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Ten “Bests”

The writer Kris Ohlson has been passing around this essay from The Washington Post, via email and her Facebook page, by Julianna Baggott, called “The Key to Literary Success? Be a Man — or Write Like One.”    Baggott points out that Publishers Weekly‘s list of the ten best books of 2009 contained no women writers. On the entire list of 100? Only 29 women. Baggott continues with something of a mea culpa: she herself, educated to favor male writers and male themes, disguised her gender under a pseudonym when she wrote a trilogy for young people.

The whole issue is just depressing. It’s irritating that Publishers Weekly responded to criticism of the list by saying that they weren’t striving for political correctness, as though (as Baggott says) that’s the only reason you’d consider women writers. I think it requires a conscious effort to be fair and inclusive, in a manner analogous to affirmative action. That is, if we’re aware that our default position is to “favor” (that is, notice) male themes and male writers (usually white ones), then we have to doublecheck our lists and our preferences to see that we’ve given women and minorities a fair shake.

I used to do this when, years ago, I chose all the books that our book group read. Like all the rest of Western culture, I’d unconsciously gravitate toward white male writers, and I’d check myself every now and then, seeking out a book by a woman or African-American writer. However misguided and cliche-ridden Black History Month may sometimes seem, it serves this good purpose — it makes us think about inclusivity. I’d say to myself,  “Okay, let’s read a good African-American novel this month,” when I may not have done so without the reminder.

On the film side, The Hurt Locker, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, is being included on many 2009 top-ten movie lists. It fits, in a way, the male-themed model, in that it’s an action movie about soldiers who disable explosive devices. But it also is a passionate anti-war film. Like many women, I’m avoiding this movie because I’m queasy about the violence, but I admire it from afar. My stereotypically female behavior — steering clear of violent movies — is another aspect of this whole problem. On most mainstream lists, Bigelow is the only woman listed, but when international films are considered, many women are popping up. For example, The Beaches of Agnes, a lovely film by Agnes Varda, shows up, as does The Headless Woman by Lucrecia Martel. (Both of which appeared at the Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque.)

Anyway, I had to compile a list of my favorite books of 2009 for the Plain Dealer. I didn’t pretend that they were the “best,” but they were the best I read last year. My list of ten included three women writers. It’s at least a better percentage than the Publishers Weekly top ten, but, sadly, about the same as their top 100. Here they are, along with my little blurbs. (None of these appeared in the final PD list.) Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s witty memoir, in my opinion, should have been on everyone’s 10 Best list.

  • Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know by Alexandra Horowitz

 A scientist and dog lover interprets the canine umwelt, that is, how the dog experiences the world, with affection but no sentimentality. (This would make a great book-group choice along with The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. If your group likes dogs.)

  • Not Now, Voyager: A Memoir by Lynne Sharon Schwartz

 The under-read novelist writes a wittily charming and elegant travel memoir, having admitted at the outset that she doesn’t really like to travel.  

  • Lies Will Take You Somewhere by Sheila Schwartz

Schwartz’s daring, suspenseful, and funny novel is made poignant by her untimely death just before its publication.

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