Recently, the literary blogosphere was buzzing about Dick Meyer at NPR. Specifically, the list of his 100 favourite novels published after 1900. No, readers didn’t take issue with his inclusion of not one but two John le Carré thrillers; rather, they were upset that only seven of his books were written by women authors.
The phenomenon is not limited to NPR. The Modern Library also found only seven women-authored books to include on their “100 Best Novels of the Twentieth Century” list. Two of the books were by the same woman (Edith Wharton); only one (To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf) made the top twenty. You can check out their list here.
NPR can perhaps be excused – Meyer was listing his favourites, and he didn’t pretend to be objective. But what’s with the general trend of excluding women from besties lists? And equally troubling, where are the authors of colour on these lists?
People often explain the white-male-dominated literary canon by saying that, until recently, women and people of colour didn’t have access to the education, money, and leisure time required to write professionally. It’s a fair point, but surely not the whole story. After all, women have been a major part of the literary world for quite some time. There’s no excuse, in my opinion, for a list of twentieth-century books to include just seven women (six, actually, since two were Edith Wharton). Margaret Atwood? Toni Morrison? Isabel Allende? Harper Lee? Zora Neale Hurston? Am I ringing a bell here?
I think there’s a widely held perception, usually subconscious, that while books by white male authors are universally relatable and accessible, books by non-white, non-male authors can only really be appreciated by people in the same demographic. Critics often analyze the work of a person of colour, for example, through the lens of her or his race. On the other hand, when was the last time you heard anyone say that The Great Gatsby is rooted in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s experiences as a white guy?
When groups like the Modern Library choose the 100 Best Novels, they’re looking for the 100 novels that said something really profound about humanity, that left a lasting impression in our cultural lexicon. So if you’re a woman – especially a woman of colour – you’re out of luck. For reasons of prejudice and patriarchy, women are largely left out of the canon. Women authors, the perception goes, don’t write novels that are as ambitious as Ulysses, as profound as The Grapes of Wrath; they’re writing for other women, while men are writing for everyone.
It’s time to move beyond the handful of white men who have dominated the canon, and even beyond the very few women joining them. It’s time to recognize that the work of authors of colour is influenced by a plethora of factors, not just race – and it’s time to recognize that race and gender are factors in white men’s writing, too. It’s time to give women their proper place on best-of lists! If the best we can do is six authors out of a hundred, we can only go up from here.