Is It Time To Stop Listing "Best" Books?S

Publishers Weekly didn't include any female authors on its list of the 10 best books of 2009. Is a counter-list in order, or should we just do away with such lists entirely?

PW reviews director Louisa Ermelino wrote that the publication "ignored gender and genre and who had the buzz" when composing its list, and that "it disturbed us when we were done that our list was all male." But Cate Marvin, founder of Women in Letters and Literary Arts (and also a pretty great poet) says,

The absence made me nearly speechless. [...] It continues to surprise me that literary editors are so comfortable with their bias toward male writing, despite the great and obvious contributions that women authors make to our contemporary literary culture.

Salon's Laura Miller sees both sides of the issue. She points out that "what's at issue isn't sales or even access to readers," and it's worth remembering that women buy more books than men these days, and that many of the most commercially successful writers in English are women. But "prestige and critical recognition" still matter, and Miller acknowledges that Publishers' Weekly may be unknowingly buying into prejudices about what deserves to be prestigious. Ermelino seemed to brush off the concerns of Marvin and others by saying the PW list wasn't "the most politically correct," but Miller writes,

[R]eal, long-standing cultural biases [...] 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.

This is a smart point. When a list like this one draws criticism — and they have in the past — the compilers usually defend it with the argument that "this is just what we like." But what we like is subject to deeply held and unconscious biases, and when we think we're being objective, we are often praising what we're most comfortable with, or what we think is most deserving of praise based on whatever stereotypes we grew up with. Miller gets this, but she also understands how difficult it is to make a list that's both wide-ranging and true to a critic's particular tastes:

If you insist on a list that's ideally representative of gender, race, class, nationality (i.e., including at least one translation), publisher size (small as well as large), fame, length (short story collections as well as novels), region, genre and so on, you can easily wind up with, say, a list of nine books you kinda like and maybe one you truly love. That's a tepid dish to serve up to readers, and not likely to inspire much enthusiasm, either.

I'm not completely comfortable with the idea that jettisoning your preconceived notions lead to "tepid" criticism, just as I don't like the argument that approaching literature from a multicultural perspective leads to the canonization of bad literature. I think that the "deliberate widening of horizons" that Miller talks about might actually lead critics to love books they might not even have picked up otherwise, and to examine the ways in which their privilege influences their taste. But I also think that compiling, by committee, a list of the ten best books in any year is a great way to piss people off, and not a particularly great way to inform them.

I've been reviewing books for a long time, and I'm a big fan of the book review as a literary form in itself and a way of introducing readers to new and exciting work. I know that, when I review a book, I bring my own prejudices to it — I can and should try to fight against them, but I'll never completely eliminate them all. The thing is, my reviews run under my byline, and are clearly my opinion and mine alone. I'm also just making judgments about an individual book, not about what constitutes the cream of the crop of an entire year's literature. Getting a bunch of people together to pick a "best-of" list, no matter how open-minded those people are, screws up the process of criticism because it obscures it from view. We don't know who fought for what, who insisted on what inclusion or exclusion, and what those people's reasons and biases were. All we see is a collective entity that calls itself an authority and delivers a verdict not just on one book, but on all the books of an entire year (or, sometimes, decade or century). Even if we got the names of everybody on the PW panel (the entire staff? a select group?), it would be pretty hard to tease out all the different influences that lead to an all-male winner's circle.

So while I think the WILLA Wiki of great 2009 books by women is a good response to PW's dude-fest, I also know that every list excludes somebody. And I'd rather go on judging every book on its own merits than compare it to a whole bunch of other books. But of course, that's just the opinion of Anna North, a young-ish white woman from Los Angeles who's tired because it's Friday and skeptical because it's November and a little embarrassed because she hasn't read any of the books on the PW list — and who, like all critics, could easily be wrong.

No. 1 Omission From Top 10 Book List: Women [NYT ArtsBeat Blog]
A 10-Best Books List Without Women? [Salon]
Best Books Of 2009 [Publishers Weekly]
The WILLA List Wiki [Official Site]