New York Times Book Review

Why did the Times Magazine reject Martin Luther King's "Letter From Birmingham Jail"?

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Can you tell the difference between Naomi Wolf's prose and Wiccan literature? Or Cosmo?

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Here is Bill Clinton, reviewing The Passage Of Power, the fifth volume of Robert Caro's Lyndon Johnson biography, in the May 5 New York Times Book Review:  L.B.J., [Sargent] Shriver and other giants of the civil rights and anti­poverty movements ... believed government had an essential part to play in expanding civil rights and reducing poverty and inequality. It soon became clear that hearts needed to be changed, along with laws. Not just Congress, but the American people themselves needed to be got to.

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I’m not unsympathetic to the arguments recently raised by Meg Wolitzer in The New York Times Book Review, and by my colleague Ruth Franklin, regarding the marginalization of “women’s fiction.” Yet both their pieces contained an irksome assumption: Female authors don’t want “women stuff” on their book covers. All that girly junk is just a means of marginalization. “Look at some of the jackets of novels by women,” Wolitzer writes: Laundry hanging on a line. A little girl in a field of wildflowers. A pair of shoes on a beach. An empty swing on the porch of an old yellow house.

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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.

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The first editors of the first issue of The New Republic in 1914 began their books and arts section with what was, and still is, a bristling admonition to critics. The words belonged to Rebecca West, called “indisputably the world’s number one woman writer” by Time in 1947 (though she probably resented the gender modifier). She titled her essay “The Duty of Harsh Criticism,” and she was as harsh on herself as she was harsh on the two males she put to scrutiny, George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells, certified “great men” who have passed way into the deep past.

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Sweet And Low

I. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (HarperFlamingo, 546 pp., $26) Barbara Kingsolver is the most successful practitioner of a style in contemporary fiction that might be called Nice Writing. Nice Writing is a violent affability, a deadly sweetness, a fatal gentle touch. But before I start in on Kingsolver's work, I feel I must explain why I feel that I must start in on it. I do so for a younger version of myself, for the image that I carry inside me of a boy who was the son of a sadistic, alcoholic father, and of a mother who was hurt but also hurtful, and abusive.

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