The Sexism Behind Top Ten Lists

Stephen King’s list of top ten ALL TIME favourite books is doing the rounds, because anything Stephen King has ever said regularly does the rounds. That’s why I’m going to focus on Stephen King as just one example of a wider trend: Men don’t count women among their favourites.

STEPHEN KING’S DECLARED FAVOURITE BOOKS

1. The Golden Argosy, The Most Celebrated Short Stories in the English Language – edited by Van Cartmell and Charles Grayson

2. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

3. The Satanic Verses – Salman Rushdie

4. McTeague – Frank Norris

5. Lord of the Flies – William Golding

6. Bleak House – Charles Dickens

7. 1984 – George Orwell

8. The Raj Quartet – Paul Scott

9. Light in August – William Faulkner

10. Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy

copy and pasted from Open Culture

Every single one of those books is either entirely by a man or edited by men.

For any widely read reader, limiting favourites to ten is always going to be a ridiculously contrived list, which is why it’s so annoying that he mindlessly picked creators who look/ed just like himself.

In his writing book, On Writing–mostly read by other writers and uber fans–Stephen King lists more of his favourite books at the back. Here you will find a few women.

This is a list of the books he recommended for writers back in 2000:

Abrahams, Peter: A Perfect Crime
Abrahams, Peter: Lights Out
Abrahams, Peter: Pressure Drop
Abrahams, Peter: Revolution #9
Agee, James: A Death in the Family
Bakis, Kirsten: Lives of the Monster Dogs
Barker, Pat: Regeneration
Barker, Pat: The Eye in the Door
Barker, Pat: The Ghost Road
Bausch, Richard: In the Night Season
Blauner, Peter: The Intruder
Bowles, Paul: The Sheltering Sky
Boyle, T. Coraghessan: The Tortilla Curtain
Bryson, Bill: A Walk in the Woods
Buckley, Christopher: Thank You for Smoking
Carver, Raymond: Where I’m Calling From
Chabon, Michael: Werewolves in Their Youth
Chorlton, Windsor: Latitude Zero
Connelly, Michael: The Poet
Conrad, Joseph: Heart of Darkness
Constantine, K.C.: Family Values
DeLillo, Don: Underworld
DeMille, Nelson: Cathedral
DeMille, Nelson: The Gold Coast
Dickens, Charles: Oliver Twist
Dobyns, Stephen: Common Carnage
Dobyns, Stephen: The Church of Dead Girls
Doyle, Roddy: The Woman Who Walked into Doors
Elkin, Stanley: The Dick Gibson Show
Faulkner, William: As I Lay Dying
Garland, Alex: The Beach
George, Elizabeth: Deception on His Mind
Gerritsen, Tess: Gravity
Golding, William: Lord of the Flies
Gray, Muriel: Furnace
Greene, Graham: A Gun for Sale
Greene, Graham: Our Man in Havana
Halberstam, David: The Fifties
Hamil, Pete: Why Sinatra Matters
Harris, Thomas: Hannibal
Haruf, Kent: Plainsong
Hoeg, Peter: Smilla’s Sense of Snow
Hunter, Stephen: Dirty White Boys
Ignatius, David: A Firing Offense
Irving, John: A Widow for One Year
Joyce, Graham: The Tooth Fairy
Judd, Alan: The Devil’s Own Work
Kahn, Roger: Good Enough to Dream
Karr, Mary: The Liar’s Club
Ketchum, Jack: Right to Life
King, Tabitha: Survivor
King, Tabitha: The Sky in the Water
Kingsolver, Barbara: The Poisonwood Bible
Krakauer, Jon: Into Thin Air
Lee, Harper: To Kill a Mockingbird
Lefkowitz, Bernard: The Ignored
Maclean, Norman: A River Runs Through It and Other Stories
Maugham, W. Somerset: The Moon and Sixpence
McCarthy, Cormac: Cities of the Plain
McCarthy, Cormac: The Crossing
McCourt, Frank: Angela’s Ashes
McDermott, Alice: Charming Billy
McDevitt, Jack: Ancient Shores
McEwan, Ian: Enduring Love
McEwan, Ian: The Cement Garden
McMurtry, Larry: Dead Man’s Walk
McMurtry, Larry, and Diana Ossana: Zeke and Ned
Miller, Walter M.: A Canticle for Leibowitz
Oates, Joyce Carol: Zombie
O’Brien, Tim: In the Lake of the Woods
O’Nan, Stewart: The Speed Queen
Ondaatje, Michael: The English Patient
Patterson, Richard North: No Safe Place
Price, Richard: Freedomland
Proulx, Annie: Close Range: Wyoming Stories
Proulx, Annie: The Shipping News
Quindlen, Anna: One True Thing
Rendell, Ruth: A Sight for Sore Eyes
Robinson, Frank M.: Waiting
Rowling, J.K.: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Rowling, J.K.: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Rowling, J.K.: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Russo, Richard: Mohawk
Schwartz, John Burnham: Reservation Road
Seth, Vikram: A Suitable Boy
Shaw, Irwin: The Young Lions
Slotkin, Richard: The Crater
Smith, Dinitia: The Illusionist
Spencer, Scott: Men in Black
Stegner, Wallace: Joe Hill
Tartt, Donna: The Secret History
Tyler, Anne: A Patchwork Planet
Vonnegut, Kurt: Hocus Pocus
Waugh, Evelyn: Brideshead Revisited
Westlake, Donald E.: The Ax

He updated the list when he updated the book, ten years later:

Abrahams, Peter: End of Story
Abrahams, Peter: The Tutor
Adiga, Aravind: The White Tiger
Atkinson, Kate: One Good Turn
Atwood, Margaret: Oryx and Crake
Berlinski, Mischa: Fieldwork
Black, Benjamin: Christine Falls
Blauner, Peter: The Last Good Day
Bolano, Roberto: 2666
Carr, David: The Night of the Gun
Casey, John: Spartina
Chabon, Michael: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
Child, Lee: The Jack Reacher novels, starting with Killing Floor
Connelly, Michael: The Narrows
Costello, Mark: Big If
Cunningham, Michael: The Hours
Danielewski, Mark: House of Leaves
Diaz, Junot: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Dooling, Richard: White Man’s Grave
Downing, David: Zoo Station
Dubus, Andre: The Garden of Last Days
Enger, Leif: Peace Like a River
Exley, Frederick: A Fan’s Notes
Ferris, Joshua: Then We Came to the End
Franzen, Jonathan: Strong Motion
Franzen, Jonathan: The Corrections
Gaiman, Neil: American Gods
Gardiner, Meg: Crosscut
Gardiner, Meg: The Dirty Secret Club
Gay, William: The Long Home
Goddard, Robert: Painting the Darkness
Gruen, Sara: Water for Elephants
Hall, Steven: The Raw Shark Texts
Helprin, Mark: A Soldier of the Great War
Huston, Charlie: The Hank Thompson Trilogy
Johnson, Denis: Tree of Smoke
Keillor, Garrison: Good Poems
Kidd, Sue Monk: The Secret Life of Bees
Klosterman, Chuck: Fargo Rock City
Larsson, Stieg: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Le Carre, John: Absolute Friends
Lehane, Dennis: The Given Day
Leonard, Elmore: Up in Honey’s Room
Lethem, Jonathan: The Fortress of Solitude
Lippman, Laura: What the Dead Know
Little, Bentley: Dispatch
Malamud, Bernard: The Fixer
Martel, Yann: Life of Pi
McCarthy, Cormac: No Country for Old Man
McEwan, Ian: Atonement
Meek, James: The People’s Act of Love
Niffenegger, Audrey: Her Fearful Symmetry
O’Brian, Patrick: The Aubrey/Maturin Novels
O’Nan, Stewart: The Good Wife
Oates, Joyce Carol: We Were the Mulvaneys
Pelecanos, George: Hard Revolution
Pelecanos, George: The Turnaround
Perrotta, Tom: The Abstinence Teacher
Picoult, Jodi: Nineteen Minutes
Pierre, DBC: Vernon God Little
Proulx, Annie: Fine Just the Way It Is
Robotham, Michael: Shatter
Roth, Philip: American Pastoral
Roth, Philip: The Plot Against America
Rushdie, Salman: Midnight’s Children
Russo, Richard: Bridge of Sighs
Russo, Richard: Empire Falls
Simmons, Dan: Drood
Simmons, Dan: The Terror
Sittenfeld, Curtis: American Wife
Smith, Tom Rob: Child 44
Snyder, Scott: Voodoo Heart
Stephenson, Neal: Quicksilver
Tartt, Donna: The Little Friend
Tolstoy, Leo: War and Peace
Wambaugh, Joseph: Hollywood Station
Warren, Robert Penn: All the King’s Men
Waters, Sarah: The Little Stranger
Winegardner, Mark: Crooked River Burning
Winegardner, Mark: The Godfather Returns
Wroblewski, David: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
Yates, Richard: Revolutionary Road

It’s possible I’ve misgendered a few but I’ve emboldened the female creators on his list. As you can see, the expanded list still skews hugely male. (A couple of those recommended books are by his own wife, but okay.)

King is so powerful as a writer that he is unable to criticise other writers without sounding mean-spirited.

Nevertheless, King sometimes punches down. These are the books King recommends in his memoir as examples of bad writing:

“Asteroid Miners” — which King admits is not the exact title (and therefore can’t be found)
Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Sussan — the story of three young women who become fast friends in the turbulent post-war worlds of Broadway and Hollywood
Flowers In The Attic by Virginia Andrews — about some children who are locked in the attic by their grandmother and begin an incestuous relationship.
The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller — the story of  about an Italian war bride, Francesca, who lives with her husband and two children on a farm in Iowa, then falls in love with someone else.

Though his list of negative examples is short, of the books King names accurately, they are either by a woman or about a specifically female experience. I’ll make no comment about how terrible they are, because that’s beside my point: If he was going to pick mainly men as good examples, there were plenty of male creators to choose from when picking bad ones. His list of bad books skews female.

HETEROSEXUAL MEN LOVE MEN

King’s top ten list, combined with his list of bad examples, reminds me of the following quote:

To say that straight men are heterosexual is only to say that they engage in sex (fucking exclusively with the other sex, i.e., women). All or almost all of that which pertains to love, most straight men reserve exclusively for other men. The people whom they admire, respect, adore, revere, honor, whom they imitate, idolize, and form profound attachments to, whom they are willing to teach and from whom they are willing to learn, and whose respect, admiration, recognition, honor, reverence and love they desire… those are, overwhelmingly, other men. In their relations with women, what passes for respect is kindness, generosity or paternalism; what passes for honor is removal to the pedestal. From women they want devotion, service and sex.

Heterosexual male culture is homoerotic; it is man-loving.

— Marilyn Frye, The Politics of Reality (1983)

KING’S FAVORITE SHORT STORY COLLECTION

Stephen King’s favourite short story collection, The Golden Argosy, was published in 1955. Inevitably, that includes mainly white male writers as well.

This collection is no longer in print, but a reviewer on Goodreads collected links to each of the stories as they exist on the web, and here it is.

This year I’ll make sure to read the paucity of women in this collection. If I haven’t already, I’ll write about their stories on this blog.

(Edit: Now that I’ve read them, only two of the five are about women — “Big Blonde” and “Flowering Judas”.)

LET’S MAKE LISTS OF WOMEN

Since publishing corporations will tell you, women keep their corporations alive. In the USA, women are the more avid book readers, per the study, being 13% more likely than men to have read a book in the prior 12 months (77% vs. 68%). Women are also far more likely to be buying books as gifts for others.

Work — and art — by women remains undervalued.

A study of more than 2 million books revealed that titles by female authors are on average sold at just over half the price of those written by men.

WHAT TO DO? WHAT IF YOU JUST LIKE READING MEN?

First, this brilliant article, which applies to so, so much:

I don’t need to go out of my way to gender balance my reading. I’ve done a post hoc count up and it happens quite naturally, probably because I’m female myself.

I write a newsletter for a sports club, and each month I do a member profile. Our club breakdown is almost exactly half women, half men. Writing newsletters is a bit of a pain in the neck, but I go out of my way to ask as many women as men for interviews. This isn’t easy, because more men than women come down to play other members (rather than privately).

We can all do small things like this to improve the current state of play.

However, in the name of redressing a wider imbalance…

MY FAVOURITE ALL TIME FAVOURITEST MOST FAVOURITE BEST EVER AUTHORS

In no particular order, here is my list of ALL TIME favourite authors.

  • Katherine Mansfield
  • Janet Frame
  • Lionel Shriver
  • Susan Faludi
  • Annie Proulx
  • Angie Thomas
  • Lynley Dodd
  • Maria Nikolajeva
  • Roberta Trites
  • Jane Austen
  • Toni Morrison
  • Marjery Hourihan
  • Naomi Klein
  • Patricia Grace
  • Cordelia Fine
  • Claire Messud
  • Peggy Orenstein
  • Angela Carter
  • Geraldine Brooks
  • Margaret Atwood
  • Marina Warner

 

 

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