A Literary Glass Ceiling?

Books women Ruth Franklin in TNR:

The first shots were fired last summer, when Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult called the New York Times Book Review a boys’ club. (I weighed in then, too, calling on the Times to respond to statistics posted by Double X regarding the disparity between books by male authors and female authors reviewed in their pages.) Now, the war is on. A few days ago, VIDA, a women’s literary organization, posted on its website a stark illustration of what appears to be gender bias in the book review sections of magazines and literary journals. In 2010, as VIDA illustrated with pie charts, these publications printed vastly more book reviews by men than by women. They also reviewed more books by male authors.

The numbers are startling. 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). “We know women write,” poet Amy King writes on the VIDA website. “We know women read. It’s time to begin asking why the 2010 numbers don’t reflect those facts with any equity.”

But let’s slow down for a moment. There’s some essential data missing from these moan-inducing statistics. What’s the gender breakdown in books published last year? It’s crucial to both of the categories VIDA explores, because 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. So TNR’s Eliza Gray, Laura Stampler, and I crunched some numbers. Our sample was small and did not pretend to be comprehensive, and it may not represent a cross-section of the industry, because we did not include genre books and others with primarily commercial appeal. But it gave us a snapshot. And what we found helps explain VIDA’s mystery.

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