Rochelle Hurt is a writer living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She teaches for the Carrboro ArtsCenter and the Loft Literary Center online.
I’ve been reading a lot of ‘Best Books of 2012’ lists lately, from big roundups to small personal lists (which are indeed full of great books). In doing so, I have formed a few notions, including this one: it’s been a great year for indie authors with male genitalia. Good for them—they are great, and they deserve recognition. However, I find it hard to believe that there weren’t just as many great books (indie and otherwise) written by women and published in 2012. So why aren’t more lists looking balanced? Maybe it’s just a fluke. Maybe books by men are more visible in certain circles for one reason or another. (In fact, this article at the Wall Street Journal references a study that suggests men are more likely to have read books written by men, while women are “almost as likely to have read a book by a man as a woman.”) Maybe, as someone recently suggested to me, I’m just reading the wrong lists—but if that’s true, so are other readers.
While gender bias on personal blog lists can be chalked up to taste (a taste for men, I guess?), even some of the big venue lists that should be more balanced (and sometimes are, slightly) still tend to lean toward male authors, like this one at The New York Times and this one at The New Yorker. Take a look at the Times Best Sellers List, where women only appear to be doing well as a group in paperback trade, mass market fiction, and children’s books. While bestseller lists are not always great places to find quality literature, the idea that female authors aren’t as literary as male authors–even in the bestsellers category–makes me cringe. Of course, it goes almost without saying that these highly visible lists would have one think poetry is dead. It is certainly not, as evidenced by the list below.
As much as I dislike lists that ghettoize female authors into specialized ‘good for a girl’ categories, as if they can’t compete with men (it’s writing, not wrestling), it is apparently still necessary to do so at times. Thus, I asked my friends and contacts on facebook to help me compile a list of favorite books by women (in any literary genre) published during the past year. This is a collaborative list, and I have read only a few of the books listed, but I’d like to think that those who made suggestions have trustworthy taste. Here’s the Amazon-linked list, starting with my two contributions (order is NOT reflective of value or popularity, and I have starred those books that were suggested more than once):
1. Murder Ballad by Jane Springer (Alice James, poetry)
2. Doll Studies: Forensics by Carol Guess (Black Lawrence, poetry)
3. Safe as Houses by Marie-Helene Bertino (University of Iowa, fiction)
4. How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti* (Henry Holt, fiction)
5. Wild by Cheryl Strayed (Knopf, creative nonfiction)
6. Aerogrammes: and Other Stories by Tania James (Knopf, fiction)
7. Legs Get Led Astray by Chloe Caldwell (Future Tense, creative nonfiction)
8. Heavenly Bodies by Cynthia Huntington (Southern Illinois University, poetry)
9. On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths by Lucia Perillo (Copper Canyon, poetry)
10. Animal Eye by Paisley Rekdal (Pittsburgh, poetry)
11. Our Lady of the Ruins by Traci Brimhall* (Norton, poetry — this should have been one of my contributions, too)
12. Horse in the Dark by Vievee Francis (Northwestern University, poetry)
13. The Girls of Peculiar by Catherine Pierce* (Saturnalia, poetry)
14. Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel* (Houghton Mifflin, graphic memoir)
15. The Salt God’s Daughter by Ilie Ruby (Soft Skull Press, fiction)
16. Bobcat and Other Stories by Rebecca Lee (Hamish Hamilton CA, fiction — US release by Algonquin in 2013)
17. The Temple of the Air by Patricia Ann McNair (Elephant Rock Books, fiction)
18. Thrall by Natasha Trethewey (Houghton Mifflin, poetry)
19. Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins* (Riverhead, fiction)
20. Elsewhere, California by Dana Johnson (Counterpoint, fiction)
21. The Art of Cruelty by Maggie Nelson (Norton, nonfiction/criticism)
22. Dora: A Headcase by Lidia Yuknavitch (Hawthorne, fiction)
23. Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (Holt, fiction)
24. Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle (Wave, nonfiction/theory)
25. May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes (Viking, fiction)
26. Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson (one of my favorite authors) (Grove, memoir)
27. Instructions for Preparing Your Skin by Ariana Nadia Nash (Anhinga, poetry — this is a bit of a cheat for the list because its official publication date is not until next year, but it is available for pre-release from the publisher now)
For good measure, here’s a rare example of a 2012 list at a somewhat large venue that features more books by women (notice how many of the recommenders are women), and here’s VIDA’s list of under-acknowledged authors (neither limited to 2012 publications).