As the local hater of the literary canon ’round here I tend to only cover book essays I read that I hate, but I wanted to share with you one I just read that is spot-on:
I got a glimmer of an answer last year as I sat in a board room hashing out the winners for one of the awards for which I am a judge. Our short list was pretty much split evenly along gender lines. But as we went through each category, a pattern emerged. Some books, it seemed, were “ambitious.” Others were well-wrought, but somehow . . . “small.” “Domestic.” “Unam –” what’s the word? “– bititous.”
I don’t know about you, but when I hear the word “ambitious,” what I think is “Nice try. Better luck next time. Keep shooting for the stars!” I think many things, but never among them is the word Congratulations.
But, incredulous, again and again, I watched as we pushed aside works that everyone acknowledged were more finely wrought, were, in fact, competently wrought, for books that had shot high but fallen short. And every time the book that won was a man’s.
“I just want to say,” I said as the meeting closed, “that we have sat here and consistently called books by women small and books by men large, by no quantifiable metric, and we are giving awards to books I think are actually kind of amateur and sloppy compared to others, and I think it’s disgusting.” (I wasn’t built for the board room.) “But we can’t be doing it because we’re sexist,” an estimable colleague replied huffily. “After all, we’re both men and women here.”
But that’s the problem with sexism. It doesn’t happen because people — male or female — think women suck. It happens for the same reason a sommelier always pours a little more in a man’s wine glass (check it!), or that that big, hearty man in the suit seems like he’d be a better manager. It’s not that women shouldn’t be up for the big awards. It’s just that when it comes down to the wire, we just kinda feel like men . . . I don’t know . . . deserve them.
Yes yes yes. Down with this stupid watchword of “ambition” as a gauge of quality in literature.