Tuesday, April 3, 2007

The Sexism and Racism of Book Lists

There seems to be a problem with "Best Book" lists -- they leave out literature written by women and folks of color. To beat an old horse, the New York Times' list of the best 25 books of the last 25 years has room for four Cormac McCarthys, four John Updikes, five Philip Roths, and two Don DeLillos, but only two women total (Marilynne Robinson and Toni Morrison), one of them conveniently being the only non-white person on the list.

Why does this happen? I have a theory. In The Second Sex, Simone DeBeauvoir talks about how women are "othered" by western society. (White) male experience is defined as normative and women and people of other ethnicities are defined in relation to the white male conception of "normal." In our culture, we teach everyone to identify with the normative male experience. Therefore, everyone can identify with narratives that feature white men as protagonists. However, non-white non-males can also identify with the experience of being "othered" and therefore can identify with the othered experience as set out in books and movies.

So what. Most of the serious fiction in America is sold to women, making the male audience an extra bonus. In other words, women will read books by and about men and women. Men are perhaps more likely only to read books about men, because they find it difficult to identify with the "othered" experience, through their own acculturation.

It's not just the New York Times. Check out Random House's list of the top 100 books of the century. Six women made the official list, and as far as I know, no writers of color. As a post on She's Such a Geek points out, of twenty writers nominated for a Hugo, only one was female.

Depressing? Sure. But rather than complain about it, let's give some good press to the writers who deserve it. Who would you have nominated for Hugo? Who belongs on your list of the best 25 books of the century?


flies said...

don't you think we're all 'othered' in some way? I think we've all been marginalized at one time or another, so there's no reason why 'other-ness' as such should be so unappealing to white men such as myself.

Of course there are many reasons why men achieve 'greatness' in the literary world and women do not. I think it has a lot to do with the way culture nurtures children, the kind of goals little kids have. Of course, this is unsubstantiated by any 'scientific fact', but i try not to let such things upset my carefully imagined opinions. ;)

Lizzie said...

Yes, I do think we're all "othered" in some way, but I'd argue that there are greater and lesser degrees and that most white dudes are at the lesser end of that spectrum. And I'm not talking specific narrow situation here -- like a straight white guy at a Xena convention -- I'm trying to talk about the everyday reality and situations that folks find themselves in.

Charlie Anders said...

Hi, thanks for linking to my post at she's such a geek. I actually blogged about this issue before, at http://othermag.org/blog/?p=184. My question is not, why don't men read books by women?, but rather, why do women read books written by men?

Lizzie said...

Well...here's a possible theory:

Historically, men's writing has been considered "classic" and cannonical. If you think of great writers of recorded history, you're likely to name Shakespeare, John Donne, Melville, etc. One could probably argue that this fact has contributed to women critics and women readers looking on men's work favorably.

Also, I think your comment raises the question, "why does anyone read anything?" We read to understand ourselves, to find out about unfamiliar situations, for amusement. As long as men's writing is insightful, unique, and amusing, women will read it. And if you agree with my theory that male identity is the norm and female identity is othered, then it would make sense that identity politics are not preventing women from enjoying men's literature.