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…


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

  1. There probably is discrimination at work. As long as books are published, there will be reviewers. But the loss is that fewer reviews means less variety of opinion and some reviews are more interesting than the item reviewed!


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