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November 12, 2009

"Best" Books of 2009

"Best" Books of 2009

by Nancy      Go to fullsize image

Last week, in a short piece announcing their ten "best" books of 2009, Publisher's Weekly added that they were "disturbed" to discover than none of their "best" were written by women. But they assured their readers that they made all books "stand on their own two feet," and the chips fell where they belonged.

Gee, we're so sorry to hear the magazine is upset about the situation they created. I sincerely hope someone has taken the precaution of removing all sharp objects and poisonous substances from their offices.  We wouldn't want their pain to be compounded, would we?

While we wait for PW to get back to us for expressing sympathy about their distress, let's discuss a few possible conclusions we might draw from the list they announced:

1. Only men can write good books.

Or

2. It's time to stop judging books by dated criteria.

Or

3. Publishers are presenting books by women in ways that render them second class.

Or

4. You fill in the blank because my blood pressure is triggering those pretty lights behind my eyes again.

First of all, imagine the situation if the genders were reversed. Picture the uproar if the "best of" list only contained books written by women.  I can name people who would need smelling salts.  A few who would sue. Why, Congress might even mobilize! They're always looking for some distraction or other.

Personally, I am accustomed to this kind of treatment because I once wrote romance novels. And if you want to see what denigration really looks like (the literary equivalent of rotten fruit thrown at your head while a frenzied mob jeers) stand up in a room crowded with literary types and announce you write romance. If you're in relatively polite society, you'll only see rolling eyes, but later in the bar, things will get ugly, I promise. After ten years or so, I became hardened to this kind of criticism. But now I realize I'm a little like a battered wife that way. I expect to be mistreated and abused.

The hell with that. I'm pissed now.  In fact, I'm ready to unleash my flying monkeys. And everyone in the book business should be, too, because diminishing one group of us diminishes us all.

Sure, I know the difference between books written purely for entertainment (what I do) and books that have literary merit. I recognize that "good" books need to focus on theme over plot.  "Good" books need to be truthful and reflect life. And "good" books need to be about something--despite what Flaubert said--at least, that's what most seasoned reviewers will tell you. But ain't it about time for publishing professionals to recognize that the commonly used criteria for judging novels is mired in the last century? Or maybe the century before that? Are "women's subjects" still not epic enough? Not worthy?

Perhaps the best essay on the subject is this one, written by Francine Prose in 1998, for Harpers.  (It's only available if you're a subscriber, however.) In it, she asks the literary question, "Are women writers really inferior?" A good analysis of her essay is this one and I encourage you to read it because---well, it's free, for one thing.  Also good.

Here's another rabble-rousing blog on the subject at She Writes.

And an organization called Women in Letters and Literary Arts is doing the best work, perhaps, by compiling a list of great books of 2009 that have been written by women. Check it out here. Add your suggestions there, too.

What does this literary kerfuffle have to do with writing mysteries and/or the kinds of entertaining books that we write here at the offices of The Lipstick Chronicles? Why am I bent out of shape about this? Because the mystery genre and the women's fiction genre are as gender-driven as the literary scene.  (Nicholas Sparks.  Need I say more?) One glance at the table of contents of a new book of essays by mystery writers de-constructing their protagonists should tell you how little the books written by women are valued by leaders in our industry. The editor-who-shall-remain-nameless couldn't have dug up more than three worthy women mystery authors?

Having spent a couple of weeks in bed recovering from surgery by reading my literary comfort food (plenty of Spenser, I will admit) I will come out and say what I find ancient history in the mystery genre:  The disaffected male detective, strugging with alcohol and his feelings for his ex-wife/dead girlfriend/murdered best friend/troubled brother. He beats up a bad guy and saves a damsel, but not after some woman or other is brutally--even pruriently--slaughtered for the entertainment of the reader. C'mon, who really thinks these books are breaking new ground today? Such a story is no longer an author using a literary form used to make important comments on the state of society today.  It's a formula!  (Believe me, as a romance writer, I know the difference.)

I want some new material, please. And some new ways of judging books that reflect how women (who, BTW, buy 67% of all books sold) read quality books. I want new ideas about death and how dramatizing and investigating it can reflect the substance of life, the value (or not) of relationships,  the intricasies of family, the role of sex and intimacy in our lives, a study of personal values, and maybe a noble code of honor that allows for the necessary mundanity of carpooling, too. Oh, yeah, and I want a crackling good story, too.

I think the regulars of TLC are exactly the kind of intelligent, widely-read, and discerning readers who can help us define what it is that makes one mystery novel better than another. Not simply entertaining, mind you, but better. What do you think? Can we compile some observations here today?  Or do I send a nice fruit basket to PW along with an apology for the monkeys?

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Comments

I'll go first. I've seen this hashed out a couple of places this week (and I KNEW I'd see it here today, Nancy!)

I have not read any of PWs top Top 10. I've read two in the Fiction category--one by a man, one by a woman. Both terrific, and I was glad to see them there.

However, each time I read an outraged OP about this, I wonder--which particular books by women are missing? Would this argument be better served by naming names? Such as, Hey! Why isn't The Help on this list? Name the books by women that should make the list, rather than the general complaint that books by women should make the list. But if you do that, you should name which books by men do not deserve to make the list. Specifying your argument is the crux of a successful persuasive essay, but this is a conundrum. I don't like to criticize the work of another author because it's not my taste.

As to the put downs, literary writers get slammed all the time--including here--with the complaint that, because their books aren't plot-driven, they're "about nothing." If all of my fellow writers for children got a penny for the "When are you going to write a real book?" comments, we could end famine in the world.

Of course, that last thing doesn't happen so much anymore, thanks to a woman named JK Rowling.

I have a feeling I didn't help your blood pressure much, so I will go ahead and make it higher. I am really tired of the ridiculous and convoluted plots in so many novels. I like your paragraph about finding news ways to dramatize the substance of life. I like a simple, honest story about believable people in extraordinary circumstances. Or is that "about nothing?"

Nancy said: Having spent a couple of weeks in bed recovering from surgery by reading my literary comfort food (plenty of Spenser, I will admit)


I woke up, had two cups of coffee, and went down to Henry Cimoli's gym at the Harbor. Years ago, it was a training gym, with younger men hoping to be the next Great White/Black/Blue/Green/Whatever Hope. A few years ago, Henry went upscale. Nautilus machines, fruit juice smoothies, mineral water. When I walked in the front door, a guy in a raspberry headband that matched the raspberry armband holding his raspberry iPod, all of which matched his raspberry sneakers, was signing in. He seemed to be having trouble deciding where and how to accomplish the difficult task of signing on the proper spot. Gloria, Henry's receptionist since before September 11th, nodded at me and waved me on in.

I went into the locker room and changed into my workout clothes. A gray sweatshirt with the arms cut off, sweatpants that had more patches than material, and shoes that were the uniform color of the patching glop I used to keep them together. I looked at my shoes for a moment, trying to remember their original color, and couldn't. I hoped they weren't originally raspberry, though.

As a nod to his roots, Henry kept a boxing room in the far corner. I heard the rhythm of the small bag as I walked over. Hawk was in there, making it dance with a consistent rhythm I could somehow never achieve.

"Morning," I said as I took up as stance in front of the heavy bag.

He grunted in reply as he continued to make the bag flap and sway and dance. He did that for a few more minutes, and then he stopped. Picking up a towel draped over a rack, he wiped the sweat off his face and chest.

"What's new in your world?" he asked.

I set my feet and started pounding on the heavy bag. In my work, there were times I still had to hit people occasionally, and keeping my hands and wrists and arms in shape was a priority. "Not a lot," I said between grunts of effort. "Been thinking this morning."

"Uh oh," Hawk said. "Susan know about that?"

"I've been practicing," I said as I ducked and bobbed and weaved and tried to get a rhythm going. "She says I've improved, so she's letting me do it on my own sometimes."

Hawk took his practice gloves off and hung them on the wall, the sat down on the floor, his legs stretched in front of him. "Okay, I give. Whatchu been thinkin' 'bout, Marse Spenser?"

"So, this is gonna be a Brer Bear day?" I asked as I hit the heavy bag with combinations. He didn't answer, so I went on. "You know Nancy Martin, the writer?"

"Sho' nuff," he said. "Like her stuff. Wish her character Nina Blackbird was real."

"Why?" I asked him.

He stared at me until the obvious answer finally trickled into my brain. Maybe I wasn't as good at thinking as I thought I was. "Moving along," I said. "She did a column this morning, about the so-called best books of the year. They're all by men."

"Uh huh."

"She wondered why that is so."

"Uh huh."

"And it made me wonder, too."

Hawk got to his feet and did some stretches. "So? We gotta go to New York now and shoot some people?"

"No, nothing like that, you savage."

"Can't help it, my ancestors killed first and asked later. When they was done eating the missionaries."

"Oh, brother," I said as I stepped back from the heavy bag, trying to increase the power in my long punches. "It just made me wonder about it all. Sexism in publishing? Today? With the popularity of women authors, women's books, how can things still be slanted to inequality?"

"World is slanted toward inequality," Hawk said. "I is living proof."

"You certainly are. How many 92" TV's are in that Beacon Hill mansion you live in? Three? Four?"

"Five," Hawk said. "But I am a rare example of over-coming."

I shook my head, flinging the sweat from my eyes. I stopped, stepped back, and rolled my shoulders. "She asks some fair questions," I said. "Hard questions, tough ones, but fair."

"And you ain't gonna let it go. I know how you are. You start thinking about stuff like this, it's gonna be a long day."

"Some good arguments," I said as I shuffled and bobbed and weaved. Maybe I'd do better if I pretended the heavy bag was a New York LIterary Critic. "Seems to me there's a lot of inequality in publishing these days. Publishers won't take chances, a new writer has to produce spectacular sales with his or her first book or their career is over."

"Good thing we got going thirty years back," he muttered.

"What?"

"Nothing," Hawk said in his Boston Brahmin accent. "Pray continue."

"You'd think there would be a simpler solution these days," I said as I started to slow down on the bag. It seemed like my arms got tired a lot quicker these days. Must be something in the water. Maybe it was in the air. "All these years, you'd think people would know better and respect and admire how hard it is to even get a book published, and if your writing is good enough to get there, it shouldn't matter if you're a man or a woman or whatever you are."

"Still got dem rose-colored glasses on, don't you?"

"All these clever comments this morning have earned you the right to buy breakfast when we're done."

"You saying a book shouldn't be judged by its cover, but its content? How original."

"I told you, I've been working on thinking."

Hawk picked up his towel again, twirled it into a long length, and draped it over his neck. "Sounds to me," he said. "She asking questions can't be answered."

"Every question has an answer," I said as I stopped and toweled off. "Just have to find it."

"You find the answer, then what?"

I shrugged. "We find the answer, then we decide what to do."

"Business as usual, then."

We left the boxing room and headed for the locker room.

William, I'm in awe. And perhaps a little bit in love, too.

I have to dash off this morning and drive 100 miles, roundtrip, to get my mother to the airport. However, well said, Nancy.

Just as there is no equally satisfying male counterpart for the word "bitch", when spat out in rage, there is no male counterpart for the oft-denigrated category of "chick lit". Never mind that voluminous guy-written dreck is out there, it just doesn't have a flippantly accorded name that devalues the currency of the work.

Women's lib may have "happened" 40 years ago, but the subtle differences are still there. Witness the ridiculous novel by Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Gack. I'll never get that week of my life back, thanks to my book club. It's barely more than a string of epithets and gutter talk, held together with the merest wisp of a story. How that piece of crap won a Pulitzer is beyond me.

Me, angry? Why do you ask?

Yeah, this is quite a subject. And fiction is also under-represented. The Dan Chaon was disappointing to me. I would personally put Valerie Martin (The Confessions of Edward Day) and Mary Robison (One D.O.A., One on the way) on the list. Let's make our own list so readers will go to these books.

Wait---Hawk lives in a mansion?

Ramona, as you well know, I do appreciate a novel "about nothing."---certainly more than the convoluted plot types. (Those are the books I equate with teen boy movies like Transformers and whatnot---all thrills, but no substance.) But I recognize that's my taste. I think it's important to discuss taste, though, to heighten everyone's consciousness (does using that phrase date me, William?) about where fiction has gone (or not gone) in recent years. In mystery, it doesn't feel as if the indsutry as a whole is breaking any new ground, but rewarding books that conform best to a formula--or those that seek to keep the plot twisting so fast that there's hardly a point to it all. (Again--my taste is showing!) The exceptions, in my view are books written by women that tend to get overlooked. (Have you read THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE yet?) The list of terrific books written by women on the Women in Letters site is a good one, and I didn't think we could do better here--at least, not where literary fiction is concerned.

Hoo-raah, Nancy. I don't understand it, either. I don't understand why a book can only be 'good' if it has a theme, and plot is irrelevant. If the books not going somewhere, I have a hard time getting through it.

What makes a good book for me? (I'll leave out the Tarts names here because you all fit in here. I'll just name some others.) More and more, I notice that I love dialog. The more "", the better for me. I want snappy, funny, why-can't-I-think-of-that-comeback dialog. (Evanovich, NCIS on TV) Drop the page-long descriptive paragraphs. I want action AND romance in the same book. (Brockmann) I want truly great characters I can either relate to or can imagine. (Nora Roberts) And speaking of imagery, I want to be able to see the 'movie' in my head while I read. (too many to list) I want a plot with original twists, but not too much that it doesn't make sense. I want a great hero - hey, I'm female! I want a unique story.(JKRowling) And once in a while I want a smart book that does all that and gets the point across with as few words as possible. (RBParker)

And more often than not, the books I read are written by kick-ass ladies, because you all get the right combination to transport me into another world that has it all.

William, I could hear Joe Montegna's voice reading your dialog. You rock!

I am floored by this. The best book I read in 2009 was not only written by a woman, but it was quite possibly the best book I've read in a decade - THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett. My husband read it and loved it. My sister in law, daughter....anyone I gave it to could not put it down. The writing is excellent. The story superb (a view of the civil rights revolution in the Deep South as seen by African American maids - and the author's white, ahem), the dialogue top notch and the characters unreal.

WTF???

Frankly, this says more about PW than anything else.

I just looked at PW's list. They're smoking crack. Obviously.

BTW, William. Spot on.

Jane Austen, Simone de Beauvoir, Mary Stewart, Emily Bronte, Charlotte Bronte, Georgette Heyer, Virginia Woolf, Barbara Kingsolver, Ann LaMott -- all the Book Tarts, of course -- it's a short list, because I'm in a hurry, but if I had to choose one gender's books to be stuck with on a desert island for the rest of my life, I'd pick the girls.

It's long past time that everyone recognizes there is major gender bias in the publishing industry. Too many books are evaluated by sales numbers. If you know anything about publishing, you know the vast majority of 'best-sellers' are pre-determined by the marketing types. Nothing personal against Dan Brown, he may be a peach of a guy, but none of his books since Angels and Demons have been any damn good.

And another thing - I am tired of books being ranked as 'good' by how disturbing they are (looking at you, Oprah). I KNOW life is ugly. We all see it every day. The reason I read books is to escape. And I'm not the only one.

Plus, if there is any group out there who is totally clueless about how to deal with books and the current media options, it's the publishers. When you see a major shift to electronic delivery, you figure out how to embrace it - you don't pretend it's going away. Apparently one of the many things the people at PW do not read are the news articles on the music business.

Count me among the many writers who decided to stay OUT of the business because of the massive bullshit.

This is Exhbit Q.

Send more flying monkeys.

P.S. William - with your bad back, you should lay off the heavy bag.

Kidding - very nicely done!

William -- great (except to be a true Spenser, you need to tag every line of dialogue with "I said" or "Hawk said")

Was THE HELP too close to pop fiction to be considered? Or were the more complex themes of the novel displaced by the emphasis on homekeeping (too female-centric to be important!) to make the book universal?

I do want a recipe for the caramel cake. Not just because it sounded wonderful, but--hey---caramel, the color? The sugar as sweetness that overshadows other flavors? There's a lot of symbolism in that cake, and I'm not talking about the version sent to Miss Hilly, either.

I wasn't attempting to deny the bias, only to see more deserving books named by title in the argument.

Genre bashing happens across the board; IMO, it's petty and detrimental to all.

As a fan of "judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.", which could easily apply to gender as well, the whole rating system is whack. Since "the deciders" know who has written what, a work already has a "score". Oprah book of the month, must be good; James Patterson, must be good; made into a movie, must be good. "Serious fiction" must be double plus good.

I read an eclectic a mix as anyone I know. And thank you book tarts for expanding my reading list. I now alternate fiction and non fiction, and then there are the books for the little ears in the house as well. Right now I am trying to decide when to introduce Yael to "The Journey That Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey".

One last note on Serious fiction. There was a book store where I used to buy 90% of my books. I went in one day because I was going to patronize my local book seller, not the chain in the mall. I asked where Tom Clancy's latest book was when I could not find it. "We don't carry it. It is not a real book..." The clerk said.

When they went out of business there shelves were full of things like "The Ten Best Essays in Modern Lesbian Fiction" but no mysteries, true crime or biographies.

Ramona - you are right. Didn't mean to suggest otherwise.

How Laura Lippmann and Lisa Scottoline are not on this list is a true, uh, mystery. Sorry. Couldn't help myself.

There is absolutely a gender bias in publishing, beginning with advances and concluding with promotion dollars and reviews. What to do? I honestly don't know.
Suggestions, anyone?

What's pop? I guess that's where we have to start. Pop can be good. Take the Beatles...still lasting.

Oh, Kathy, how I agree with you. I read to escape. I'm disturbed enough just reading the newspaper - and yes, I still read AND subscribe to the actual paper newspaper - and events on the news channels. But I can actually remember years ago my reply to the question "What do you read", an inane question to begin with. I would sort of hang my head and mumble I read mysteries. Am I the only one who remembers when mysteries were considered 2nd class fiction? I love a good story, with a plot and believable characters and a satisfying ending. I just finished a book which was good but could have been much better, in my opinion, without so much technical detail on the inner workings of the main character's job. Ladies, and Men of the Blog, keep writing and we'll keep reading.

I think what we can do is keep the discussion going, Sarah. And the other Sarah, too. I think the powers that be---including Alan's bookseller---have a narrow view of what's makes for quality and popularity. And their opinions often drive consumers. (They're obviously not the only influence. Have you read THE SHACK? OMG, what dreck--for me, the worst. book. ever. writte.--if you can even call it writing, and yet it clearly hits a chord with vast numbers of readers.)

Alan, I suspect your bookseller's opinion of Tom Clancy might have been affected by the discount at which the book was offered to their store. For some stores--especially now--they're better off buying books at Walmart and re-selling in their own stores rather than take the discount offered by some publishers.

I was astonished that THE HELP didn't make PW's list. How good does a book have to be for them to consider it one of the best of the year? Of course, it is a story about members of a minority group -- and in this story, the POV characters are all women to boot -- trying to achieve equality. Who wants to read about that?

I was happy to see Sophie Hannah's THE GOOD MOTHER on the mystery list, though. I also think Gillian Flynn deserves the recognition.

Kathy, you may be right when you say some bestsellers are determined by the marketing budget. Which is why we need other industry entities---like PW and the various bestseller lists--to give readers different perspectives. I'm not calling for the end of "best" lists, because they bring attention to books that would otherwise be ignored. I just think discussions like this one keep everyone on their toes.

God, it sucks that I have to come here through my iPhone. I just wrote a long post and lost it.

I find this whole thing appalling. I can't tell you how sick I am of the sneering about whatever genre, whether it be romance, "cozy" mysteries, science fiction, "chick lit" (hate that label), or anything else. There are good and bad books in every genre. And the good ones aren't all written by males. Not even close. But I haven't read a single book on that list. Not just the top ten, but the whole thing. So maybe my opinion isn't considered relevant.

I'm with Kathy. I don't agree that a book has to be full of tragedy and downtrodden lives to be "good". A funny book can be meaningful and have a message. I look for books with realistic characters who are good, but maybe flawed, people; some humor; maybe a message; and, so kill me, some sort of happy (or hopeful) ending.

obvioulsy, I love all the authors here, since this is the one blog where I choose to visit daily. Examples of other mystery authors whom I believe to be amazing writers: Louise Penny, Laurie King, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Alexander McCall Smith.

I've tried twice to type a long post on my iPhone (because my stupid company blocks this site) and they've both disappeared. I'll try again from home later.

Oh, there it is. Never mind. :)

Call out the monkeys. Tell them to bring flame throwers. I'm hopping mad.
What about Charlaine Harris's novels? She's NYT (seven books at one point) and a damn good writer. She's also a woman.
I read one critic who dismissed women's ire as "a perception problem." Our perception -- not PW's.
Bravo, William!

What a great topic. I read fewer and fewer male authors these days - not because I don't know of good ones, but because I need more women's voices in my life. I've also expanded the range of books I read and discovered some great new authors along the way.

I don't know enough about writing to do more than say that I know what I like, and that I judge good writing by the responses it evokes. I've never read a Terry Pratchett Discworld book without laughing out loud unexpectedly. Same with my Georgette Heyer staples, no matter how often I read them. Guy Gavriel Kay's prose and meditations on love, sacrifice, and trying to live a meaningful life can make me weep; so did Mary Ann Shafer's The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I love Laurie King's ability to make landscape and architecture characters in her mysteries; I love the way Norah Roberts characters so often experience the quirky, supportive relationships I wish I'd had with my own mother and sisters.

I guess what I'm saying is that genre doesn't matter to me. What I want is for whatever book I read to be really good at whatever it is -- character-driven, plot-driven, thematic, light and entertaining or deep and thought-provoking. And I have no idea how one constructs a "top 10" of a group of objects that are so disparate from one another (top 10 flowers of 2009? top 10 gemstones of 2009? top 10 deserts of 2009? ).

William, power in those long punches comes from a good stance and good body mechanics. Don't use a wide base, let your back foot pivot on the ball of the foot, and drive off the ground so power flows from your legs to your hips, then to your torso, shoulder, and arm. But you probably already knew that :)

Jodi Picault. Why isn't she on that list? She writes about subjects that hit home. She makes the bestseller lists. Oh, wait. I see her fatal flaw.
SHE'S A WOMAN.

Totally off topic here -- but RACHEL ROCKS!!!!

Back on topic -- I've expanded my reading so much more to my delight by this blog.

I've also gotten over the misguided notion that I have to finish a book once I start it. I was just reading a book by a woman author and decided I didn't like it, so back to the library it goes.

I look forward to reading this and the comments every day.

What everybody said ...

We could end the argument once and for all (maybe!) if reviewers and readers could evaluate books without a gender-specific author name attached to it, but alas, that isn't possible. Some women writers have chosen male pseudonyms, or use their initials to get around the problem of perception all along the food chain from getting an agent, to selling the book, to promotion, to reviews. [gnashing of teeth.] And some male authors -- hello Parnell! and Dean! and Tim! -- have sold series to what I like to think as women-centric publishers using female pseudonyms. Oh how we all work the system!
But I digress.
Several years ago I served as a judge for a popular mystery anthology series, one that had, in previous years, featured primarily male authors. That year, the first to require blind submissions, the judges were gratified to discover that the stories we chose were roughly equal, male/female, and unpublished author/previously published author.

That certainly was an eyeopener for me.
And I rest my case ...

When Nancy said: "One glance at the table of contents of a new book of essays by mystery writers de-constructing their protagonists should tell you how little the books written by women are valued by leaders in our industry. The editor-who-shall-remain-nameless couldn't have dug up more than three worthy women mystery authors?"

I didn't even have to follow the link to figure out who the editor was!

Marcia, I think your anthology experience--and the results after the blind submissions--needs to be shouted from the rooftops. OKay, so blind submissions can't be applied for the "best of" lists or awards or reviews, but it's a lesson to be learned. Thanks for sharing.

Thanks also to Kerry for the combat tips. Don't mess with that lady!

I know very little about the publishing industry, but I am not offended by a "Best Of" list that does not include women writers for the year 2009. I also appreciate PW's statement that it ignored gender in coming up with the list. If PW has done one of these lists every year, and women writers never make the top ten, I would feel differently.

That said, I checked out the list, along with the short summaries. Not only are all the books written by men, it seems that all the books are all about men. Men at war. A man in spiritual distress. A man challenged by adventure. A man caught between intellectual labor and manual labor.

These are sort of universal themes, aren't they? And, if they are valuable ideas, does gender matter?

Anyway--I don't plan on reading any of the books on the list. I read to escape, and I like a lot of dialogue, as another commented. I also find myself consistently reaching for the books that promise me some fun.

Segregation did not end until the Supreme Court ruled and the Federal government became involved. Women didn't get parity in sports until Title 1X. I don't believe the critics' and publishers' bias/sexism against women writers will ever change on their own and there isn't any governing body to force them to do so.

Send in the flying monkeys they may be our only hope!!

I don't think I can add much to what's already been said, except to note that somehow women writers are connected with 'fluff'...don't know how that happened. Maybe Jane Austen could tell us. The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards, Lovely Bones by Seibold, The Red Tent by Anita Diamant are certainly all NOT in that category...I could name many others just in fiction alone. And while I don't read much romance (although I horde my Woodeweiss books), I can name several mystery mavens who write well-crafted and intriguing stories every time (present company included). Has anyone stopped to consider that women seem to cross genres more easily than men do? Jealousy rears its ugly head?
Good post, Nancy...and I hope you're all well now!

Actually I didn't mean to suggest that Austen is 'fluff', just that her works as well as others of the time were considered women's novels...and somehow that hasn't changed. Austen was ahead of her time in a lot of ways.

Good analysis of the list, Bea, and I agree.
BTW - 2009's not over yet. There is still Sarah Palin's book to consider!

Whoa, Helen! You're an amazon!

Thank you, MaryAnn, I'm nearly all better. Amazing how my back problem disappeared when I woke from the surgery!

Janet Lynn, for some fun dialog, check out Crusie's blog today culled from her NaNo: http://www.arghink.com/2009/11/11/banter-aka-romance-writers-crack/

William, you're so cool.

Having just gotten over a major head cold, the most thinking I can do today is to say.
Ditto.
I did manage to focus enough between sneezes to read the latest by Charlaine Harris.
Don't think I ever have enough focus for most literary 'recommended' books.
Also - Rachel Rocks (even in Canada).

I can't stand it - so sorry for the Hi-Jack Nancy, but I didn't really start it.

RACHEL ROCKED THE HOUSE last night.

If you are not watching the Jeopardy Teen Tournament, get your head in the game, people!!! The boys were cleaning clocks until last night (only 3 of the semi-finalists were girls) and now we have one girl up against two boys- both of whom one both their first and second games.

And she's not just ANY girl - she's OUR girl - not just mine (because she and my daughter have been best friends since they were in Pre-K; or because she's from Pittsburgh) but because she and her friends (Kate included, thank God) measure their worth in intellect, not athletic prowess or cup size. (Either kind of cup.) Just like we do here on TLC.

Cannot wait to watch the two-part final - tonight and tomorrow night!!!! If you don't already know, here is the place to find out when it airs in your town:

http://www.jeopardy.com/showguide/whentowatch/

GO TEAM RACHEL - we're all part of it, baby!

All the Spenser references brought to mind something that happened this weekend. I walked up to a Borders Books and saw Now and Then (A Spenser novel.) outside on their discount hardcover releases rack for $5.99. I usually buy the books when they're first released but somehow missed this one. I winced thinking about one of my all time favs being discounted. Then I opened up the book and gasped. It was a signed copy! While I'm thrilled that I now own a signed Spenser, I would willingly have paid the full cover price.

I just spent a little time reading your links, Nancy. The She Writes site is awesome, thank you!

I have a bit of a problem with the idea that American women's writing isn't "epic". Clearly, the author of that little gem of fiction is not aware of Diana Gabaldon, or Barbara Kingsolver, or Jean Auel, among others. Very few men write "epically", either, by the way.

I'm curious why they are handing out awards for "best books" of 2009, when the year isn't over. Do they get advance copies, perhaps?

Kathy, I have not been able to watch Jeopardy for the last two nights, darn it! I'm so excited for Rachel, though, and will definitely be glued to the TV tonight and tomorrow night. Go, Team Rachel!

I must say I consider myself a novice reader. In school I read Jules Verne novels in French and English. My dad always read the classics and I was into music and a lot of salad day foolish things. However I got into the Janet Evanovich series..there's a women author for you. I have first hand knowlege that MEN laugh out loud when reading her books. And then there's Jennifer Crusie who's is constantly exploring how men write in the midst of her collaberations. Don't forget that in history women authors were frowned upon and hid their writings under their needlework. In all the arts women have forged through. But as far as Publisher's Weekly choices go I think there is a sinister plot to keep women in their place. These so called judges want women to "Get in the kitchen and rattle those pots and pans". Don't even think of writing epic writing that captures the essence of men's souls and their relationships protecting women and showing emotion at the same time. Forget
Gone with the Wind and The Thornbirds and all the beautiful Charles and Mary Lamb writings. Authors please ignore the narrow-minded judges and keep on writing!!

American women's writing isn't epic? Perhaps we can remind them of a couple of little books written by women - To Kill A Mockingbird or Gone With The Wind? Or Rebecca?

Oops, sorry - Daphne du Maurier was English.

Well, how about Harriet Beecher Stowe, Laura? And a virtually unknown Ohio writer, only because she was 88 when she published her bestselling novel, "And Ladies of the Club...", Helen Hooven Santmyer. Talk about your epic novels, this is a whopper. And she passed away two years later.

James Patterson collaborates so much that it's no longer possible to know what he's actually written himself. And some of his books are "co-written" with women.

According to my MacBook's Dictionary widget, epic means a long work "typically one derived from ancient oral tradition, narrating the deeds and adventures of heroic or legendary figures or the history of a nation."

Helen Hooven Stanmeyer's "And Ladies of the Club." Oh, wait - that's about a bunch of women in small-town Ohio. Guess that can't be epic.

Elizabeth Bear's Jenny Case series (now there's a heroic figure for you!). Elizabeth Moon's "The Deeds of Paksenarrion." Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea series. Oh -- science fiction/fantasy doesn't count. Of course.

Celeste DeBlasis's Wild Swan triology - oops. Romance. Laura Ingalls Wilder -- nope, kids' books.

Gee. I guess whoever said that was right (NOT!!!!!)

Nancy, please dump out the fruit, refill the basket with Elaine's Famous Flaming Flying Monkies, and send to PW by FedEx.

I agree that we've had a lot of women write epic boks in the past, but I'm thinking even small subjects can be made to be epic. Getting your kid through kindergarten, for example, can be an epic struggle of mythic proportions. In the hands of the right author---yes, of course. (I'm thinking in particular of Alice Hoffman's book about the family with the daughter who develops AIDS. Why am I blanking on the title? Definitely epic, yet quietly written.) But would a book like that be considered "big" enough for the current publishing pros?

As a veteran book critic and frequent contributor to PW, I must say that I haven't read the books chosen for the Best Ten and I too, was horrified that there were no books written by women on the l0 Best List.
But hey, ladies, I can't afford crack and I have never felt I operated under a gender bias.
Don't judge a book by its cover or judge PW too harshly as a whole since there are many harworking reviewers, free-lancers and editors who toil daily (not just for PW)to help readers learn about forthcoming books.
I try to compile my own Best of the Year list from books I've read and I read probably five or more books a week. Even so,
some great books invariably miss my desk because there's not time enough to read everything. I try to keep a list going for when I have a vacation. I'll have to check out The Help...etc.
I do post my Best of the Year list at my LJ blog, fortunehall after the holidays. I try to do an informal overview, including many books that get less attention than they should.
Just keep speaking up and be proactive as readers and writers. Fan the flame! This kind of outcry is good.
And keep buying books! But Nancy, just because I'm a PW contributor, please don't send me a basket with a mean monkey in it.
I didn't contribute my two cents to that list, that's for sure. LOL! But I know several books that should've made that list. At least one, The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. And a couple more maybes...I'm sure. It would be cool if it had been half men, half women and not just literary books. I think lists are dangerous mainly because like I said, who's read everything? It's impossible. It's like nominations for Oscars and such...

HARDWORKING, not harworking...YIKES!
I'm tired, gotta get back to reviewing...
LOL!

Exactly, Melissa! How can anyone read every book? In order to truly have a comparative list, you'd have to have done so. Realizing this makes the lists somewhat meaningless, unless you make it "10 best we've read".

Toni Morrison is another female writer who knows her way around epic topics.

"How could anyone read every book?"

Damned if I know, but I've been trying since first grade, and am going to continue until the day I shuffle off to wherever....:)

Nancy, I have been enjoying today's blog. I would be remiss in not thanking the authors of this blog for all the hours of fun that I've had reading your books. As a side note my head is ready to explode with happiness because you introduced me to Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way. It really is apropos to today's discussion because writers write no matter what. And on a musical note Michael Jackson's movie "This is it" is fabulous!

Nancy, I think you are thinking of At Risk.

The Little Stranger is one I would like to see in best of the best. It made the best in fiction.

For popular but epic-ish, I'd nominate Jane Smiley.

Melissa, how nice of you to make a comment--and such a calm and measured one, too, in the face of my rant. Thanks for your thoughts. I withdraw the monkeys.

Karen in Ohio says: "Just as there is no equally satisfying male counterpart for the word "bitch", when spat out in rage, there is no male counterpart for the oft-denigrated category of 'chick lit'."

I've long believed that if they insist on having a "chick lit" category then there ought to be one for "dick lit". But perhaps they (being men, of course) are afraid that it will all end up dubbed dick lit. And they should be afraid. They should be very, very afraid.

I LOVED The Little Stranger!

Also, uh, Melissa....no hard feelings about the crack comment, right?

Okay, someone tell me what's more epic than a basketful of Famous Flaming Flying Monkies.

And you read it here first.

Wow, Rachel is ON FIRE tonight! Go Team Rachel!

And I withdraw the flames. You've doused them with sweet reason, Melissa.

Man, that girl is scary smart!

No, duh. My brain is atrophied, I'm afraid. How do you get a kid that smart? Awesome!

Sarah, I'll bet she reads!!!

Nancy, thank you for your gutsy blog, and for kicking off a great dialog. All the usual biases---gender, race, age, etc.---are still out there, in publishing and elsewhere; they’re just more subtle now. Harder to identify, harder to correct.

For me, it boils down to your observation that a Top Ten list that included NO male authors would be an enormous scandal, but it’s acceptable to say that none of the ten best books of the year were written by women. It’s irrational and a certain indicator of bias. Not that the reviewers actively think less of women, but that subtle, subconscious biases are at work that shift their attention to a certain kind of book.

In my view, big NYC publishing and its media and distribution partners do seem to be biased in favor of men and manly topics. As someone else noted, best sellers are largely predetermined by marketing and co-op budgets. You determine your big books and then you make them big with huge co-op budgets so the big box outlets carry them in large quantities. It’s a large, up-front capital investment in certain key titles. The bias occurs in determining which books and authors get this treatment. Serious books. Tough books. Guy books.

It’s not that a woman can’t break through. They can and they do. We can all name them. The issue is that there is still part of us as a society, some hidden area of ourselves, that is hardwired to be inclined to consider male things serious and female things trivial. As with all such issues, it’s about encouraging awareness.

Whew, Nancy,I'm so relieved... one of the creepiest things about The Wizard of OZ wasn't the Wicked Witch but those flying monkey monsters!

Right on target, TLC, as usual.
I'm glad someone mentioned a mystery writer who includes architecture in her work--that would be, however, SJ Rozan, who not only includes architecture but New York as characters in her mysteries, and writes great stand-alones as well. Laurie King returns the favor for NoCal/SF in one series, and of course brings Holmes into another, as well as great stand-alones.
What was PW thinking? Or, um, NOT thinking?
Are men the only ones having issues of war, work, finance, self-image, during the Great Recession?
BTW, good job, William!

You do not have to subscribe to Harpers Magazine to read the wonderful Francine Prose article. Use your public library website. If your lucky and your public library hasn't had to unsubscribe from a full text magazine database, you can get it free online if your library provides remote access to their databases. I found it on Ebsco Host. Go to your library's website and check out anything that mentions "reference databases" or similar term. It should be free (okay, paid for by your taxes. Okay, no databases available, go
to the library and check to see if they've kept back issues for that long. Space is a big problem with keeping back issues of so many periodicals.
I think this bias begins when we are very young. Reading girls will pick up anything.
We may have read Nancy Drew and Judy Bolton,
but we also read the Hardy Boys. It is a rare boy who will read Nancy Drew or any
book (or watch a movie)featuring a girl as the hero. I always told classes that came to the library that this explains why women understand men better than men understand women. I have had many grown men refuse
to read books by women. That includes my father until I finally converted him by sneaking in non-gender specific authors...like Dell Shannon. He liked the books and told him that he had been enjoying
a woman author.
That's also why I'm a long-time member of Sisters in Crime. But I still read many male authors, but was thrilled when so many new female authors being published.

Laura Lippman, Lisa Gardner, Nancy Martin, Lisa Scottoline, Tess Gerritsen. We need to name names. We need recognition of the highest quality. And we need recgonition of a genre that touches readers' hearts. Mystery. Traditional. Puzzling. Intellectual. Lorna Barrett, Cleo Coyle, Harley Jane Kozak, Hank Phillippi Ryan. Fun reads but smart, classy, sassy.

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