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Is ‘The New York Times’ Reviewing More Books by Women Yet (And Should It Matter)?

You may remember that last summer, in the wake of the critical acclaim that attended Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, there was quite a bit of discussion about the gender disparity in book reviews by The New York Times, with two bestselling female authors, Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult, leading the charge. The case by the numbers: of the 545 books reviewed by the Times between July 2008 and August 2010, 62 percent were written by men and 38 percent by women.

Yesterday, Weiner posted a follow-up on her blog, wondering if The New York Times did any better this past year. Her answer is, basically, not really. She writes, “To quote Reverend Lovejoy of Simpsons fame, short answer yes with an if, long answer no with a but.” At her count, the paper reviewed 254 works of fiction in 2011, 59.1 percent of which were written by men and 40.9 percent by women. And almost as many female authors’ books were reviewed twice as male authors (21 versus 22). So, improvement! Except that in other areas that Weiner values, such as number of women getting two reviews and a profile (just Téa Obreht, apparently), the Times is still lacking. “The Times showed improvement,” she writes, “at least in terms of fiction, in the two-review department, but the disparity between men and women who get that coveted two-reviews-plus-a-profile is still shocking.”

But is it really that shocking? Of course, whenever anyone talks about the numbers like this, the immediate question that arises is — well, but how many books by women are published versus how many books by men? Salon has reported that according to Vida, an organization for women in literary arts, the gender disparity in reviewed authors exists almost across the board, in literary journals, magazines, and newspapers, as well as online sources. However, last year three female staffers at The New Republic took it upon themselves to look through a large number of 2010 fall catalogs from book publishers of all sizes, in an effort to find out if there was a gender disparity in publication as well as in criticism. After eliminating the genres “not likely to be reviewed by such publications as The New York Times or The New Yorker in the first place (that is, self-help, cookbooks, art, etc.),” they found that in most cases women authors made up around 30 percent of publishers’ lists, with small independent presses turning out to be the most male-heavy offenders.

Admittedly, this is a small and limited sample, but still. If publishers are, on the whole, only printing literary fiction by female authors 30 percent of the time, it doesn’t seem quite so reprehensible that The New York Times reviews them 40.9 percent of the time. This does not account for the disparity in the “two-reviews-plus-a-profile” department, which I’ll tentatively agree (without knowing exactly how the recipients of these things are chosen) should be more equal, especially considering that of the Times‘ five picks for 2011’s best works of fiction, three were written by women. You’d think the other two on the list would have gotten the same full-barrel treatment — not that Karen Russell has wanted for publicity in the past year.

Now, of course, part of the issue for some is the very fact that the Times, as many other publications occupied with reviewing serious literature, tends to ignore the same categories The New Republic ignored, which probably also include romance novels, “chick lit,” and very commercial (and often very popular) fare, and which are often written by women. But can we really blame them for that? Yes, says Weiner, who told The Huffington Post, “It would be as if the paper’s film critics only reviewed tiny independent fare and refused to see so much as a single frame of a romantic comedy, or if the music critics listened to Grizzly Bear and refused to acknowledge the existence of Katy Perry or Lady Gaga. How seriously would a reader take a critic like that?”

Well, pretty seriously, actually. Not every publication has to cover every kind of music. Personally, I come to music journalism looking to read an informed critical opinion on something I don’t know about already. I know all about Katy Perry and Lady Gaga. And I know that even if a music reviewer doesn’t write about Katy Perry, that person knows Katy Perry exists — but they just may not be critically interested in her, and the tenor of the publication may not require they be. For instance, Pitchfork has never reviewed a Katy Perry album. People still take them seriously. Similarly, it’s The New York Times‘ prerogative to focus on literary fiction and non-fiction. There’s no real reason why they should cover popular fiction just because it’s popular. And look, it’s not like junk food novels by men get reviewed by the Times either. That’s not to say that I don’t think The New York Times could benefit from covering more experimental, independent, and otherwise off-the-beaten-path literature — they definitely could. But that’s not the argument here.

The discussion of gender equality in literary criticism has hardly been dormant since last summer. As recently as last week, Roxane Gay took issue with Lev Grossman’s all-white, all-male list of personally anticipated 2012 books — or more specifically, with the flip apology he offered at the end for the list’s lack of diversity — and sparked an interesting conversation in the comments over at The Rumpus. And it is certainly an interesting conversation, one that doesn’t have an easy answer. Certainly these problems exist and should be examined, but the question that continues to come up in comment boards and in my own thinking is this: why should we require our critics or ourselves to pay attention to what should be a meaningless distinction, at least as far as literary merit is concerned? After all, I can’t think of a time I read, recommended, or shunned a book based on the sex of the author — male or female. That said, as a reader, I rely on Gay and critics like her to point me in directions that the mainstream literary machine may not champion. She is essential. I like Lev Grossman too.

Unfortunately, as Salon’s Laura Miller points out, for publishers, it’s a safer bet to release a book by a male author, because like it or not, it’s just more neutral — men, by most accounts, are less likely to buy a book of literary fiction written by a woman, but women don’t really seem to care whether the author is male or female, so the obvious answer is to print more literature by men than women. The change, then, has to begin with readers — not with The New York Times, and not with publishers. You might say that if the Times reviewed more female writers, the male readers might grudgingly acquiesce and start reading them, but I doubt it. If they’re reviewing literary fiction and non-fiction by female authors to literary fiction and non-fiction by male authors at 2:3 already, I don’t really think reviewing them at 1:1 will make much of a difference. The people that care will seek out the books they’re looking for, and the people that don’t care won’t.

At the end of her post, Weiner writes, “The near-equality among the twice-reviewed and the best-of lists, and the occasional not-entirely-dismissive mention of a commercial female author suggests that, even if they’ll never say so, people at the Times are paying attention. Things can change.” Well, I’m happy to see more female authors on best-of lists, but I hope what that means is that more women are writing and successfully publicizing amazing books, and not that critics have been abashed into meeting a certain quota. Ultimately, what I want from literary criticism is to for it to tell me about the best, most interesting, most inspiring writing out there, but any publication, even The New York Times, can only review or know so much. All you can do is read multiple sources, ask readers you admire, and go towards what moves you, whatever that may be.

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