Furor over Women and Literary Awards

Linda Lowen on About.com says it about as well as it can be said. Of course there’s a bias against women writers in virtually every part of the publishing industry and in the organizations that sponsor major awards. And, maybe, among us, the readers. Otherwise, how do you account for the fact that most readers are women but the publishing industry and the judges have not fallen to our anger like a picnic to ants? (Read Lowen here: http://womensissues.about.com/b/2009/11/12/is-there-a-bias-against-women-writers-uproar-against-publishers-weekly-2009-list.htm).

And we applaud Cate Marvin and Erin Belieu and WILLA for stepping up, tackling the issues, and organizing for a women’s writing conference that might address these concerns and more. We will all attend and support them, right? Impossible not to respond to a call to action that begins, as Cate’s did, with these lines:

[Dear Friend,

I just experienced a moment of vicious self-mockery, in which I imagined myself in the same pose of concentration over the laundry I had spread over my bed as the narrator of Tillie Olsen’s legendary piece in which a mother considers the circumstances of her gender as manifested in her daughter’s (lack of) self-confidence . . . ]

Jane’s Stories Press Foundation has been championing the cause of women’s writing for almost ten years now, and we shouldn’t have to proclaim that we are down with the cause. But I would like to sound one note of caution as we address the immediate issues of why no women made it into Publishing Weekly’s Top Ten Books of 2009, and why the National Book Awards just this past month also eschewed all books published by all women for the past year, except in –guess what? Children’s literature, because women know about kids, don’t you know? (Not that writing for children isn’t worthy work! I’m just pointing out a pattern here.)

My note of caution is this: Feminism is not about why you and your friends can’t get ahead. Feminism is about why one gender is excluded from power structures and how that skews life for both genders, as a result. In other words, it’s about the stories of women’s lives in all their diversity and scope, and why those stories are bent, pushed, and otherwise twisted to make a pedestal for the powers-that-be to stand on.

It’s not enough for more women to win awards, any more than it’s enough for a woman to be president–although both would be advances all women and men should support. We will have won when a male prize judge reads a book with a central character who is female and doesn’t compare her to a male, but sees himself in her, and vice versa.

It’s fine, as Linda Lowen points out, for men to be lauded for writing about domestic matters, but so should women be praised for the same subject matter, and also for writing kick-ass military satire or anything else they want.

In other words, we have to expand the territory for all women, sisters, not just celebrate a few of us being allowed on the battlefield.

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