Friday, May 12, 2006

lists, lists and more lists

Much ado about the list of important books, or best books published (in the last 25 years) in the NY Times recently and which Silliman posted today. The problem with all such lists is that those who make them feel absolutely entitled to call them grand things like "Best American" or "Most important Canadian" never once allowing for the fact that they may have a prejudiced, or limited, opinion. Over and over again I hear of polls of 10 writers, 9 of which are white and male, or in this case, as Silliman points out:
the NYT posted a list of "the writers, critics and editors the Book Review asked" a total of 124 names, fewer than A.O. Scott says replied. Of the 124, 37 are women.
No mention of what range of men or women writers were asked either. But no, to ask such questions is to assume that people look outside of their own circles, which we should all concede by now seems to be quite impossible, unless it comes wrapped in a package that looks suspciously like whatever it is one is accustomed to ingesting. I should be careful making such observations however, because the one who points out such discrepencies is usually labeled difficult, or angry, or shrill, and met with the concilliatory eye-rolling, and gentle head-shaking that reminds one of who really is in power.

This reminds me of the time I told my professor of American Literature that I didn't mind registering for his course provided he call it what it was, which was white male American literature of a certain slant... He was so enraged he held up his wrinkled syllabus and shouted "I've been teaching this course for 25 years and no one has ever complained." Well, then it's about time, was all I could muster, and he conceded, after publicly denouncing me as strident in front of the rest of the mute class, to add two stories by Flannery O'Connor, the titles of which I think, were meant to send a very clear message my way.

But about this list--yes, Carver, Ford, DeLillo, Roth, are all fabulous--and Housekeeping is wonderful, and Beloved is a classic, yes. But where is Lydia Davis? Lorrie Moore? Alice Munro (or does she not count as American in such lists??)? What about Sherman Alexie? (these are not even the more experimental writers one must surely consider!!!) What about Bastard Out of Carolina? Talk about important books...but reason it seems, is not what makes, or who makes, such grand lists.

If you want to have a clear idea of the kind of male power I'm describing, take a look at the gender balance on the Paris Review website. They offer up interviews over the past several decades. It's a brilliant resource, but it shows just how sexist and ethnocentric the literary world really is...I've posted on this before, here and here.

No comments: