If you follow litchat at all, you’re aware by now that the online literary community VIDA (“Women in Literary Arts”) took a look at the gender breakdown of reviewers and authors featured in top-tier mags and journals in 2010. The numbers aren’t pretty. The Atlantic, the Boston Review, Granta, Harper’s, The New Yorker, the London Review of Books, The New Republic, my old employer The New York Review of Books, the NYTBR, the Paris Review, the TLS and more: Very few of these esteemed literary venues look too female-friendly by VIDA’s count.
We know women write. We know women read. It’s time to begin asking why the 2010 numbers don’t reflect those facts with any equity. Many have already begun speculating; more articles and groups are pointing out what our findings suggest: the numbers of articles and reviews simply don’t reflect how many women are actually writing.
Now this is a subject I have thought a good deal about ever since I began to publish. While I sort out how to organize those thoughts in a useful way, I’ll point you toward some reactions and quests-for-explanation that have been making the rounds in response to VIDA’s analysis. If you’ve spotted other notable takes on the subject that you want to share, please add them in the comments.
–At The Rumpus (“Women in Publishing,” Feb. 5), Stephen Elliott wanted more data, wondering whether women just don’t submit to these magazines as often as men do. (In an update, Elliott backtracked a bit, saying: “I should have chosen my words more carefully. It’s fairly obvious that women write as much as men. I don’t know why I was so glib, so glib, in fact I didn’t remember writing that line. Still, there is important data missing from VIDA’s article.”)
–Ruth Franklin, writing in TNR (“A Literary Glass Ceiling,” Feb. 7), argues that a good deal of the blame rests with publishers. She and her TNR colleagues did their own informal survey: “Now we can better understand why fewer books by women than men are getting reviewed. In fact, these numbers we found show that the magazines are reviewing female authors in something close to the proportion of books by women published each year. The question now becomes why more books by women are not getting published.”
–Ed Cummings, writing in the Telegraph (“Why are literary hard-hitters overwhelmingly male?” Feb. 7), came up with the somewhat perplexing conclusion that “literary magazines and high-end literary fiction might still be a bit of a boys’ club, but the club is run by women.” (Something to do with J.K. Rowling and Oprah. Don’t ask me.)
–Patricia Cohen, writing in the NYT (“Gender Balance and Book Reviewing: A New Survey Renews the Debate,” Feb. 8), attempts a recap of who’s saying what.
Meanwhile, my friend Jessa Crispin (@thebookslut) is going to be digging into the problem this week for PBS’s “Need to Know.” She’ll be “talking with editors, publishers, reviewers, publicists, and bloggers about why this disparity exists, and trying to root out some of their own unconscious biases.” She and the delightful and smart Michael Schaub have also begun a give-and-take on Bookslut, examining their own reading-and-reviewing habits.
Next time: So there’s a problem. What are we going to do about it?
I’m glad to see you writing about this. I have to say I haven’t followed it closely, because it strikes me as just too damn depressing. But part of what I would assume is happening I’m not sure I’m seeing discussed (please correct me if someone has talked about this): it’s the ways in which books get categorized by publishers. It’s not news that books by women often get stuck in various genre or niche markets–just look at the world of chick lit and mommy lit and you’ll see books that could just as easily have been published as “real” lit but were slapped with a pink cover. Nor is it news that the heavy hitter reviewing outlets don’t like to review genre lit (that’s another issue). Add the two together and, voila, you get an underrepresentation of women as authors and reviewers.
In any case, looking forward to your next post on this!