I daresay any book lover can share a story of how he so loved a book that he recommended it to a friend only to find that she just “didn’t get it.” Meanwhile, she wondered why he just liked a book that she thought was an inspiring work of genius. And if this anecdote holds true to those who read for pleasure, it might also apply to those who write for a living.
At least that thought occurred to me (and not for the first time) when I was reading an essay, “Award and Gender,” the great Ursula K. Le Guin included in her 2004 anthology The Wave in the Mind. She recounts a challenge she faced when serving on a “jury of three choosing a literary prize.”
From 104 novels, we selected a winner and four books for the shortlist, arriving at consensus with unusual ease and unanimity. We were three women, and the books we chose were all written by women. The eldest and wisest of us said, Ouch! If a jury of women picks only women finalists, people will call us a feminist cabal and dismiss our choices as prejudiced, and the winning book will suffer for it.
Wanting their winner to “have credibility,” they decided to include “some men on the short list.” Against her “heart and will,” Le Guin agreed.
And so two women who should have been there got bumped from our shortlist, and the two men whose books we had placed sixth and seventh got on it.
In the margins, I wrote, “AND THAT’S WRONG.”
Had I been on that jury, I may have agreed with the choices these three women made for the original shortlist. Or I may not have. But, what struck me (a man) about this essay was not the author’s point about awards and gender, but the notion of what constitutes the “best” works of fiction.
As a case in point, I offer Ms. Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness, widely considered one of her best (if not her best) books. While it won both the Hugo and Nebula awards and received numerous additional accolades from critics, that novel about a planet where all individuals are ambisexual left me cold. I found her novel The Lathe of Heaven and her story “Vaster than Empires and More Slow” far superior to Left Hand.
That doesn’t mean that I’m wrong and the critics are right. It just means that different people reacted differently to the same book. Indeed, if you asked me what is LeGuin’s best work of Science Fiction, without hesitating, I would answer Lathe. For what it’s worth, I consider it one of the four best Science Fiction novels of all time (the other three by men).
Though of Science Fiction short stories, I have read only one to rival “Vaster than Empires” (and that by a man).
Does a writer’s sex make a difference? Do men respond more favorably to books by other men? And women by other women? Maybe they do. And maybe people who grew up on Lord of the Rings respond differently to speculative fiction than do those who grew up on Harry Potter. Other factors, too numerous to mention, affect our evaluation as well.
My point, there is no absolute standard for judging fiction. Different stories resonate differently with different individuals. If three women judging a hundred books find that the best of those were written by women, then we should trust their judgment and not assume their prejudice. (Particularly if those women are writers of the caliber of Ursula LeGuin.)
But appreciate also that a different jury might have selected a different shortlist.
In her heart–and her will–Ursula Le Guin was right.