The two essays VIDA features this month were occasioned by the Publisher’s Weekly (PW) list of the 10 Best Books of 2009 and were originally presented at 2011’s AWP Conference in Washington D.C. as part of a panel titled “The Great Indoors: Gender, Writing, and Re-envisioning Literary Merit.”
The Publisher’s Weekly 2009 list included books by 10 men and—wait for it—zero women. Announcing the list, Louisa Ermelino said that PW 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,” she wrote, adding “it disturbed us when we were done that our list was all male.”
Disturbed, but not disturbed enough to include 2009 books by, say, Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro, Rita Dove, Heather McHugh, and Jayne Ann Phillips.
In her response to this list, called “On Disturbance,” published in The Rumpus, panelist Susan Steinberg wrote the following:
“Why would they choose to put out a list that disturbs them? Wouldn’t it also disturb others? Were they trying to send a message? I’m just saying, a remedy for the disturbance may have been to call their list into question. A next step may have been to call their criteria into question. A next step may have been to stop consciously ‘ignoring gender’ if an all-male list was disturbing. ‘Ignoring gender,’ after all, often results in the all-male list. We’ve seen how this works, and it’s certainly not limited to the literary world.”
In her response to Susan’s response, panelist Patti Horvath wrote, “ ‘Ignoring gender’ seems to me suspiciously akin to people who claim they don’t ‘see’ color. It’s there and these editors are clearly making a statement about what norms & subjects make for the ‘best’ literature. They might, if they are so disturbed, question how those norms were determined.”
And in the VIDA press release regarding this PW list, co-founder Erin Belieu wrote, “when PW’s editors tell us they’re not worried about ‘political correctness,’ that’s code for ‘your concerns as a feminist aren’t legitimate.’ They know they’re being blatantly sexist, but it looks like they feel good about that.”
I was disheartened by the 2009 list because the book I cared about the most that year, a luminous, subversive book that I couldn’t get out of my head, Louise Glück’s A Village Life, was of course not in the Top 10; but, more importantly, because exclusions are always troubling, especially in light of a statement such as “we ignored gender,” which is maybe little more than an oafish, ball-scratching way of saying “Ladies, we see you, and what of it?” And for me, not to make too much of this, but as a queer poet of color, I know something of erasures. It would be one thing if women writers were talentless hacks, but let’s not kid ourselves, there’s something else at work here, and it’s that something, the implications of merit and omission and gender and interiority, that the essays in this month’s issue address.