Still a “Boy’s Club”? Signs of Gender Inequality in Lit Crit Circles

Although I have not kept up with the firestorm launched last year (by Jodi Picoult, of all people) regarding the perceived disparity between numbers of male and female authored books that are reviewed by major print outlets (such as the New York Times), I read Ruth Franklin’s response article in The New Republic with interest. Franklin and a few other colleagues decided to investigate what might be causing not only women’s books to be reviewed less frequently, but also, why women might be doing less of the actual reviewing. Her survey was in response to one conducted by VIDA, an organization for “women in literary arts,” which found that

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).

(The full findings of the VIDA survey can be seen here.)

Franklin and her colleagues conducted a small survey that did not “pretend to be comprehensive” of literary presses large and small and found that (unsurprisingly for us cynics) there is a significant disparity in the numbers of books published by female authors:

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.

These results are obviously troubling, even if they aren’t terribly shocking. But I sympathize with Franklin’s more personal dismay. As she puts it, “[a]s 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.” (Agreed.)

What I do hope someone spends a little more time investigating is why there are so many fewer female reviewers. Franklin’s speculation on this point seems a little limited:

…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.

This seems to imply that reviewers (particularly reviewer-authors) only review books according to their own gender, which doesn’t seem entirely probable or fair. Perhaps it is still just more difficult to break into high profile reviewing gigs as a woman (particularly as book reviewing positions which pay continue to fall by the wayside), but I’d like to hear more in-depth consideration of this aspect of the gender problem…

Lay Offs at Powell’s

This seems like a bad sign: Powell’s bookstore announced that it would be laying off 31 employees on Tuesday due to “the economy, decline of book sales and rising health care costs.” There will certainly be more news from the book world on this, but you can read a preliminary article here.

I’m troubled to here that Powell’s is going through a difficult time–I’ve never even been to the actual store and still love it (great online selection! weekly book reviews curated by the National Book Critics Circle!). But the majority of my sympathies are with the employees who were laid off. Besides the obvious horror of loosing one’s job, there’s also the stress of the pre-announcement that Powell’s made: apparently an email memo announcing that there would be substantial lay-offs later in the day was circulated on Tuesday morning.

Best Translated Book Award: The Longlist

Just weeks ago, the longlist for the Best Translated Book Award (BTBA) was released. The award, which started in 2007 as a small online celebration of translated literature, has expanded greatly in the last few years, even garnering substantial monetary support from Amazon.com in the form of a $5,000 cash prize.

Of course, with the higher profile has come expanded attention and even a little inter-small-press drama. Dennis Johnson, the co-founder of Melville House, took great issue last year with the new Amazon sponsorship, given, he said, that “Amazon’s interests, and those of a healthy book culture, whether electronic or not, are antithetical.” It is interesting to note that Melville House is boycotting the BTBAs now that Amazon is involved, despite the fact that  their own title, The Confessions of Noa Weber by Gail Hareven, won the award last year.

Chad Post, the publisher at Open Letter Books, and one of the BTBA founders, has been very up front about receiving grant sponsorship from Amazon before. And while I understand that corporate sponsorship from an organization that challenges the viability of small independent bookstores might feel somewhat conflicting, I’m still inclined to agree with Chad and believe that Amazon’s sponsorship of this important prize can only benefit translators, non-English authors, and yes, small presses who are struggling to get their names and their books out there to larger audiences. I think it is a good thing that an online omni-selling giant takes some of their immense profit and uses it for good.

But I digress. (If you want to read more about this debate, The Guardian has covered it rather consistently. See this article from October 2010, when everyone originally went haywire, and their follow up from when the 2011 longlist was announced in January.)

Anyway, the point is that the BTBA nominees have been announced, which gives us all time to go out and do some preparatory reading. I’ve posted the list below, but check out the press release (which includes the delightful trivia fact that the list includes “authors from 19 countries writing in 12 languages”). I also suggest keeping up with the “Why This Book Should Win” reviews that are being posted here on Three Percent for each of the nominated titles.

I’ve read a couple of the nominated titles this year (which I find deeply satisfying) so where appropriate, I’ve linked to reviews that I wrote about those books.

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The 2011 BTBA Fiction Longlist (in alphabetical order by author):

The Literary Conference by César Aira, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (New Directions)

The Golden Age by Michal Ajvaz, translated from the Czech by Andrew Oakland (Dalkey Archive)

The Rest Is Jungle & Other Stories by Mario Benedetti, translated from the Spanish by Harry Morales (Host Publications)

A Life on Paper by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, translated from the French by Edward Gauvin (Small Beer)

A Jew Must Die by Jacques Chessex, translated from the French by Donald Wilson (Bitter Lemon)

A Splendid Conspiracy by Albert Cossery, translated from the French by Alyson Waters (New Directions)

The Jokers by Albert Cossery, translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis (New York Review Books)

Eline Vere by Louis Couperus, translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke (Archipelago)

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (New Directions)

The Blindness of the Heart by Julia Franck, translated from the German by Anthea Bell (Grove)

Hocus Bogus by Romain Gary (writing as Émile Ajar), translated from the French by David Bellos (Yale University Press)

To the End of the Land by David Grossman, translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen (Knopf)

The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal (New York Review Books)

The Clash of Images by Abdelfattah Kilito, translated from the French by Robyn Creswell (New Directions)

Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico by Javier Marías, translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen (New Directions)

Cyclops by Ranko Marinković, translated from the Croatian by Vlada Stojiljković, edited by Ellen Elias-Bursać (Yale University Press)

Hygiene and the Assassin by Amélie Nothomb, translated from the French by Alison Anderson (Europa Editions)

I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson, translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund and the author (Graywolf Press)

A Thousand Peaceful Cities by Jerzy Pilch, translated from the Polish by David Frick (Open Letter)

Touch by Adania Shibli, translated from the Arabic by Paula Haydar (Clockroot)

The Black Minutes by Martín Solares, translated from the Spanish by Aura Estrada and John Pluecker (Grove/Black Cat)

On Elegance While Sleeping by Emilio Lascano Tegui, translated from the Spanish by Idra Novey (Dalkey Archive)

Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk, translated from the Afrikaans by Michiel Heyns (Tin House)

Microscripts by Robert Walser, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (New Directions/Christine Burgin)

Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer by Ernst Weiss, translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg (Archipelago)

Real Murders

My most recent review is of the recently re-issued Real Murders which is the first installment in Charlaine Harris’ Aurora Teagarden Mysteries.

Many of you are no doubt familiar with Harris from her Southern Vampire series (which is the inspiration for Showtime’s True Blood). However, vampire fiction fan that I am, I have still not gotten around to the Sookie books. Instead, Harris hooked me in with a librarian protagonist–another weakness of mine. Based on Real Murders, though, I’m fairly sure I won’t be rushing off for another Harris book anytime soon. (Do any of you fair readers enjoy the Sookie Stackhouse books? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts…)

My review of Real Murders was published on Reviewing the Evidence. You can read it on their website, or see the full text below.

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In the wake of the staggering success of Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire novels featuring psychic waitress Sookie Stackhouse, dedicated fans and new readers alike are being (re)introduced to Harris’ previous series, including her Aurora Teagarden mysteries. The first in the Teagarden series, Real Murders, introduces Aurora “Roe” Teagarden, a diminutive, bespectacled librarian in the small Georgia town of Lawrenceton. Roe nurtures a fascination with true crime stories—an interest shared by several other town residents—and together, these enthusiasts form the Real Murders club which meets once a month to discuss all manner of murder and mayhem. Among its members, the Real Murders club boasts a Lizzy Borden expert, a massacre and genocide specialist, and a man specifically interested in hate crimes. As Roe is soon to discover, however, Real Murders has also provided an unintended education for a vicious killer who has begun targeting club members using real life murder scenarios as inspiration.

For those readers with a somewhat gruesome sense of fun, this is an appealing premise for a crime novel—a sort of And Then There Were None puzzler in which neither victim nor reader is forced to suffer through much actual violence or emotional trauma. Unfortunately, while it is styled as a Southern cozy, Real Murders struggles from the start to strike a balance between light humor and a grim, almost fetishistic fascination with unsettling violence. Upon discovering the first murder—which abruptly takes place during the first 25 pages—Roe remarks that the victim was “so dead,” a statement that could be read as almost funny until the reader finds out that the murdered woman has been savagely bludgeoned, leaving “her head…the wrong shape entirely.” And while Roe’s initial reaction is as one would expect—disturbed, disgusted, and shocked—she quickly recovers, igniting not one, but two new romantic relationships, and taking part in her own personal investigation even as people closer and closer to her become the targets of the murderer.

Roe—and most of the other characters in Real Murders—are written not as Agatha Christie-esque caricatures, but as actual people. Throughout the course of the novel, we learn a fair amount about Roe and her life: her work at the public library, her non-existent dating life, her ambitious mother who has built an impressive real estate empire. Roe is, in effect, a “real” person. In general, one would praise an author for creating a multi-dimensional character, but in this particular case, Roe’s believability dissipates whenever the murder plot comes into play—which, as one might expect, it does frequently. Because even when Roe expresses the horror of what she is experiencing (and it’s worth noting that the crimes do, in fact, become increasingly and graphically horrific) she doesn’t appear to actually be feeling much of anything. To really be traumatized in the way that someone who has seen a personal acquaintance beheaded, for instance, really should be traumatized.

Writing about classic ‘Golden Age’ crime fiction, the masterful P.D. James has recognized that our favorite Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers books are “..novels of escape. We are required to feel no real pity for the victim, no empathy for the murderer, no sympathy for the falsely accused.” Such also appears to be the case for Real Murders. However, one has to wonder if such novels are not somewhat anachronistic for a contemporary reader, for whom real and graphic violence is a daily part of the morning’s papers. Harris would do well to take a page from any number of contemporary crime writers who are able to stage violent crimes with more than a modicum of empathy—P.D. James, Henning Mankell, Camilla Lackberg, and Patricia Highsmith all come to mind—rather than betraying quite so much glee at the scene of a crime.