The National Book Award finalists were announced yesterday. And for the first time ever, 13 of the 20 finalists were female. They included Lionel Shriver, (acclaimed Jewish novelist) Nicole Krauss, and most wonderfully, alternative punk rocker Patti Smith for her recently published memoir. Jonathan Franzen, subject of so much acclaim and backlash in recent weeks, was notably not on the list.
It’s wonderful to see the numbers looking so good. When the New Yorker announced its “20 Under 40” several months ago, half of that list was made up of women as well. Other year-end lists have been inching towards parity, too.
These changes can’t just be random. It’s my guess that some decision makers in the literary world have been listening to the stream of criticism coming from women for years. Let’s be clear; “Franzenfreude” was not the first outcry of its kind. Female authors have been up in arms time and time again reacting to one egregious slight or another, forced to explain why yet another lopsided list or impolitic remark is offensive and biased. But their voices are loud.
Women writers, literary, popular — and in particular the fearsome Young Adult literary community — are extremely active online, on Twitter and blogs and Facebook. The call for attention to be paid to gender disparity and bias in the world of letters is a gathering storm, and those who pretend it’s not a problem are likely to be left behind in an ever-changing literary landscape.
So I’m heartened by the National Book Award finalist list’s ratio, and by the fact that “Franzenfreude” brought this issue to the fore, once again. Unfortunately, it’s often the case that a high-profile “fights” beckons for the media’s attention in a way that plain old mass protests don’t. So thanks are due to Jennifer Weiner for doing her part, as well as the selection committee for doing its.
I hope that the trends of self-examination on gender continues in the literary world and beyond. Now if only we could do something about other varieties of literary snobbery (against genre fiction, say.) But perhaps that’s too much to ask.