George Eliot. Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell (Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte). It has been more than a century since the likes of Mary Ann Evans and the Bronte sisters have had to disguise their gender in order to be considered worthy of a place in the literary firmament. But are they worthy? Apparently not.
A little more than a decade ago, an unknown author decided with her publisher that in order for her novel about a young wizard to sell to middle-school boys, she’d go by the more ambiguous J.K. Rowling. Just this week, the debate reached a boiling point when Publisher’s Weekly (PW) announced their top 100 picks for 2009 — and not one of the top 10 was penned by a woman.
The list unleashed a flurry of posts and comments across the blogosphere, most notably a press release entitled Why Weren’t Any Women Invited To Publishers Weekly’s Weenie Roast from the founders of WILLA, an organization dedicated to bringing attention to women’s literary accomplishments.
She Writes, a Web community for women writers, declared Friday, November 13th a “Call to Action” day and encouraged members to protest by going out and buying books by women authors and voicing their concerns in response to Louisa Ermelino’s (PW’s Reviews Director) statement about the trade magazine’s “politically correct” choices.
She Writes members haven’t exactly been shy about calling out Ermelino’s staff for their methods (“kinda like buying a dress for the prom,” wrote one) while others criticized the editor’s spelling mistakes.
But Erin Belieu, one of WILLA’s founders and director of the Creative Writing program at Florida State, wanted to cut through the cattiness and make something clear. In an email to Fast Company she wrote, “When the editors at PW stated that they weren’t striving to be politically correct, they were using the “best defense is a good offense” strategy–that is, they themselves admitted that they were disturbed by the fact that they’d left women out of their top ten entirely and underrepresented them on the list as a whole.”
She believes that instead of stepping back and examining some of their preconceived notions about writing and what they consider as the best and why, Belieu says, “They tried to shine it off by suggesting that any sort of feminist concern over their choices was somehow puny and intellectually frivolous–in a phrase, politically correct.”
When asked if she considered women to be better writers than men, Belieu responded, “It’s really hard to take the question seriously. Again, this is a very nuanced issue. So sometimes they are, sometimes they aren’t.”
Belieu mused that perhaps a case could be made for women being better writers overall: “Maybe we have done the best against the kind of odds most men have never had to face. So women win in the degree of difficulty category at least.”
But, she noted, the point isn’t whether one group is better than the other. “The point is that PW’s editors’ subjective bias is writ so large on that list that we at WILLA couldn’t bring ourselves to ignore it.”