A Literary Glass Ceiling?

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BOOKS AND ARTS FEBRUARY 7, 2011

A Literary Glass Ceiling?

The first shots were fired last summer, when Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult called the New York Times Book Review a boys’ club. (I weighed in then, too, calling on the Times to respond to statistics posted by Double X regarding the disparity between books by male authors and female authors reviewed in their pages.) Now, the war is on. A few days ago, VIDA, a women’s literary organization, posted on its website a stark illustration of what appears to be gender bias in the book review sections of magazines and literary journals. In 2010, as VIDA illustrated with pie charts, these publications printed vastly more book reviews by men than by women. They also reviewed more books by male authors.

The numbers are startling. At Harper’s, there were 27 male book reviewers and six female; about 69 percent of the books reviewed were by male authors. At the London Review of Books, men wrote 78 percent of the reviews and 74 percent of the books reviewed. Men made up 84 percent of the reviewers for The New York Review of Books and authored 83 percent of the books reviewed. TNR, I’m sorry to say, did not compare well: Of the 62 writers who wrote about books for us last year, only 13 (or 21 percent) were women. We reviewed a total of 64 books, nine of them by women (14.5 percent). “We know women write,” poet Amy King writes on the VIDA website. “We know women read. It’s time to begin asking why the 2010 numbers don’t reflect those facts with any equity.”

But let’s slow down for a moment. There’s some essential data missing from these moan-inducing statistics. What’s the gender breakdown in books published last year? It’s crucial to both of the categories VIDA explores, because freelance book reviewers, who make up the majority of the reviewing population, tend to be authors themselves. If more men than women are publishing books, then it stands to reason that more books by men are getting reviewed and more men are reviewing books. So TNR’s Eliza Gray, Laura Stampler, and I crunched some numbers. Our sample was small and did not pretend to be comprehensive, and it may not represent a cross-section of the industry, because we did not include genre books and others with primarily commercial appeal. But it gave us a snapshot. And what we found helps explain VIDA’s mystery.

 

We looked at fall 2010 catalogs from 13 publishing houses, big and small. Discarding the books that were unlikely to get reviewed—self-help, cooking, art—we tallied up how many were by men and how many were by women. Only one of the houses we investigated—the boutique Penguin imprint Riverhead—came close to parity, with 55 percent of its books by men and 45 percent by women. Random House came in second, with 37 percent by women. It was downhill from there, with three publishers scoring around 30 percent—Norton, Little Brown, and Harper—and the rest 25 percent and below, including the elite literary houses Knopf (23 percent) and FSG (21 percent). Harvard University Press, the sole academic press we considered, came in at just 15 percent.

I speculated that independents—more iconoclastic, publishing more work in translation, and perhaps less focused on the bottom line—would turn out to be more equitable than the big commercial houses. Boy, was I wrong. Granted, these presses publish a smaller number of books in total, so a difference in one or two books has a larger effect on their percentages. Still, their numbers are dismaying. Graywolf, with 25 percent female authors, was our highest-scoring independent. The cutting-edge Brooklyn publisher Melville House came in at 20 percent. The doggedly leftist house Verso was second-to-last at 11 percent. Our lowest scorer? It pains me to say it, because Dalkey Archive Press publishes some great books that are ignored by the mainstream houses. But it would be nice if more than 10 percent of them were by women. (In the 2011 edition of Dalkey’s much-lauded Best European Fiction series, edited by Aleksandar Hemon, 30 percent of the stories are by women. Last year, at least Zadie Smith wrote the preface.)

Now we can better understand why fewer books by women than men are getting reviewed. In fact, these numbers we found show that the magazines are reviewing female authors in something close to the proportion of books by women published each year. The question now becomes why more books by women are not getting published.

The VIDA numbers provide a start toward an answer: Of the new writing published in Tin House, Granta,and The Paris Review, around one-third of it was by women. For many fiction writers and poets, publishing in these journals is a first step to getting a book contract. Do women submit work to these magazines at a lower rate than men, or are men’s submissions more likely to get accepted? We can’t be sure. But, as Robin Romm writes in Double X, “The gatekeepers of literary culture—at least at magazines—are still primarily male.” If these gatekeepers are showing a gender bias, there’s not much room to make it up later.

Or maybe it’s that we’re not quite as equal as we like to think we are. My colleague Meghan O’Rourke wistfully comments in Slate that “writing isn’t a field historically dominated by men, like theoretical physics … and one might reasonably have assumed that since feminism’s second wave, matters had roughly evened out.” In fact, it’s the rare profession in which the numbers are even. According to a fact sheet published last year by the AFL-CIO’s Department for Professional Employees, in 2008, women constituted 32.4 percent of all lawyers and 32.2 percent of physicians and surgeons. (We’re 68.8 percent of psychologists, 92 percent of nurses, and 50.4 percent of technical writers, the only type of writer included in the report.) Granted, many important numbers have already increased: The proportion of women in law school has gone up from 3.7 percent in 1963 to nearly 50 percent in 2007-08, and women also account for nearly 50 percent of med school students. Yet, while we may have come a long way, in many areas we’re still catching up.

 

Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement, told The Guardian that he refused to “make a fetish” of having an equal number of male and female contributors. “The TLS is only interested in getting the best reviews of the most important books,” he said. I, too, like to think I choose the books that I review for their inherent interest, their literary quality. But the VIDA statistics made me wonder afresh about the ways we define “best” and “most important” in a field as subjective as literature, which, after all, is deeply influenced by the cultural norms in any given age. As a member of third-wave feminism, growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, I was brought up to believe we lived in a meritocracy, where the battles had been fought and won, with the spoils left for us to gather. It is sobering to realize that we may live and work in a world still held in the grip of unconscious biases, no less damaging for their invisibility. (Meghan has written about this, too.)

Now, I’m contemplating my personal 2010 statistics, which demonstrate how a strict male-female breakdown flattens out the complexities. I reviewed a biography of a female writer (Clarice Lispector) written by a man, but focused the piece on her and her work: Does this count in the male or female column? What about a new translation by a woman (Lydia Davis) of a book by a male author (Madame Bovary)? And, in my columns, I often mentioned new books by female writers and addressed issues of particular interest to women, such as the aforementioned “Franzenfreude” debacle. But, in the end, my bottom line was only a little more equitable than the norm: Of the books I reviewed, around 33 percent were by women.

Ruth Franklin is a senior editor for The New Republic.

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posted in: books and arts, the read, melville, dalkey archive press, harper, harvard university press, little brown, london review, new york times book review, norton, the new york review, the times, amy king, eliza gray, jennifer weiner, jodi picoult, laura stampler, harvard university

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