The Drawbacks of Diversity in Book Lists

 A lot of people have been complaining about the lack of women on the Publishers Weekly top ten list. For commentary, check out the NY Times, The Rumpus, and The Arts Blog.

I have a problem not with this particular attempt to encourage diversification (and it is pretty strange that not a single woman appeared on the top ten), but with the overall attempt to make sure every list is diversified (Remember the complaints about The Millions Best of the Millennium?).

When people use the notion of diversity to bludgeon a
selection of literature, what they are really encouraging is not diversity per
se, but their unique cocktail of diversity. For instance, they complain
there aren’t enough women. Or enough international authors. Or enough writers
of color. (Or, as this blog might even argue, not enough short story
collections!).

In other words, they’re encouraging prejudice/special favor
toward a specific group of people under the guise of “diversity.” But this
diversity can never be achieved. As soon as you add more women, or more authors
in translation, this skews some other—still significant—portion of the list’s
demographic.

What about diversity of age? What about diversity of
religion? What about diversity of fame? What about diversity of education?
Diversity of class? Diversity of Genre (no poetry?) Diversity of single/married/polygamous? These diversities
are no less important, yet they are often ignored by people invoking diversity as a
moral good.

Remember, diversity is not the only value in town. Remember
unity? Also a good thing, whether you’re talking about employees or Best of
Literature lists.  I actually want
“Best Of” lists to have a flavor—not that diversity doesn’t have a flavor, but
that lists lacking a perfectly balanced demographic often portray a certain
perspective or a unique point of view that is enjoyable. 

The problem would be if every list actively ignored a group
of people. Then that would be an absolute lack of diversity. But in the age of
the internet, where we’ll see hundreds—no, thousands—of Best Books of 2009
lists, I’m confident that across this spectrum we’ll have plenty of diversity. For instance, check out the wiki that lists the best female-authored books of 2009. If one list of one publication lacks perceived diversity in one
category, stop complaining. Just find another list.

The truth is that we wouldn’t want absolute diversity. If
every list tried to choose evenly across a diverse spectrum, we’d get
politically correct lists, but not accurate portrayals of the passionate
opinions of editors/authors/readers. I’ll choose a passionate list every time
over a sanitized, carefully diversified list.

This entry was posted in Best books of 2009, Diversity, Publishers Weekly, Women and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 thoughts on “The Drawbacks of Diversity in Book Lists

  1. Justine Musk says:

    I agree with a lot of what you’re saying, but c’mon. The ‘diversity’ we’re talking about re: the PW list is one of gender, which impacts every race and class under the sun, unless there’s some secret third-sex society living in caves or underground tunnels or something that I don’t know about.
    And the argument isn’t that *half* of that list needed to be books authored by women, just that it’s extremely odd that in an industry overrun by women (editors, readers, writers) — involving an art form (the novel) that was originally perceived in many ways as a woman’s entertainment — that not one female-authored work of fiction (or nonfiction) was deemed worthy or powerful enough to be singled out for such notice.
    Given the subjective element at play whenever a list like this is devised, or whenever manuscripts are chosen for publication in the first place, the “why aren’t there women writers on that list” question is worth exploring, and the fact that we have to ask it at all, in 2009, is annoying as hell.
    As for “just find another list” — well, that’s the point. Women shouldn’t have to.

  2. Priscilla says:

    Frankly, I agree with you. If people don’t like the list, they should find another one. It’s not like we aren’t completely overwhelmed with “Best of” lists. And what does it all matter anyway? I seriously doubt that sales are going to slow for Kathryn Stockett’s The Help because she didn’t make PW’s list, or that Sarah Waters is crying in her cereal. And I (like to) imagine that A.S. Byatt and Toni Morrison are above it all, anyway.
    Just as a funny side note: I was browsing through the NYT “Best of” book lists from the 1990s, looking for a particular book, and realized that there were many books on those lists I couldn’t remember or have never heard of. These things are flashes in the pan, really, when all is said and done.

  3. John Gilmore says:

    In my mind it made the list more legitimate. They must have known they’d see a backlash when they picked the list, and it would have been much easier to switch a few of their original choices for female writers. But they chose not to do that, apparently, and that means they are committed to their methodology.
    Now, of course, I’m assuming the committee making selections is staffed with men and women. I would guess that is the case. I think you pick a diverse committee, recognize that all best-ofs are subjective, and stick to your genuine selection, rather than manipulating the final list for political reasons. I believe our culture is male dominated, patriarchal, that women are heavily discriminated against in 2009, that Obama should threaten to veto the health care bill if it isn’t stripped of that Stupak BS, but this isn’t a political issue, and the goal should be nothing more than the exact list as chosen by the selection committee.

  4. BookFox says:

    Re: Justine and secret-third-sex — don’t forget about hermaphrodites!
    Priscilla, you’re right. We do need to put “Best of” lists in perspective. Meaning, understand how ephemeral they are.
    John, that’s an excellent point — since they knew it would create controversy, it took more courage to stick to their guns.

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