Recently, we posted a short piece where we read too much into a few words. Most of our enlightened readers got the point immediately. A few chastised us for, well, overreading a few words (which we’d stated up front, so that ship had sailed) and went off on another tangent entirely. Which was fine, but not really the point we wanted to make.
So let us try again: bias can be as blatant as using the qualifier “leggy” before calling someone an essayist (because, unless we’re missing something important, the two descriptions are unrelated). Bias can also exist by omission, such as in the case of the male-to-female ratios of reviewers and reviews in the New York Times Book Review. When a publication suggests that the lack of column inches is due to lack of novels written by women, it’s either a strong indication that someone needs to visit a bookstore or cop to the real reason for overlooking not only half the population but the majority of book buyers.
This isn’t paranoia on our part — we’ve previously linked to and discussed the Brown University study on this topic. Edrants.com includes male/female statistics in his weekly review of the NYTBR. And our guest today, Lauren Baratz-Logsted did, too. She’s not asking the Review to change now — to her mind, it’s lost its relevancy. What she’s suggesting (and we strongly support) is creating a real option for women readers — and those brave men who aren’t afraid to learn what women really think.
Toward a Utopia of Book Reviewing for Women
I donâ€™t remember the exact date when the New York Times Book Review became a cultural irrelevancy for me.
Back in the years 1983-1994, when I was a buyer for one of the largest independent bookstores in the Northeast, Kleinâ€™s of Westport, now sadly defunct, we used to get our copy early with the mail on Tuesdays. As soon as it came in, Iâ€™d look through it quickly and then someone would be assigned the task of meticulously going through the store, paper in hand, to make sure we had all the important titles on the shelves. If we didnâ€™t have a title, there would at least be time to order it for Friday shipment so that when our pampered customers knocked on the door demanding early entry on Saturday, brandishing their own copies of the NYTBR, weâ€™d be able to give them what they wanted. Back then, this could sometimes be a frustrating process, as the paper was given to, perversely, upon occasion reviewing books that werenâ€™t quite out yet or had been out for nearly a year.
Despite those occasional frustrations, I enjoyed reading the NYTBR back then, particularly relishing it when a book Iâ€™d already read had been reviewed, so I could compare my notes with the reviewer to see where our thoughts converged and where mine were superior. In fact, I enjoyed it so much, that for many years after I left the bookstore, it was still one of the first sections of the Saturday edition of the NYTimes, with all its lovely weekend extras, Iâ€™d turn to, my pattern being to check the weather, scan the front page, scan the letters and editorials, take a stab at the Sunday crossword, and then sit down with the review until I was done with it.
But somewhere along the way, I noticed that there was something wrong with this picture.
Thereâ€™s a phrase in critical thought called â€œlistening to the silencesâ€ and itâ€™s the kind of thing that has resulted in some pretty fine works of literature, among them Jane Smileyâ€™s A Thousand Acres, which listens to the silences in King Lear and comes up with a revisioning that details the Evil Daughtersâ€™ side of the famous tragedy. Listen to the silences in almost any work and eventually you start to hear whoâ€™s not getting their say. So I started listening to the silences in the NYTBR, in the hopes of figuring out what was wrong with this reviewing institution that I had loved so long and so well, and this is what I heard: the absence of womenâ€™s voices.
Oh, to be sure, there were always some reviews written by women or about womenâ€™s books, but it struck me as being drastically disproportionate to those devoted to the other gender.
For a while, I thought maybe it was me.
So I started counting: tallying up each week to see how many XXs and XYs were represented.
And even though my numbers told me I was on to something, still, I thought maybe it was me. I mean, Iâ€™d been prone to paranoia a time or two before, right? Once, when Iâ€™d been sick, I heard the doorknob turn and immediately assumed it was a magazine-subscription salesman Iâ€™d turned down coming back to murder me, only to see my husband walk in â€“ making me glad Iâ€™d never believed in keeping guns in the house, for surely I would have shot him dead right then â€“ so maybe once again I was just seeing shadows?
But then came the Brown University study, confirming my suspicions, followed quickly by then Editor-in-Chief Charles McGrathâ€™s sop to the female masses, a statement in which he claimed that the reason women were not as strongly represented was not a matter or conscious design but merely due to the fact that they didnâ€™t write as many books.
But how could that be? I thought. Iâ€™d been a Publishers Weekly reviewer, to the tune of 292 reviews written, not to mention a bookseller for 11 years etc, and I knew women were not writing books in substantially fewer numbers than men. What was going on here?
Then I started looking at the books by women that were reviewed in the NYTBR and it occurred to me that there was something about the reviews that wasâ€¦grudging. Sure, you could find the latest Cynthia Ozick or Alice Munro or Joyce Carol Oates reviewed there, or the latest Jane Smiley for that matter, but even though the reviews for those authorsâ€™ books were invariably positive, there was something less than in the way they were presented, when taken in comparison with the reviews of the male lions â€“ Updike, Roth, Mailer, DeLillo â€“ the whole thing bringing to mind the passage from Margaret Atwoodâ€™s Blind Assassin where one character admonishes another to thank God for small favors, to which the character replies: Why thank God? And why are they so small?
But then I heard that Sam Tanenhaus* was taking over the helm of the NYTBR and hope sprang eternal that things would change. Not that I knew much about Tanenhaus, meaning there was no specific reason for me to be hopeful, but if I am nothing else, I am as much Pollyanna as I am Paranoid Polly.
Not long into Tanenhausâ€™s tenure, however, I began hearing more in the silences of the NYTBR. For the first time I noticed that genres are given unequal attention as well. There are regular features of roundups on Mysteries and Science Fiction â€“ and have been for as long as Iâ€™ve been reading the review â€“ but there is not a similar one on Romance (donâ€™t even get me stated on Chick-Lit â€“ well, OK, maybe later). If they were going to leave genre out of the review entirely, however elitist that might be, at least it would be one thing. But it was quite another to pick and choose, saying certain genres have literary merit while, defined by their silence, saying another is not worth the typage. And particularly odd since that not-worth-the-typage genre happens to be written primarily by and about women and, oh yes, sells more books than any other genre out there. The NYTBR regularly reviews every new book by Stephen King, Tom Clancy, Michael Crichton and John Grisham â€“ in full-length reviews, no less; no In Briefs for them â€“ but show me where was the last time they gave the same typage to Nora Roberts?
OK, maybe I will get into the Chick-Lit issue now.
How can the NYTBR totally ignore Chick-Lit? It is the most successful subgenre to sprout from the publishing world in decades. People buy these books. People love these books. (OK, not all, but a lot.) Oh, sure, they review Helen Fielding because sheâ€™s unavoidable, and any novelist who happens to be the wife of one of the producers of A Beautiful Mind also has an in, but where are the reviews of Sarah Mlynowski or Julie Kenner or Cara Lockwood?
I wonâ€™t even ask, Where are the reviews of me? But I will write a novel about it, in fact have already written a novel about it, Chick-Lit: A Love Story, which will hopefully be published in July 2007 and which opens with the lines:
â€œIt is a publishing truth, universally acknowledged, that anyone professionally involved in the pursuit of â€˜Lit-e-ra-ture,â€™ must, by definition, despise Chick-Lit.
â€œI first met Frank Dâ€™Arcangelo, Editor-in-Chief of the New York Times Book Review, at the annual National Book Awards ceremony and while it was definitely not the best of times for me, it was a close runner-up for the worst.
â€œOf course, being the kind of person I am and writing the kinds of books I do, I didnâ€™t actually receive anything so mundane as a printed invitation to the ceremony. Rather, my agent, perennially dateless, said I could be her guestâ€¦
â€œI hated the Times with their uppity tone of voiceâ€¦They were Pride, as far as I was concerned, and I was Prejudiced.â€
Take THAT, NYTimes!
But, seriously, where are the reviews of Chick-Lit specifically, or Romance in general, or even of most women writing today in that most August of book reviews? Is it possible that â€“ gasp! â€“ the most ostensibly liberal newspaper in the United States of America is â€“ gasp again! â€“ prejudiced?
It seems to me that one of the responsibilities of a reviewing vehicle like the NYTBR is to help readers sort the wheat from the chaff, in terms of literary books, but also, since they have chosen to do this in some genres, in all genres. There should be regular roundups on Romance. There should be regular roundups on Chick-Lit.
Not long ago, on another litblog, I heard someone say that they didnâ€™t read Chick-Lit because they couldnâ€™t tell which were supposed to be good or not. Iâ€™ve also heard people â€“ many people â€“ dismiss Chick-Lit wholesale based on one or two reading experiences or because they hated the film version of Bridget Jonesâ€™s Diary, a stance to me that makes about as much sense as never reading another literary novel because one hated The Grapes of Wrath in high school or all mysteries because Nigel Bruce in the old Sherlock Holmes movies really seemed just too silly or all mysteries, again, because Otto Penzler has so famously chosen to dismiss all cozies.
I have a dream.
I dream that one day all books will be judged, not by the gender of their authors but by the contents and the characters of their pages.
But for far too long, the pendulum has swung too strongly in the other direction. What we need here is the publishing version of Affirmative Action, jumping on the other end of the seesaw and staying there until the playing field is level once again.
Someone needs to step up to the bat here â€“ oh, crap, a baseball metaphor, following on the heels of a mixed one â€“ and not just in the areas of Chick-Lit or Romance, but in the area of all writing by women. Rape victims talk about taking back the night. Well, we need to start taking back the book reviews. And toward that end, I propose the creation of the following:
A book review created by, for and about women; a book review that has room for Joyce Carol Oates, every single one of her books as they come out, but that also has room for all genres. The review would appear online or in print every week. It would contain a framing essay for that weekâ€™s reviews at the front. It would contain a back-page essay on something topical at the back. The reviews would not be grudging, nor would they be puff pieces. They would form a survey of the best â€“ and worst! â€“ books being written by women today. There would be knowledgeable people involved in all aspects of its creation, meaning people that are far more knowledgeable than I in terms of the business and administrative ends of such an undertaking. Of course, Iâ€™d be more than happy to contribute the odd review, or even a weekly review, and the odd essay. And, let me tell you, those essays would be odd.
Then, after maybe about 10 years of this, if the enterprise is successful and the playing field does become level and the boys behave themselves sufficiently, we might start letting a few of them in.
Until that day happens, Iâ€™ll keep stockpiling my mostly unread NYTBRs next to the trashcan in the downstairs bathroom; as of yesterday, there were eight there.
You know what I really dream?
I dream that one day this dream wonâ€™t be necessary.
*Special thanks to Ed over at www.edrants.com for his weekly Sam Tanenhaus Brownie Watch. As far as Iâ€™m concerned, Ed can write a review or essay in my Utopia anytime.
Lauren Baratz-Logsted is the author of The Thin Pink Line and Crossing the Line. Her third novel, A Little Change of Face, is now available. Her essay, â€œIf Jane Austen Were Writing Today,â€ is collected in Flirting with Pride and Prejudice: Fresh Perspectives on the Original Chick-Lit Masterpiece, edited by Jennifer Crusie and due out from Benbella Books on September 1.