Recent studies show that literary publishing and professional book reviewing is dominated by men, sometimes by as much as 80 percent. But is this so much more shocking than acknowledging those book critics are also overwhelmingly white and New York City-centric?
What an electric thrill I got last week reading Book Goddess Laura Miller's February 9th article, Literature's Gender Gap.
In the piece, Ms. Miller detailed the results of two studies, one performed by Vida, an organization devoted to exploring the "critical and cultural perceptions of writing by women," and the second conducted by The New Republic's Ruth Franklin, Eliza Gray, and Laura Stampler. The Vida study kept track of the number female contributors, book reviewers and authors represented in 14 hoity book review publications. (I added the hoity in there; Vida certainly did not use such a word. It probably was mistakenly deleted out by their spellcheck.) The New Republic ladies counted up the number of literary books published by men versus women from the fall 2010 catalogs of 13 publishing houses.
Both studies yielded roughly the same results: despite women being, overall, more prolific readers than men, the gentlemen outnumbered the ladies in every category -- approximately 70 percent of the books published are written by men; nearly 70 percent of the books reviewed by (hoity) publications are by men; and book reviewers at these (hoity) publications are primarily men.
This last -- the number of male versus female book reviewers -- is what interested me most because it confirmed online review publication statistics that I've been clandestinely keeping for some time now.
Unbeknownst to Reviewerspeak Award aficionados (and devout haters), I kept track of a lot more than the number of compellings and rivetings and tour de forces in the 14 publications I watched for five months. Each month, I recorded the total number of reviews, the number written by men and women, and the percentage of those pieces written by female reviewers.
I confess this was not done with the purest of intentions. Frankly, I thought it would be pretty damn funny if I could pull together some sort of spoofy graph that showed a correlation, however tenuous, between the number of male reviewers in a publication and that publication's cliché count per 100 words. I tell you what, I worked those numbers upside down and backwards. In the interests of humor, I would have taken anything: a proportional correlation, an inversely proportional correlation, a parabola, a sine curve, for crying out loud. At one point, I even tried to finesse the numbers so that the data points would spell something out, dot-to-dot style: "Hey, wonk," or "Yo, NYC," for instance.
It was a no-go. I learned two things from this experience: 1) Men are not more clichéd book critics than women, and 2) There are an astonishingly large number of male book reviewers compared to female book reviewers, even in the free-for-all, hyper-democratic land of the online book review.
The Vida study kept track of some seriously hoity book critic magazines, stuff like Granta, the London Review of Books, Poetry Magazine, and the Paris Review. (Real people still read that? I'm impressed. I picture them swirling brandy in snifters and donning their red velvet smoking jackets before dinner). By contrast, I watched only the online manifestation of book review publications in my highly unofficial "research"; these sites ran the gamut from the New York Times Book Review to sites Paris Review readers might be tempted to empty their spittoons upon.
In practically every instance, the results were dismal. Slate.com? 80 percent male reviewers. NPR.com? 77 percent male reviewers. The Boston Globe - 73 percent male; Time Out New York - 80 percent male; The Millions - 67 percent male; the New York Times Book Review - 66 percent male. The Washington Post and the LA Times tied for one of the worst records ("worst" as in somewhat more than the zero female book review writers featured at New York Magazine; sorry, Mr. Anderson), 81 percent male reviewers.
Only three online book review sites boasted a percentage over 50/50: Entertainment Weekly (63 percent of the reviews written by women), Newsweek (71 percent written by women), and USA Today (57 percent written by women). Yes, that's right -- the only three out of those 14 book review publications that featured an appreciable number of female book reviewers were the hard-hitting, incisive, highly bookish publications Entertainment Weekly, USA Today, and Newsweek.
Several of these bookish publications featured only one -- in some cases, two -- female staff review writers who, in nearly every instance, exclusively reviewed books written by women, books about women, or books that fell in that unenviable category known as chick lit. On average, female reviewers in these publications simply did not review non-fiction works or serious literary fiction written by men.
These numbers are troubling, particularly since no one can seem to come up with a decent reason for why it's happening. But what troubles me even more is that literary publishing and book reviewing isn't just split unevenly along gender lines -- it's split along racial and cultural lines as well.
I challenge you to ponder both the staff writers and contributors at your favorite book review publication. Does their racial background reflect the diversity of the United States? We shout, "Chauvinism!" when we see statistics that show women are woefully underrepresented in book criticism. We question whether these publications are truly serving their readership, whether they are really devoted to literary inclusiveness, whether they really aren't still members of the Good Old Boy's club. Publications that feature over 90 percent Caucasian writers -- publications that routinely claim they are the last bastions of American diversity -- should recieve no less criticism.
And what about cultural differences? Even today, in the wondrous age of the Internet, where a person writing in a suburb in Tunisia can be read, instantaneously, around the globe, it's easier to free climb Mount Everest than it is to break into professional book criticism unless you live in a major metropolitan area, primarily New York City. The majority of Americans don't live in major metropolitan areas; they don't share the same values, the same life, the same cultural experiences as these critics. Yet, those critics strongly influence what is available for these Americans to read when they walk into their local bookstore or public library.
Explain to me how that's different from a major book review site or publication featuring 80 percent male writers.