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