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Rec Room: Francis Reynolds: “Writers, Plain and Simple”

February 4, 2010

Francis_Reynolds-small.png Claire Messud’s essay “Writers, Plain and Simple”, which introduces this issue’s excellent fiction selections, describes a disturbingly familiar situation: lists of important books—such as the Modern Library’s 100 best novels of the twentieth century—too often leave out the work of women writers, and prestigious literary prizes are disproportionately awarded to men. Unfortunately, the picture for poetry is not much better, as Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young argued in the Chicago Review a couple of years ago. They were writing in response to an article by Jennifer Ashton that claimed that “by the mid-80s efforts to ‘redress the imbalance’ [between the representation, acknowledgment, and success of male and female poets] had apparently succeeded—women seemed to make up more or less half of the poets published, half the editorial staff of literary magazines, half the faculties of creative writing programs, and so forth.” As the evidence Spahr and Young compile attests, this is clearly not the case in any substantive sense. Of the big poetry prizes (those over $100,000, given out by organizations such as the MacArthur Foundation, the Poetry Foundation, the Lannan Foundation, and the Academy of American poets), only about 29 percent went to female writers. The percentages of women included in major poetry anthologies of the past thirty years were often worse. In the same issue, the editors of the journal compiled charts of poetry magazines and women poets, which show that since 1990, only about 37 percent of poetry published in such magazines as The Nation, New Yorker, Paris Review, and Poetry, was by female writers. (The major outlier in their survey was The New York Review of Books, which published poems by women thirty-five times between 1970 and 2005, compared to the 382 poems they published by men during the same period. That’s 8 percent.) As Messud says, “lists and prizes mean nothing, of course; except that they inform curious readers about who and what to read.” The way the numbers shake out, these lists and prizes and anthologies and magazines are recreating the same imbalances year after year, making it no easier for female authors to be recognized for their work and to make a living as writers.

Francis Reynolds is managing editor of Guernica. Read his last recommendation, of Alan Lomax in Haiti, here.

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