Is gender germane in picking “best of” lists?

There was an uproar in the interweb/blogosphere/social media worlds this week when someone noted that Publishers Weekly‘s list of the Top 10 Books of 2009 did not include any female authors. Frankly, I didn’t notice until I saw a post about it. And while this may diving into hot water it might be wise to avoid, I don’t see any problem in being oblivious because I believe gender blindness is appropriate.

I pay no attention to the gender of an author. I read Margaret Atwood and Marilynne Robinson because I appreciate their writing, not because I think I need a female perspective. When I bought Home, I didn’t think, “There’s the new book by that female author.” I thought, “There’s Marilynne Robinson’s new book!”. Granted, gender can impact a book’s viewpoint or tone. But so can race, creed and the region or country you live in. It’s the quality of the writing or the story that’s important to me, not the gender, race or nationality slot the author might fit in. Who cares about any of that if you enjoy the book?

Now I realize some believe that women aren’t given their due in the literary world or that lists like this don’t expose people to great female authors. I don’t necessarily agree but even if it’s true, isn’t a general “best of” list supposed to be based on what you like, not who the authors are? As Laura Miller points out in a post at Salon, “If you insist on a list that’s ideally representative of gender, race, class, nationality (i.e., including at least one translation), publisher size (small as well as large), fame, length (short story collections as well as novels), region, genre and so on, you can easily wind up with, say, a list of nine books you kinda like and maybe one you truly love.” Some “best of” list.

As with the PW list, I don’t know if any female authors are on Amazon’s top 10 list for the year. Likewise, I couldn’t tell you (and haven’t gone back to check) the gender breakdown of my “best of” lists the last few years because gender never entered my mind when I picked them. As I pointed out when I noted the PW list last week, the one title on the list I’d read won’t be on my “best of” list this year. But the only reason is I wasn’t a fan of the story. And how much we love a work is really the only standard that should apply to any “best of” list.

All this pitting of sex against sex, of quality against quality; all this claiming of superiority and imputing of inferiority, belong to the private-school stage of human existence where there are “sides,” and it is necessary for one side to beat another side[.]

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

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