Did Publishers Overlook Women Writers?

This fall, Publishers Weekly picked their top ten books of 2009. Not one of those books was written by a woman. After initial outrage — and some strongly-worded online comments — the dust settled. But writer and professor Julianna Baggott is far from ready to let it go. Baggott says the Publishers Weekly list demonstrates a clear and longstanding prejudice that is the rule, not the exception in publishing, and part of an economic cycle that punishes women writers.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This fall, Publishers Weekly picked their top 10 books of 2009. Not a single one of those books was written by a woman. In her introduction to the list, editor Louisa Ermelino wrote, quote, "we ignored gender and genre and who had the buzz. We gave fair chance to the big books of the year but made them stand on their own two feet. It disturbed us when we were done, that our list was all male," unquote. Disturbed maybe but then she signed the introduction with no regrets.

After some initial outrage and some strongly worded comments the dust settled, but Julianna Baggott isn't ready to let it go. She says the Publishers Weekly list demonstrates a clear and longstanding prejudice against women writers. It is the rule, not the exception, in publishing. And, she says, it's part of an economic cycle that punishes women writers. And she has reason to know. Until recently, she published under a male pen name. She pressed the issue in a Washington Post Op-Ed last week and she joins us now to talk more about it. Welcome, thank you for joining us.

Professor JULIANNA BAGGOTT (University of North Carolina, Greensboro): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: As we said, Publishers Weekly certainly didn't apologize, and it sounds like the committee believes that it made a fair decision. What's wrong with that?

Prof. BAGGOTT: Well, first - there are a lot of things wrong with that. But first and foremost, I have trouble believing that they really think that their job is to find best books of the year. I think that their job is to highlight books and to push sales of certain books. And plus, there's no hindsight here. Let, you know, are these books going to endure the test of time, blah blah blah. I mean, there's so many reasons why applying objectivity to this and trying to stand behind it, as we are being - doesn't work.

MARTIN: Well, I can see your point. There are lot of artists, in general, who believe that prizes, lists, all these things - the Emmys, the Oscars - that fundamentally, it's bogus. And some artists have, on principle, refused to accept these kind of prizes. But, having said all that, the list does stand. And so, I'm asking you as a published author yourself, what difference does a list like this make? Does it make a difference?

Prof. BAGGOTT: Yeah. If it were just a pat on the back, I'd shrug it off and I would think, oh, you know, whatever. You know, women writers don't need pats on the back, they can do fine. But there are real economic ties here.

First of all, it does come out at the most crucial moment in the book-buying season. It comes out right before the holidays. So right there, that alone is going to sell books. The Pulitzer is no better. Eleven of the last 30 years, only 11 went to women, and a prize like that, you know, that person only makes $10,000 off the Pulitzer but then can charge $10,000 to give a reading one night.

And so - but it's also a trickle-down. Every time you're on one of these lists, maybe a certain publishing house only had four authors on that list this year. But if you were one of those four, they're going to work hard to keep you.

And then all of the writers who work in universities like I do, the university system supports a lot of writers. It's negligible the amount of writers who actually make it on their writing alone. So for that big group, getting on one of these lists means that you can go to your chair, you can go to your dean and ask for course relief, time off. It can get you fellowships at Yaddo, MacDowell. It can get you money and, therefore, more time.

MARTIN: So it's a big deal to be on a writer's list.

Ms. BAGGOTT: It's a big deal. All these lists matter.

MARTIN: Well, you have pointed out - you've said it in your piece, if you want to be a great writer, be a man. If you can't be a man, write like one. And you actually had the experience of writing as a man. You wrote a trilogy for young readers using a male pseudonym, N.E. Bode - well, it could have been a female, but you chose to sort of see it as a male pseudonym. Why did you do that?

Ms. BAGGOTT: Well, I started out writing as Julianna Baggott, and I had three novels, I guess almost four novels, out at that point as Julianna Baggott, kind of literary adult fiction. And I slid into writing for children.

I didn't even think about gender. I had this intrusive, kind of wacky, fun narrator for a book that turns out to be pretty feminist, "The Anybodies," and we chose the name N.E. Bode as a pun - Anybody, you know, writing "The Anybodies," and it didn't come out until the marketing of the book that they needed a pronoun.

In the bio, they said, you know, are you a man or a woman? You know, he or she lives in Florida. And at that point, I had to decide, and my old indoctrination kicked in on the things that I learned in graduate school. You know, if you want to be a great writer, you know, be - this male-dominated list of writers, Chekhov and O'Brian and Fitzgerald, Hemingway.

And so I, you know, just knee-jerk. I said I want to be a man. Let's do this as N.E. Bode.

MARTIN: Let's check it out. Well, it wasn't really an experiment, but it worked in the sense - do you think it worked? Do you think you were received more favorably because you were thought to be a man?

Ms. BAGGOTT: Right. Well, you know, that book has done extremely well, and it's been on the most lists of any of my books, you know, Washington Post Book of the Week. I was in People Magazine alongside David Sedaris and Bill Clinton. So yeah, at that moment, I thought: Could Baggott have ever gotten side-by-side with Sedaris and Clinton, or did it take Bode to do that as a man?

MARTIN: It's a tough question, though, because you're - different genre.

Ms. BAGGOTT: It is.

MARTIN: I mean, you were writing - as a woman, you were writing for adults. Writing as a man, you were writing for kids. But you do raise other points. I mean, you point out that, for example, there was a recent study, which a number of people reported on, that talked about perceptions of male and female playwrights. In a blind survey, when the same play was listed as having a male author, it was much more favorably received. So the question, of course, one would ask is: Why do you think this is, particularly given that there are so many women in the publishing industry, right? So many women are book buyers. It's not that...

Ms. BAGGOTT: Yeah, we really do float the industry, yeah.

MARTIN: Yeah, and it's not that women aren't writing books. So why do you think this is?

Ms. BAGGOTT: I just think that that bias is so ingrained in us that it just goes so deep, we don't even see it and also because we've very comfortable now, and all the great strides that the women before us - women writers, but also just women in general have made. They've made huge strides.

And so we really don't think - we've been stamped post-feminist, and now we just end up sliding back into those old stereotypes very, very quickly because they're so comfy.

MARTIN: But what are the - I mean, the fact is any one of us could name accomplished women writers who have been widely recognized. I'm thinking -certainly, I'm thinking Toni Morrison. Certainly I'm thinking this year's Pulitzer Prize-winner for fiction.

Ms. BAGGOTT: Yeah, Elizabeth Strout.

MARTIN: Elizabeth Strout, who wrote a book with a female, not a very likeable female protagonist, by the way, but a female protagonist. Of course, Annie Proulx. So you're saying that these standout women or these women who received many of these accolades are blinding us to the broader pattern.

The question I have is: Why does this broader pattern exist? Is that when women write psychologically acute work, it's deemed to be, well, of course you can do that. It's not hard.

Ms. BAGGOTT: Right, it's in our wheelhouse. That's what we do best, right? Yeah, I think that one of the things is that when men show up on the page being emotionally honest and raw and delving into the, you know, psychological frailties of humanity, we all stand back and say wow.

I can't even tell you how many times I have heard: I can't believe that was written by a man. Can you believe a man is capable of that? Wow, that was amazing that he could get that deep, that he could be that vulnerable to write that beautifully. And yet I've never, in my life, heard that said of a women: Can you believe a woman wrote with emotional honesty and intellectually about the human psychology? No, I mean, we're - that's what we're supposed to do.

And so I think a book, although a beautiful book like "The Hours" by Michael Cunningham, I would think that would have been a really hard sell. I would have been very surprised, had a woman written that book, for it to win a Pulitzer.

I think it deserved the Pulitzer, but Elizabeth Strout's book marks a real difference, that it was a book by a woman about women. That's unusual for the Pulitzer.

MARTIN: It's interesting. A similar dialogue exists in journalism, I have to say. I don't know if you're aware of this, that with white writers that write about issues pertaining to race, many African-American writers feel that they are sort of treated as if they mastered Urdu. You know, oh my God, how amazing. Whereas African-American writers writing about the same things, they're sort of - well, yeah, sure, whatever.

So the question then becomes: What would change this? I mean, let's just fix this right here and now, you and I. Let's straighten this thing out.

Ms. BAGGOTT: Yes, let's get this done. Yes, thank goodness. Well, one of the things is that there's great news for playwrights this year. After that study came out, they were, you know, averaging around 12 to 17 percent of plays in New York City were being produced by women, that's it. I mean, they're really struggling. And this year, it's up to 40 percent, and it is a direct result of that research coming out and the press that it got and the attention that was drawn to it.

MARTIN: How do you know that? How do you know that? How do you know that they just weren't great - and, forgive me. But how do you know they just didn't produce a great crop of plays, which had to be made? How do you know?

Ms. BAGGOTT: Right, right. I don't know. I mean, that's the thing about all of the numbers. In the first - you know, talking about my own personal experience as N.E. Bode is nothing. I mean, that's just anecdotal, you know. So maybe it was a better book than all my other books combined.

So it really does get very hard, but that's why this research was really groundbreaking, and the news of that spread, and it's had a real impact, I think.

MARTIN: So what do you tell your students? In addition to doing your own work, you teach creative writing. What are you telling your students?

Ms. BAGGOTT: We have 750 undergraduate creative writing majors at Florida State University. And it's just hard to look at that audience and say, you know, the men are three times more likely than the women to get an accolade of this kind, and yet I feel like I have to do it because if we don't talk about it, then it just gets deeper and deeper ingrained, and they need to do better than we have done. So I feel like I have to tell them where we're at.

MARTIN: And what are you working on now, by the way?

Ms. BAGGOTT: Well, I always am working on a bunch of things at once, but "The Ever Breath" just came out this winter, which is a novel for younger readers, and I just finished the sequel, "The Ever Tour," as of yesterday. And then I have a new novel coming out under my pen name, Bridget Asher, and it's called "The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted," and it comes out next spring. So -and then re-writes there.

MARTIN: Julianna Baggott is an associate professor at Florida State University's creative writing program. She's also the author of 16 books, including books for young adults, novels and poetry collections. And Julianna Baggott joined us from member station WFSU in Tallahassee, Florida. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. BAGGOTT: Thank you for having me.

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