odds, but if you want to work with your reckoning, I’ll be glad to flip coins with you.
It’s not really that unlikely that out of the novels published in a single year, the 10 best could be all written by men
The top-ten list wasn’t a list of novels. It was a list of books from every genre (in fact, I think nonfiction outnumbers fiction).
You’re almost certainly right about the high unlikelihood, considered in statistical terms alone, of the ten best books of the year all being written by men. That said:
1.) It’s not a ten-best novel list, but a ten-best book list, only four books of which are novels. There may or may not be some kind of structural bias inhibiting great non-fiction by women from getting written and/or published that is different from whatever bias obtains in the realm of fiction. I strongly suspect there is.
2.) There is a tradition of feminist writing that would contest Baym and others on the good of simply recuperating or defending the domestic/sentimental mode. Ann Douglas (The Feminization of American Culture), for instance, or Nancy Armstrong (Desire and Domestic Fiction): both argue that this mode is an evasion of reality (variously defined) that distorts women’s intellectual efforts. Neither of these writers would necessarily insist that a ten-best list contain a female writer, but both would be disturbed if it didn’t--not because it should in some a priori sense, but because the list exists in a culture hostile to female achievement not defined by prefabricated “feminine” standards. Douglas in particular argued of the nineteenth century that domestic ideology made it something like impossible for a woman to be a great writer (and she would have followed, say, Zora Neale Hurston in saying that to adjust standards of greatness for gender [or race or whatever] is the worst sort of offensive prejudiced condescension--I realize that’s a seriously unpopular argument right now, but it’s one with a long tradition in writing by people disadvantaged by majorities and other power structures).
3.) Relatedly, do we know what the gender composition of the selection panel was? And what if there was gender parity on the panel selecting the all-male list? Or what if the women on the panel, however many there were, agreed that no female achievement this year topped these male books? I know very few men in intellectual circles who would say out loud the kind of attitudes I described in my number 2 point above, largely because Baym’s argument has triumphed, but I know plenty of women who would and do. You can contest the pretense of objectivity, but you tread a dangerous path if you reduce subjectivity to gender.
I think I would agree with Hurston in that people who are determined to have quotas are not addressing root causes for this being more important than that. Dickinson was better than any number of male poets in her day and had to deal with Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s condescension, various proof readers’ unwanted corrections (nobody got that she was using a rhetorical text’s marking system for scoring the readings until sometime late in the 20th Century). Whitman was the other big 19th Century American poet that people still read voluntarily outside of classes and scholarship, and neither he nor Dickinson paid each other any mind.
If the conditions for women doing great work are both a sympathetic audience and a tradition to learn from, as Woolfe suggested, the issue of women doing or not doing the best work of the year, as seen by men, may be simply the wrong problem. If what we’ve got is the women who have a broader range of experiences not having time to be the writers, we’ve got another set of issues. If the problem is that women are encouraged to be more emotional and domestic (and there’s a certain amount of pressure on women to be precisely that by the men around them), then women writers who want male praise are in a damned if they do and damned if they don’t situation. If women write for other women, they can do better work (women writing for men end up Sara Teasdale or, at best, Edna St. Vincent Millay; women writing for women end up Edith Sitwell at worse and Marianne Moore at best, and the two of them were friends).
Do women now have equal access to being taken seriously in classrooms or workshops? Are they pressured to write for the erotic imaginations of the men around them? If they’re writing for other women, how educated an audience do they have?
If women are going to write certain kinds of non-fiction, they have to have access to sources and have those sources be willing to enter into serious discourse with them. If that’s not happening, then that problem has to be addressed first before the further possible problem of bias against an equally competent woman’s non-fiction book can be addressed.
The core issues aren’t literary most of the time. If the general culture issues get fixed, literature will follow. I’m not sure literature leads, all our investment in it to the contrary.
Wasn’t one of the panelists a woman who spoke out against the general trend of the selection panel to go for less polished works by men rather than better written works by women? Women used to be dinged for writing too floridly; now that’s the province of men who are determined to do something women tend to curb in their writing.
The domestic doesn’t have to be sentimental. How is Madame Bovary not a domestic novel?
First of all, the book/novel distinction, oops. But although treating the ten books as if they were novels was sloppy of me, but I don’t think it really contradicts my argument (though I probably should have framed the piece a little more precisely). After all, in terms of this kind of discussion, I’d question how useful the distinction between “novel” and “book” actually is. While there are real difference in how they function as narratives (or rather, a “novel” is a specific form while a “book” is much less clearly prescribed), the same kind of argument Baym makes about the way standards for literary quality are gendered would certainly apply to a book like Shop Class as Soulcraft. I’m trying to think of a term than functions as an analog to “shop class” in those terms; home-economics is just as old fashioned a reference point as shop-class, but the gendering of the term is just as clear. Of the others, the John Cheever biography is a meta-text on a (male) novelist. Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon isn’t, but might as well be, a novel (and this sort of “Voyage into the heart of darkness!” narrative is the basis of an entire literary cottage industry, and an intensely masculinize one) Were one inclined, one could make the same kinds of categorizing descriptions of books like A Fiery Peace in a Cold War and The Age of Wonder; to say that they are a certain kind of book telling a certain kind of story is no judgment on them, necessarily, but it is true. There are clear aesthetic standards being used to pick this list, and Baym’s description of how literary criticism has historically chosen how to accord literary value according to highly gendered scales applies to their aesthetic choices as well as it does to Lionel Trilling or Leslie Fiedler.
My point in all this isn’t that there is anything wrong with any of these books (or Trilling and Fiedler). My point is simply that the list strives for objectivity, but it defines that objectivity not only by ignoring its manifest bias (as the coin flipping metaphor seeks to illustrate) but by arguing that “we ignored gender” is the sign of that objectivity. But that isn’t objectivity; that’s an unexamined subjectivity being treated as objective, and then making its very unexaminedness into the proof. Laura Miller put it nicely at <a href="http://www.salon.com/books/publishing_news/index.html?story=/books/feature/2009/11/05/pw_10_best>salon</a>:
“few things are more subjective than judgments about how “great” any given book is. Those real, long-standing cultural biases mentioned above live in the heart of every critic to one degree or another, and we’d be shirking our duty if we didn’t try to account for them. Writing off such qualms as mere “political correctness” is, in its own way, just as dishonest as exaggerating your admiration for a book simply because its author is female, or dark-skinned, or from a far-off nation. I don’t doubt that P.W.’s editors are entirely sincere when they say their list reflects their unvarnished preferences. Still, the fact that those preferences can’t encompass one woman author among 10 books (fiction or nonfiction) picked from the 50,000-plus titles they claim to have sifted through suggests that their horizons might need a bit of deliberate widening.”
Mario’s second point requires its own comment. He notes that “you tread a dangerous path if you reduce subjectivity to gender,” and I don’t at all disagree. But I’m not talking about subjectivity here, nor am I as interested in the part of Baym’s argument where she makes a positive claim for sentimental fiction. The part of that essay that I would say hasn’t lost its critical edge is the part that’s less about what sentimental literature itself is than about the way an aesthetic standard developed that was based specifically around anti-sentimentalism, which is to say, how it came to be intuitive that to write well was to write differently from the bad way that women were taken to write. This doesn’t mean that women can only write this way or anything; it simply means that, as Baym puts it, “woman enters American literary history as the enemy.”
As for Hurston, I think my last comment would make it clear where I disagree with her. John McWhorter recently called her “a fervent Republican who would be at home today on Fox News,” and though he has (characteristically) completely overplayed his hand there, he isn’t completely without a grain of an insight into Hurston‘s ideology. To argue that there is something illegitimate about “adjusting standards of greatness for gender or race” is to start from the presumption that there are standards of greatness that we can reliably cite. But my point is that there aren’t; those standards have already been created using white male models, and though non-white non-male writers can certainly meet those standards—and do—there are all sorts of reasons (which are worth both acknowledging and debating very closely) why they tend to have more difficulty in doing so. There’s nothing wrong with being a white writer or writing from a male perspective (I am/do both); the trouble comes in when people (like the PW list) presume that doing so is somehow more objective than writing from any other perspective, however defined.
Well done Aaron Bady. I really enjoyed the post--very funny.
To make use of your racism example, I would also note that many people of color (among them Malcolm X) prefer it when white people are aware of their bias and honestly present it directly. It’s worse when people are seemingly aware that racism exists, but believe magically that they are immune (i.e. the many white liberals who have retreated to their suburban “whitopias").
Lastly, I think it’s worth noting that even the top ten list’s honorable mention is a male....
This is a particularly interesting thread to me because of the time I have spent recently reading (for teaching) Victorian sensation novels such as Ellen Wood’s East Lynne and M. E. Braddon’s Aurora Floyd (e.g. here). I frequently recoil from what strikes me as very bad writing in them, only to find myself retreating (can you retreat from a recoil?) from that absolute position precisely because I realize how much words like “melodramatic” or “sentimental” figure in my attempts to explain what is wrong with them.
Somewhat relatedly, in the Guardian’s book blog this weekend there was also a post objecting to ways “women’s writing” is patronized as “chick lit"--but for me, that column fell apart when its author picked The Devil Wears Prada and Jennifer Weiner as her cases in point.
The more general point certainly is that there is no clear-cut category of “best,” and it would be honest for the folks at PW to acknowledge that.
To build on what you say, I argue that the issue isn’t so much that “racism exists” as that objectivity doesn’t exist. And it’s that assertion of objectivity (pretending that a subjective preference is an objective aesthetic standard of value) that prevents writers who are categorically excluded by it from being heard.
I think a recoil from a recoil is exactly appropriate! And your response to the guardian book blog crystalizes something I wish I had make clearer in the original post, the way a rejection of anti-sentimentalism doesn’t necessarily imply an embrace of “sentimentalism.” After all, the point of observing that “sentimentalism” is code for “bad women’s writing” isn’t to then say that “bad women’s writing” is a good thing, but to reject the entire formulation (or to acknowledge the value system it serves as antithesis of to be biased and subjective). Because the crime isn’t that Jennifer Weiner isn’t treated as high literature; the problem is that “written by a woman” and “bad literature” are taken to be synonymous, which can then mean (if one is not careful) that re-dressing this fault is taken to mean elevating “bad” novels. That guardian blog article, after all, doesn’t so much throw out a bad standard of value as simply stand it on its head; “you say chicklit is bad? I say chicklit is great!” But the assumption that women only write “chicklit” remains unchallenged.
WRT to the entire issue of sentimental 19th century novels, I must admit, I love the entire “great white male American canon as backlash against scribbling mob of women” as field imaginary for the American renaissance, not only because it’s true, but because it helps make sense of how incredibly sentimental the male novelists are themselves; they might hate sentimental women writers for sucking all the oxygen out of the literary room, but people like Hawthorne are, I think, to the sentimental novel as black-face minstrels were to black culture; better to understood their relationship as a kind of love and theft than as a principled dismissal. They dismissed them because they were emulating them and didn’t want to admit it.
Atlantic books of the year; two of five by women. (h/t Tyler Cowan)
Interesting. Are there any crossovers at all? Not one of the PW top ten cracked even the longer Atlantic list.
Sins of willful omission are as bad as sins of commission:
Is It Something in the Water? Or, Me Tarzan, You Ape
Isn’t the claim that objectivity doesn’t exist itself an objective claim?