The Guardian’s Fifty Most Influential Books By Broads

Harper Lee, the girlie author of To Kill a Mockingbird

If you’re one of the sexist boors in my life (and I do keep a few around) you’ll probably argue that it’s not fair of me to still be feeling peevish about this article by Robert McCrum, a Guardian book columnist and blogger.  All he did was compile a list of fifty literary “turning points.”   In other words, he set out to define the most influential books ever written in English.  But out of his fifty selections, a mere seven were authored by women.  These seven are good, obvious entries like Jane Austen and Mary Wollstonecraft – people we don’t need much experience or education to have heard about if we’ve lived and read for long enough in an English-speaking country.  We could call them no-brainers.  But when it comes to finding traces of women in any kind of history, no-brainers are seldom sufficient.

Upon posting the list, poor McCrum was promptly smacked around by women not unlike me for making a list of influential books that’s light on writers who were also women. His answer to this criticism was another no-brainer.  He made another list – a list of fifty influential books authored by women.

And I hate it.

Go ahead, Boor-Boys, tell me I’m deliberately creating a situation where it’s impossible for me to be satisfied.  Tell me I enjoy complaining and I should accept this man’s goodwill toward women.  Tell me I’m “hiding behind” the myth of female oppression just to maneuver into a position of strength.  And then, keep reading.

I do appreciate McCrum’s attempt to correct the oversights of the original list.  Some of them, like the omission of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (a novel just about every grade ten student in my country has read), are downright embarrassing.  In McCrum’s own words, “My previous list reflected patriarchal values and a male-dominated literary culture.”

That’s a fine admission – and an accurate one.  But does making a list exclusively for women remedy the overbearance of patriarchal values in the original list?  Or does a separate list push women writers further into the margins of literary history?  This is the question nagging at me when I read the list.  Relegating women to a separate list buttresses the idea that writing done by women flows through a different stream than the one dominated by men.  Oh, we can write.  We can write really well.  Men will admit that.  But that this is not the same thing as admitting us into the real list.

A list made up only of women writers abets a version of literary history that’s too much like public washroom facilities.  If we designate one bathroom (or list) as being for girls and a separate one as being for boys, we might wind up with a whole lot of elementary school shame and freakiness for people prone to indiscriminately wander through either door.  We risk creating a system where male readers might avoid female writers for fear of getting a bad case of literary cooties.

One of the commenters on McCrum’s online article had the same reaction I have.  He or she remarked that the implication is that the second list isn’t equal to the first one – to the real one.  This commenter was quickly warned by a fellow commenter that artificially including women on the real list just because we’d be more comfortable if they appeared there naturally would be “tokenism.”  That term, of course, is a negative one meant to remind us that, before the twentieth century, women played a minor role in literary history.  We were anomalies and curiosities and we called ourselves George.

I don’t accept avoiding tokenism as an excuse for making separate lists for men and women.  The fact that it was so very difficult for women to write and to have their work published and read throughout literary history means the achievements of women writers are profoundly influential simply by virtue of the fact that they exist at all.

So what do I want from people like McCrum who have access to a forum powerful enough to turn a quick list into a lively, public discussion of the gender politics of literary history?  Do I want him to commit some kind of intellectual dishonesty and jam a bunch of women writers he may not care for into his first list just to make things look fair?

No,that’s not it.

What I want is an acknowledgement of bias.  McCrum admits that his list “makes no claim to be comprehensive” but he doesn’t tell us why.  He doesn’t identify the margins his opinions could be pushed behind.  Instead of speaking for the entire English-reading world, it’d be nice if he’d just speak for himself.  When we read his list, I want it to have a long, difficult title like “The Fifty Most Influential Books for White British Men.”  The same way he identified my demographic when he wrote the pink list, he should identify his own when he writes the blue list instead of assuming we all agree that his male perspective is the most valid perspective.

The Finder: Neuro-Sexism and Super Heroes


Salon .ll., an online literary magazine, just posted a two-part piece I wrote on trying to keep neuro-sexist fantasies out of my family life.  Neuro-sexism — the belief that men and women are helpless to biological structures that determine our neurological strengths and weaknesses — is a peril for every family but it’s a particularly galling issue in mine.  In my household there are six males and one female.  (And I mean human males.  I’m not cheating and trying to count a bunch of male pets in that ratio.)  The lone female, of course, is me.

One conversation-starter that comes around frequently in our house is, “If you had a superpower, what would it be?”  It’s an easy question for me to answer since I already have a superpower.  And I maintain, no matter what anyone else says, that my superpower has nothing to do with my sex.

Check it out at the links below.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Writing by the Outline


I’m thinking of one of my many friends who’d like to be a career writer.  This person is particularly serious about his work.  And he’s talented too.  Sometimes, he’s got this fascinating, original voice that makes me envious as heck.  I admire him a lot.  Here’s where his story gets frustrated: he never completes anything.  He’s written a few unpublished short stories but, so far, all his book-length projects burn out and blow away.  And I think I might know why.

I’ve got another friend who’s also working at making writing into a career.  Last year, one of her novella projects was taken on and released as an ebook by a digital publishing company.  Her enviable strength is story-telling and her work has strong commercial appeal – vampires, paranormal romance, girls with superpowers.  Years and years before there was EL James, this writer’s greatest success was writing PG-rated fan-fiction based on anime series.

Before she told me about it, I didn’t even realize such a market existed.

What surprised me most about her writing projects weren’t all the Japanese names in them but the way the stories are released.  Most of my friend’s books – which typically finish at a whopping 100,000 words — are released online, one chapter at a time, every Thursday.  They’re like old-fashioned serials.  She’s the Charles Dickens of anime fan-fiction.  When she starts writing, she has a general idea of where the story needs to go and how it will get there but she still sits down at her computer each week willing to surprise herself.

Here’s how my burn-out writer friend differs most from my serial-writer friend: outlining.  While the serial writer is free-wheeling, taking her story one week at a time, Mr. Burn-out is outlining.  When he finally cracks open his computer to write his books, he’s already tacked down every element of the story like it’s an entomological display – an array of dead, labeled specimens pinned to a blank field.  He outlines plots and characters until it’s hard for me to imagine how there could be anything left in them to surprise him.

By the time he’s ready to turn his voice and the rest of his talent on his outline, there’s nothing else to discover in his story.  Frankly, I think it might bore him.  Or maybe it’s something more complicated – like the perfect, linear vision in the outline starts to seem too sublime to actually approach.  Maybe it triggers something like an anxiety reaction and paralyzes all that talent of his.

I’ve talked to him about it, tried to get him to write with more of an open-mind.  But he says he enjoys writing the outlines.  When I suggest the outlines might be part of what keeps him from ever finishing a project, he’s unconvinced – for now.

I don’t get it but I’m trying to understand.  Yes, I hate outlines.  Sometimes, when a writing project is getting long and disordered, I’ll grudgingly make notes about plot points on index cards, spread the cards out of my bed, and move them around until I can see how the structure of the story needs to be strengthened.  But that’s the extent of my outlining.  For me, an outline is like punishment for falling into disorganized writing.  It’s remedial and necessary sometimes but it’s not a large or pleasant part of the process.  I don’t know.  Maybe I’d be a better writer if I took the advice of my kids’ elementary school language arts teachers and drew a good “thought-web” every now and then.  But until someone else makes me do it, I’ll just keep typing.