Book Reviewing: Do It Yourself
By Gail Pool
Book reviewing has experienced some fierce turbulence in recent years, as newspapers have reduced their book sections, literary blogs have proliferated on the web and readers, once the critic’s audience, have metamorphosed into active players, talking back with critiques of their own. Yet one aspect of the field has remained depressingly stable: on the book pages of our prestigious publications, women reviewers and authors are in short supply.
Historically, the New York Times Book Review (NYTBR), no doubt because of its power, has been the book section most frequently criticized for its dearth of women. In 2004, Women’s Review of Books readers may remember, Paula J. Caplan and Mary Ann Palko reported here on their NYTBR tallies for 2002-2003, which found the ratio of male to female authors and reviewers approximately two to one—pretty much what it had been, they noted, since the eighties, when a protest by Marilyn French and other writers had improved it from 3:1. My own informal tally for 2006-2007 showed that 2:1 ratio holding steady, with a moderate gap in fiction outweighed by a large disparity in nonfiction, the category that accounts for the bulk of reviews these days.
But the NYTBR is by no means the most unbalanced of our publications. Scanning the reviews in a dozen recent issues of the New York Review of Books, I found the ratio of male to female authors approximately 4:1, and of reviewers, around 5:1, with the women mainly star novelists serving as fiction critics. A comparable sampling of reviews at the New Republic revealed a 5:1 ratio for both authors and reviewers. And examining last year’s September-June issues of BookForum, though I found a good balance among critics for regular reviews, the ratio of men to women in featured reviews and essays was 3:1. Men dominated as authors throughout.
Book reviewing is part of a larger picture that is still more dispiriting. A number of media critics have been tallying bylines in the past 5 years, and they have found that in our general interest, intellectual, and political magazines, male writers prevail. Reporting in Columbia Journalism Review, Jennifer Weiss showed male to female ratios ranging from 13:1 at the National Review to 2:1 at Columbia Journalism Review itself. Back in 2002, having counted bylines at the New Yorker on his web log, MobyLives, Dennis Loy Johnson concluded, “I’m telling you, it’s worse than you think.” In fact, compared with other sections, book pages seem somewhat more welcoming to women (if a 5:1 ratio can be considered “welcoming”)—partly, I suspect, because reviewing has generally been held in low regard, and partly because, in this department, women can be corralled into fiction, which is considered lighter fare.
As someone who has been involved with reviewing for three decades, I don’t hold it in low regard, and I believe that prestigious review publications have an impact. They are used by readers, book clubs, and award committees, by professors, schools, and libraries, and they not only help sell books, they build careers and reputations. I don’t think I should have to argue in 2007 that the absence of women from their pages matters. And in 2007, it feels sad to be tallying these ratios. I wrote an article on sexism in magazines back in the eighties and diligently counted the names of women on mastheads (no higher math involved). I could not have imagined that I would still be counting twenty years later. I question whether such tallies are effective.
Clearly, to show that a disparity exists, we need the evidence the numbers provide. But numbers don’t tell the whole story. For that we would need to know not only how many women are reviewing, but how many qualified women want to review and haven’t the opportunity. We’d need to know how many books are written by men compared to women—and even that would tell us nothing about their quality. Still, if the numbers don’t tell the whole story, they nonetheless tell an authentic tale, especially about reviewers. Judging by lists of critics, I calculate that women comprise around half of general reviewers. Universities and professional schools are filled with knowledgeable women. By no stretch of statistics can current ratios reflect a fair representation.
But to speak of “evidence” presumes a reasonable approach to the problem, and “reasonable” is not the word I would use to describe the publishing response to the issue. Perhaps the silliest response I’ve heard was that of a NYTBR editor who visited the Radcliffe Institute in February 2007 and observed that the problem was that he hadn’t been able to find women who could write for a general audience about such subjects as military history. The most mind-boggling response was from the editor of a small press magazine, who told me women were so successful these days, they wouldn’t write for the paltry fees she could offer. For the most amusing response, credit goes to an English fellow who, in an article called “Is There a Gender Bias in Publishing?” remarked: “Why are most of the book reviewers in national newspapers male? I’ve no idea. But since they are, we’ll just have to work with it.” (Apparently, male bylines are an act of God.) And surely the most smug response was that of Charles McGrath, then editor of the NYTBR, who, when Caplan and Palko offered “to provide him with the names of excellent women reviewers,” replied, “Our standards are so high that [a] great many writers—even published writers—don’t meet them.” I would like to have pointed out to him the many poor Times reviews written by men; the one I most enjoy citing is a review of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, in which the incisive critic said, “If you don’t end up liking each one of Franzen’s people, you probably just don’t like people.” High standards, indeed. But McGrath’s opinion can’t be proven or disproven. In reviewing, a great deal comes down to taste, and the line between taste and bias is often hard to discern—especially for those who would rather not see it.
In fact, the lack of women on the book pages isn’t all that hard to understand. For one thing, book reviewing has longstanding traditions, and bias is among them. According to Rob Davidson’s The Master and the Dean (2005), William Dean Howells at the end of the nineteenth century wrote that women critics, “‘know what they like’—that pernicious maxim of those who do not know what they ought to like,” and “bring a lively stock of misapprehensions and prejudices to their work.” For another, editors at prestigious publications tend to seek reviewers from among the writers at other prestigious publications, a process that, as Women’s Review of Books editor Amy Hoffman has said, “guarantees that they’ll find the same old guys to say the same old thing.”
In addition, in my experience as a book review editor, women themselves play a role in the imbalance. Though it sounds clichéd, I found that men tended to be more assertive in seeking out assignments. If a man proposed four ideas and I turned them down, he would send four more, whereas a woman in a similar case might well disappear, as if I had rejected her. Women, I also found, were more reluctant than men to take on subjects in which they didn’t feel they had sufficient expertise, which would be sensible if they didn’t so often underestimate their expertise.
That editors aren’t shamed by the numbers leaves women at something of an impasse. Short of canceling our subscriptions—which has been suggested—it is hard to know what we can actively do. But this happens to be a moment when the Internet has opened up real possibilities for reviewing, and I’ve been watching the web with a mix of interest and concern.
Right now, women form a strong presence on the literary web. Many women have blogs that are frequently visited, linked to, and referenced in the blogrolls of other bloggers, male and female. Jessa Crispin’s website Bookslut, with reviews, interviews, a blog with lively commentary, and links, is one of the most popular sites. But most of the women’s blogs I’ve seen—and I admit I’m sure to have missed some, since the blogosphere is huge—are devoted to news, views, links, and shorter critiques, often of popular genres, rather than to serious reviews. In the meantime, Mark Sarvas’s The Elegant Variation is gaining a reputation for literary sophistication, and the Complete Review for thoughtful, substantial reviews. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that the Complete Review gave my own book a fine review. But it was one of the few books by a woman the site has covered. Counting up in 2002, the anonymous editor(s) found such an imbalance that they observed, “The question moved from the joking: ‘Are we sexist?’ (no question about it) to the more disturbing: ‘How sexist are we?’” In February 2007, they noted that of the last one hundred books they had reviewed, only fourteen were by women.
Print reviewers and bloggers have been battling each other for the past year or so. Many print reviewers deny the value of the web, while many bloggers seem to assume—perhaps because they’re writing outside a traditional commercial enterprise—that their reviews are immune from the failings of traditional reviewing. But while in many ways the web may be a tabula rasa, the people using it are not; we carry our culture with us. Web reviews already share many of print reviewing’s shortcomings, including the tendency to overpraise books and the failure to accurately describe them. As bloggers try to establish an economic foundation for their sites, as they seek financing and good relationships with publishers who, after all, provide books, they will face many of the same pressures print publications have confronted. Maybe they will find better solutions than their predecessors, but it’s unlikely these pressures will have no influence on their choice and treatment of books. The web will not in itself protect reviewers from replicating many aspects of our current media, including the dearth of women as serious authors and critics.
The political blogosphere provides a cautionary tale. Political blogs have become a strong organizing force for progressives, balancing the media power long held by rightwing radio shows. But the political web is itself extremely unbalanced: most of it consists of male voices. Writing in the Boston Globe this past summer, Ellen Goodman reported that “of the top 90 political blogs…a full 42 percent were edited and written by men only, while 7 percent were by women only.” In the remainder, the “‘coed’ mix was overwhelmingly male.”
How the literary web will evolve is impossible to predict, but changes are certain to occur. As a system of reviewing, a multitude of individual bloggers seems to me inefficient, demanding too much time of readers, who have to jump from site to site and gain no overview of what is being published. I expect that online reviewers will group together in magazine-like arrangements, and that online review magazines will be launched. This past winter, at the New Republic website, Jeffrey Herf proposed a new weekly publication to cover some of the many scholarly books that the New York Review of Books is unable to review and that mainstream reviews neglect. One of the immediate blog responses was the suggestion to publish the new journal online.
Inevitably, some web publications will become more prestigious than others. Will women be reviewing for them? Will the editors select their books for review? I found it disturbing that a woman responding to Herf’s proposal urged that the new magazine, in the 232-year-old words of Abigail Adams, “remember the ladies.” I heard the past creeping into the future. It seems to me that if women want to write New York Review-style criticism, they can do so right now, online, without anyone’s permission. And if online magazines are launched, women should be in them at the start, while new traditions can develop. Better yet, rather than pleading for inclusion, women can launch the publications themselves. By all means, we should count bylines, alerting readers to the disparities that exist. By all means, we should continue to seek assignments at prestigious print publications. But I would hate to think that while knocking at doors that stay closed, we are missing the chance to open doors on our own.
Gail Pool is the author of Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America (2007). She has been a columnist, review editor, and reviewer for many publications.