Skewing Dude-ward?

Despite two generations of work by feminist literary critics, a study indicates that new books by men get disproportionate attention from reviewers. Scott McLemee reports from the literary battlefront.

May 29, 2013

In January, the National Book Critics Circle announced that its Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement award for this year would go to the feminist literary scholars Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, whose collaboration began with The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination (Yale University Press, 1979). The award is named after the first president of NBCC, the professional organization for book reviewers, which has about 500 members.

All of NBCC’s deliberations are confidential, and in the case of the Sandrof award, the other candidates up for consideration are never announced. Having served a term on the organization’s board of directors, I don’t think it violates any blood oaths to say that choosing the Sandrof winner was always an unusually perplexing matter. Typically the list of nominees is a mix of authors, editors, and translators -- sometimes with an institution or two, such as a journal or a small press, as well -- who have “made a significant and lasting contribution to American letters.”

Reasonable people may disagree about what counts as “significant and lasting,” of course. But by the time the nominating committee settles on a choice of candidates, the list is almost excessively impressive. It’s almost enough to cause paralysis in people who make judgments for a living. Flip a coin, throw a dart -- it’s all good.

So an appropriate response to Gilbert and Gubar winning falls somewhere between “Of course!” and “What took so long?” They not only recovered and analyzed the work of “that damned mob of scribbling women” (in Hawthorne’s testosterone-addled turn of phrase) but foregrounded gender-inflected themes and tensions running throughout Victorian and modernist literature.

As Ivan Lett, the online marketing manager for Yale University Press, pointed out in a blog post, “You know a book is of the ‘groundbreaking’ sort when another one with [Title] After __ Years (Gilbert and Gubar’s ’The Madwoman in the Attic’ After Thirty Years, University of Missouri Press) comes out, and with the still-changing picture of women, literature, politics, and self-expression within patriarchal culture, it’s easily conceivable that another in the same vein would appear in the years ahead.”

Barely a week after the NBCC award ceremony in late February, the annual VIDA Count results were released. A coincidence, but one that seems fortuitous: According to its website, VIDA (which “isn’t an acronym, nor does it stand for anything”) was “founded in August 2009 to address the need for female writers of literature to engage in conversations regarding the critical reception of women’s creative writing in our current culture.”

Its most prominent activity, so far, has been to “review the reviews,” so to speak, through its Count – monitoring several of the most prominent print-based venues for book commentary in the U.S. to assess the gender balance in their pages. So far there have been three Counts, and the record demonstrates that the field of critical journalism remains overwhelmingly androcentric. Or, in the vernacular, a sausage fest.

Most books reviewed in major publications are by men. Most of the people writing the reviews are male. In each case the margin is, on the average, roughly two to one. (And it’s a good bet that books by women are assigned to women for review in an even more disproportionate way: a “pink ghetto” of sorts.) The trends are pronounced and, judging by the record, well-entrenched, with little more than flutters of variation across the three years of Count findings.

How to respond to the lopsided situation will be up for debate at a forum called “The VIDA Count and Gender Bias in Book Reviewing,” scheduled for today as part of the Critics Circle’s annual membership meeting. This year the meeting overlaps with Book Expo America, the behemoth publishing trade show. Among the announced panelists for the VIDA discussion is Pamela Paul, the recently named editor of The New York Times Book Review. That’s one way to get the publishing industry’s attention. (A full list of speakers is available here.)

Not every journal that VIDA counts has been selecting authors and reviewers at a rate of two men to each woman. Notable exceptions are The New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, The New Republic, and the Times Literary Supplement – among the publications with perhaps the greatest role in determining which books and authors are credited as serious or important. In their case, men outnumber women, as authors or reviewers, by roughly three to one.

Why such tremendous disproportion? The possible explanations are various, but not that various. Perhaps women have at most one-half the capacity of men to write significant or attention-worthy books, or to make intelligent assessments of them. (If so, never mind.) 

Perhaps everyone making decisions about what to review, and who to have review it, works with no bias whatever. It just happens that the statistics skew that way. In that case, it seems possible, even likely, that there would be an occasional year when the results skewed the other direction.

In the VIDA findings, this happens only twice. But with Granta, the greater balance occurs in a year when the magazine published an issue devoted entirely to women writers. In the case of The Boston Review, the dramatic “surge” in female representation displayed on VIDA’s charts proves to be a kind of optical illusion, resulting from a sharp decline in the number of reviews run in 2011. Both Granta and the Review fell back in line with the general trend by the following year.

Perhaps, finally, there is such a thing as gender bias that tends to operate by default, good intentions notwithstanding, unless specifically recognized and challenged. Which is, most of the time, a difficult and unpleasant thing to do, and very often brings out the worst in people. Any discussion of sexism does. A friend who criticized news coverage of rape was recently threatened online with rape. Given how fundamentally unsurprising that is, VIDA's efforts will meet resistance of all kinds, from the genteel to the deranged.

Erin Belieu, an associate professor of English at Florida State University, is a founding member of VIDA and will be speaking at the NBCC forum. We discussed the impact of the Count by e-mail as she was preparing to go to New York.

“The Count makes people uncomfortable for a variety of reasons,” she told me, “but first among these, I think, is because it really makes people -- typically well-educated, often self-identified liberally minded people -- look at what are mostly unconscious biases. Self-deception is a peculiarly human attribute, isn't it? And looking at such things is rarely a self-satisfying feeling. So it feels to some editors and writers that the Count is an attack on this thing -- Literature, with the capital ‘L’ -- they care for so deeply.”

One well-used line of defense is to insist that gender has nothing to do with anything: “When making their editorial choices,” Belieu continued, repeating a familiar claim, “they simply publish ‘the best’ work. Which is of course ridiculous and any smart undergrad could pick that argument apart in 30 seconds. They don't publish ‘the best,’ as if that were some objective category; they publish what they like. And many literary magazines appear not to generally like work written by women.”

Laurie Muchnick, president of the book critics’ organization, made the point in an even sharper way in a phone interview. Muchnick is currently the book review editor for Bloomberg News, after serving in the same capacity for many years at Newsday. (I worked with her frequently at both publications, though no time recently.)

“The editors,” she said, “have huge multiples of books they can have reviewed. You find you have 50 worthy titles for consideration and 10 slots to fill. If you’re in that position and notice that it keeps turning out that eight of the books you’ve assigned are by men, then maybe have another look at your list to see if you can balance it better. The same thing goes with reviewers.”

In general, Muchnick said, “most book review sections are run top-down, more or less by one powerful person. This isn’t like being in a Fortune 500 company where changing anything is a struggle. The problem is that [most editors] just don’t care. It’s not important enough for them to think about.”

In effect VIDA is continuing Gilbert and Gubar’s project by other means – the work of advocacy needed to challenge an order of exclusion that otherwise gets rationalized all too easily. The NBCC event will be recorded on video by the Center for Fiction for release online. In the meantime, Erin Belieu’s final comment in our exchange seems like a good point to close on:

“Publishers and review editors are always in a position to educate and illuminate their readerships. That's what they're there to do. We have to convince them by whatever means we have available to us that they should do this. Because morally, ethically, spiritually, aesthetically, it's the right thing to do.… There have been more than a few times that men who support VIDA's work have told me explicitly, 'My daughter's in college and she's a fantastic writer. She wants to make this her life. And when I read the VIDA Count it infuriates me to think what's likely to happen to her professionally.’ ”


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