See, It’s Because Women Can’t Review Military History…

February 26th, 2007 · 10 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

It’s a funny thing, isn’t it, how the New York Times Book Review — or rather its editorial staff — keeps digging holes and then tripping headfirst into them. You’d think they’d absorb the knowledge that their male-to-female reviewer ratio is woeful, maybe take some conscious steps to correct the problem, and, well, move on. You wouldn’t, not for one moment, think that anyone associated with the publication would go out into the public sphere and stick his foot in his mouth. You’d be wrong.

By failing to include a broad range of readers, dedicated book review sections are hurting themselves.

The NYTBR was called on the carpet because male reviewers outnumbered female reviewers approximately two to one. At the time, then-editor Charles McGrath explained this disparity with unsupported, unsubstantiated logic: “…more books are written by men than by women.” When Sam Tanenhaus took over the Review after McGrath left, he opted to punt on the issue, saying that comparing numbers would be a mistake.

A high-profile study that exposes gender disparity, an editor who defends his publication’s position without factual support, and another editor who thinks that considering the issue would be a mistake. With this kind of foundation, it makes perfect sense that Barry Gewen would clarify the issue like this:

In what even he described as a “Larry Summers moment” he explained that the reason so few women reviewers appear in the NYTBR is that they just can’t write for a general audience about such topics as military history.

Setting aside the question of how many books on military history the NYTBR reviews on a weekly (heck, monthly) basis — apparently the genre is far more popular with the reading public than we previously believed — it makes one wonder why Gewen believes women aren’t capable of this type of reviewing. But he explains it, and we know where he’s coming from:

He explained that NYTBR editors find reviewers by talking to colleagues and reading publications such as The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and The New Republic, insisting that he and his colleagues are not overtly prejudiced people but admitted they might have subconscious prejudices.

Let us state, up front and for the record, that we will likely never write about military history with anything resembling authority. This is not, as Barry Gewen of the New York Times Book Review would have it, because of our overabundance of X chromosomes. It has more to do with our lack of interest in the topic. Luckily for us, military history is not the only general interest subject available in the reviewing world.

In many ways, this gets back to the brouhaha between Susan Estrich and Michael Kinsley over the lack of female voices on the opinion pages of major newspapers. There may be some overt sexism at the NYTBR, but the real culprit is process. Gewen cheerfully admits that he taps a limited set of resources; those resources likely follow the same process. You think there’s a lot of incestuous behavior in the blogosphere? Where do you think we learned about the print media equivalent of the old boys’ network?

We have long believed that the editors of book review sections for major newspapers are out of touch with their constituency (note: more women buy books than men). Each editor brings a specific set of biases to the publication and molds the review section to that vision. This process of disenfranchising readers creates a book review section that contradicts the desires of the community’s readers — we are not suggesting that, oh, the Los Angeles Times Book Review forego its obsession with the history of Hollywood, but it might be beneficial to also look beyond the bias and try a little inclusiveness.

We say this only because the latest scheme by LAT executives seems a bit, oh, wow, insane. In what is presumably a desire to meld opinion with opinion, the new review section will, oh, we’ll quote from LA Observed:

Newsroom sources at the Times expect the Sunday Book Review will be folded into a new hybrid opinion section and delivered in Saturday papers. The new section that some staffers have seen would be tabloid-sized, with the favored format apparently using dual front pages like the New York City tabs. A reader could pick up the section and begin with the book pages, or flip to the back page — then rotate the whole section 180 degrees — to begin with the opinion pieces. Books fans and readers looking for opinion would both get a section front to draw them in, but those who like to browse through from front to back could be annoyed at having to rotate mid-way through. (I haven’t seen the prototype so I can’t tell if it’s as bush league as it sounds.) Apparently the opinion portion would run without editorials or letters. Some believe the revamp has already received bean-counter approval to launch after the Times Festival of Books in April — it just wouldn’t do to have the rookie publisher and editor jeered at the paper’s biggest (by far) community event.

Or the delay could have something to with the LAT staff going to blogging boot camp. Hard to say.

No, we don’t think the new format will do much to encourage readers to devour the LAT book review section; we also don’t think that the NYTBR will change its male-centric bias until it changes its process — or top editorial staff. The book lovers who have been excluded from these sections have already moved on. They have found alternate sources — magazines, journals, blogs, websites, friends — of information.

Losing readers may be a fine plan, it’s hard to say. But lower readership leads to lower advertising dollars, and while we doubt the NYTBR will ever lose the lemming-like infusion of publisher dollars (why, we always wonder, do industries spend so much money marketing to themselves?), we are seeing the trickle-down effect of lack of readership: newspapers are cutting book review column inches. This is a shame and a disservice to the community these newspapers serve. By failing to include a broad range of readers, dedicated book review sections are hurting themselves. When a section of a newspaper is perceived to be cost inefficient, cuts are necessarily made.

Book review sections of newspapers are, by definition, serving a large spectrum of the public. While it is fine and dandy for the editorial team to craft a publication that suits their particular vision, it is worth recalling the multitudes who are not served by this approach. It is also worth recalling that there is more to general interest than military history.

[tags]books, reviewing, publishing, new york times, los angeles times, new york times book review, nytbr, los angeles times book review, latbr, la observed, charles mcgrath, sam tanenhaus, gender bias[/tags]

File Under: Reviewing Reviewing

10 responses so far ↓

  • David Thayer // Feb 27, 2007 at 10:02 am

    So much food for thought here. Bizarre as the NYTBR seems both in gender bias and book selection the LAT Book Review is introducing actual physical pain for readers. I hope UCLA will
    have a class on rotating the new book review that will appear on Saturday even though it says Sunday.

  • Kassia Krozser // Feb 28, 2007 at 10:26 am

    Yes, almost too much food. A veritable feast. You get what you pay for around here!

  • MARJORIE // Feb 28, 2007 at 12:26 pm


  • Edward Champion’s Return of the Reluctant » The Half-Blind Roundup // Feb 28, 2007 at 12:50 pm

    […] Kroszer has much to say about sexism, reading audiences and the bigger picture for book review […]

  • Anne // Feb 28, 2007 at 8:07 pm

    Woolf made fun of this–the way that war and sport are important and shopping and children are unimportant.

    In 1929.

    Great job, Kassia!

  • Anne // Feb 28, 2007 at 8:09 pm

    Woolf made fun of this–the way that war and sport are deemed “important” and shopping and children are “unimportant” because of their perceived connections to gender. Oh, she ripped them.

    In 1929.

    Great job, Kassia!

  • Kassia Krozser // Feb 28, 2007 at 10:12 pm

    Ah, Anne, I could go on for days (literally) about the important versus unimportant issue. It has never been clear to me how any thinking person can discount the importance of the so-called domestic sphere…until I recall that those who do so think that war is actually a way to solve problems. If you think about it (which you’ve probably done more so than me), no great fiction is written about war. It is set against the backdrop of war, war might inform situations, but war rarely serves as the focus of the story. War is an event. Even issues of good versus evil or brother versus brother are brought to the domestic level. What is war if not about home?

    When I grow up I want to be Virginia Woolf. Or me with the same level of cleverness. I’m easy!

  • Lisa Silverman // Mar 5, 2007 at 11:29 pm

    I’m with you on everything except, perhaps, that no great fiction is written about war… But it’s true that the great fiction in which war is the focus, as you put it, is about the absurdity of war: Catch-22, for example.

  • Kassia Krozser // Mar 6, 2007 at 12:10 am

    Lisa, point taken. I stand corrected. Thank you.

  • Carter Jefferson // Mar 1, 2008 at 5:50 pm

    With all due respect, which is not much, the print book reviews are out to lunch and don’t know what the world is like, and I don’t mean just about domestic matters.

    Which is why several of us have started The Internet Review of Books — –and are planning to fill the void. You’ll find plenty of women reviewers there, and a good many books on subjects that may be of particular interest to women. One of three associate editors and the fiction editor are women. In the military business, take a look at the review of Co-Ed Combat, by Kingsley Browne, reviewed by Diane Diekman, a retired Navy captain, in our Dec.
    2007 issue. It’s not a history book; it’s an argument.

    Our editors find reviewers the same way other editors do–with a lot of help from our friends. But, we, even the males, have literate women friends.

    We’re still very small, but we’ll grow. Our first monthly issue appeared in October. We added coverage of novels in January. We’ll continue to expand. When we get enough hits, we’ll start getting ads, and then we’ll pay reviewers. After a while we’ll make enough money to pay even me.

    Don’t give up hope–just look elsewhere.