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Is Terry Gross a gender quisling? Plus: Dylan Thomas Prize evens the score.

September 22, 2010

Eleanor Catton, novelist, separated at birth from....

I wonder what Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner will say about literary gender discrimination now that five of six finalists for the Dylan Thomas Prize are women — one of whom bears a striking resemblance to Lisbeth Salander.

While we’re waiting to hear from Picoult and Weiner, here’s what I say: Yes, discrimination against women exists in all areas of society, including the selection of books to be reviewed by prestige publications and the awarding of big literary prizes.

But who to blame and what to do when women, presumably liberal sophisticated women, are among those perpetuating the imbalance?

Consider this year’s Man Booker Prize: Four of the six finalists are

Rooney Mara, who will be the new Lizbeth Salander?

men, with only Emma Donoghue (Room) and Andrea Levy (The Long Song) representing the female half of the human species. And yet, of the five judges, three were women — Rosie Blau, literary editor of the Financial Times; Deborah Bull, creative director of the Royal Opera House; biographer and critic Frances Wilson.

I’m aware such a complicated matter as the lingering influences of patriarchy cannot be reduced to simple arithmetic. Perhaps poet Andrew Motion, chair of the judging committee, strong-armed the women. That’d be one explanation, though flattering to no one involved.

Or perhaps it’s the Joyce Carol Oates effect. Oates once remarked that God does not dispense talent with regard to fairness (or something like that. I can’t find the exact quote). Which would mean that in this year, among the books on the longlist, these judges found excellence distributed in a four-to-two ratio, genderwise.

Maybe. But consider further: When the lit gender bias controversy first blew up, NPR entertainment and pop culture blogger Linda Holmes declared: “Here’s an idea: If you’re going to try to report on the fact that a couple of women who write books have tried to start a discussion of whether the mega-response to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom is symptomatic of a too-narrow view of interesting fiction, it might be a good idea to stay away from the formless and dismissive term ‘chick lit’ in discussing them.”

Hey, Linda, here’s a better idea: How about NPR books some women writers?

Terry Gross, NPR goddess.

It turns out that Terry Gross, a secular saint in many NPR-listening homes, is guilty of severe masculine bias. Laura Lippman, a talented crime novelist, took it upon herself to tabulate the guests on a month of Gross’s popular interview show, “Fresh Air,” — and discovered that less than one-fifth of the guests were women.

Out of 56 episodes on her iPod, Lippman reports, 14 segments featured writers — only two of whom were women.

So, is Terri Gross a gender quisling? No, most likely not. Nonetheless, if women, when they are placed in positions of authority, as, say, judges of literary contests or hosts of influential radio programs, don’t work to balance traditional gender inequalities, then who will?

All of which justifies the pride taken by the Dylan Thomas judges in the gender make-up of their shortlist. Prof. Peter Stead, founder of the prize, said the judges were “both surprised and pleased” to see the final six are mainly women.

The judging committee for the prize, open to any published writer in English under the age of 30, consisted of two men and two women. The award is administered by the University of Wales.

“Regardless of gender, this is an outstanding shortlist that, in my opinion, rivals that of the world’s best-known literary awards,” Stead said. “What strikes me this year is the sheer readability and accessibility of these books.”

The finalists include two poetry collections and four novels. The winner collects a £30,000 prize.

The finalists are: U.K. poet Caroline Bird, for her collection Watering Can; Somalia-born noveist Nadifa Mohamed for Black Mamba Boy; Karan Mahajan, an Indian-born novelist and the sole man on the list, for Family Planning; American poet Elyse Fenton for her collection Clamor; Scottish novelist Emilie Mackie for And This is True.

And Eleanor Catton, a Canadian-born novelist who grew up in New Zealand and who now lives in the U.S. where she attends the Iowa Writers Workshop. I have to name her novel The Rehearsal as the odds-on favorite, if only because Catton bears a striking resemblance to Rooney Mara, the actress who will play Lisbeth Salander in the Hollywood remake of the impossibly popular Stieg Larsson series of Swedish crime novels.

You may say I’m being silly, but I counter that literary prizes are the very definition of silliness. I’m certain that all six of these books are worthy of attention, and I would read them all right now if there were but world enough and time.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice Simmons permalink
    September 22, 2010 1:12 pm

    How about a “don’t ask don’t tell” clause on gender when it comes to those silly literary prizes.

    Only joking….

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 22, 2010 5:10 pm

      Well, I’ve always said in a perfect world, all books would be published anonymously. But we don’t live in that world. Which maybe is a good thing.

    • Lynn Demarest permalink
      September 22, 2010 9:22 pm

      Orchestras typically place applicants behind a screen during tryouts to prevent those making the selections from being influenced by the players’ appearance, which apparently is deemed immaterial.

      How much more immaterial is the appearance of an author!

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        September 22, 2010 10:48 pm

        I could not agree more.

  2. September 22, 2010 9:19 pm

    World enough and time indeed, Chauncey. Still, I’ll probably buy all the books on the finalist list. But will I read them? I give everyone 50 pages. If I’m not into the story by then, I move on. This prize thing is in many ways a necessary evil. Without some sort of prize, most authors get little (if any) attention. We need more prizes! More more more – a label, an angle, a blurb from Joyce Carol Oates or? How did we ever fall so far? Someone will write a book about it, I’m sure.

    Women? I haven’t a gay bone in my body (well maybe there is one I don’t know about) but there are times when I wish as a writer I was part of the fem movement. Old WASP that I am, I can’t get much of anything published anymore. Now, if I looked like ex-model Jennifer Egan (Emerald City) I’d get some attention. LOOKS, Chauncey, looks crack the door. After that, you better have some talent, which Egan does. There is a story behind my picking her to pick on. I won’t bore you with it.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 23, 2010 12:48 am

      Duff, you tease! If you ever want to slum in one of the more manly genres, I predict wealth and fame, because you know how to leave us hanging! As for looks, you are absolutely right. A few years ago a major independent NY agent explained to me how hard it is to promote a plain author. What a superficial world we live in. How many famous and important writers of the past would be forgotten if they’d had 24-hour news TV and the world wide web….And I agree about prizes, the only function of which is promotional. As parsers of quality, they are pitifully inconsistent, especially the Nobel and the Pulitzer (for fiction, anyway).

  3. September 23, 2010 12:26 pm

    This isn’t confined to literary prizes. In the mystery world, all the major awards are subjected to the same second-guessing and charges of sexism. Every spring, when the Edgar nominees are announced, there are at least five bloggers who foam at the mouth about the “lack of balance” and “old boys network.” That said, there has been attention paid to the make-up of judging committees in recent years. (the mystery world also has frequent contretemps over “hardboiled” versus “softboiled” books.) But as one who has judged these things, believe me, no one gives a rat’s ass what the writer’s chromosomes are. What matters is all there on the page.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 24, 2010 2:28 pm

      You never feel an obligation to thumb the scale in favor of the just-slightly-less-worthy novel by a woman? Make up for 5,000 years of patriarchy?

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