Sunday, March 10, 2013

Women (and men), revisited

There's something about charts. You can list statistics, you can have gut feelings, you can suspect... but nothing hits harder and proves a point more strongly than a good series of graphs and charts. And so I urge readers to look over VIDA's yearly summary of book reviews from major publications. It's illuminating, and not in a good way.

Now that you're back (and possibly as angry as I am), let's have a little chat about this. Because seriously - what. We often talk about "imbalances" and "subtle sexism" and all sorts of other neutral concepts, but VIDA's statistics make it really hard to shy away from the truth. And the truth is that something is seriously skewed with the literary world. Look at those numbers - for the most part they don't even approach 50% in the authors reviewed sections and the reviewer gender polls don't show much better results. What's truly shocking is how consistent this is. There is no example of a review outlet that employs more women reviewers than men, and scant examples of publications that has reviewed an equal number of books by men and by women.

I've said it before, I'll say it again: I don't like to rely too much on statistics. I love numbers, but it's too easy to get caught up in one-sided beliefs when relying entirely on percentages. So though most of these reviewed books may be written by men, that does not necessarily mean that the publications are automatically sexist. That these books are mostly written by men doesn't mean that there aren't strong women within their pages, it doesn't mean that these books are also all about men.

The statistics do, however, mean that books by women are not getting the same attention as books by men. That review publications do not employ many women. And that the problem, despite being one I first heard about three years ago, is still thriving.

We can lay the blame anywhere. We can say it's the fault of publishers for marketing books by and about women as exclusively for women. We can say it's the fault of literary publications, who clearly prefer men in the position of reviewer, despite the fact that women tend to read more than men. We can say it's the fault of reviewers for believing that men writing about family life is timeless while women writing about family life is fluff. We can say readers are at fault for buying into all this nonsense. We can lay the blame anywhere and everywhere, and we should. This is a joint effort. Two years ago I commented that these stats and the general dismissal of women writers for literary awards was not outright sexism. At the time, this was the right thing to say: one outlying year of skewed reading is unfortunate but doesn't say much. Two is a reason for taking note. Three is already a trend. We have a trend of male-preference in literature. Something needs to change, and we have a role to play in that. It's time we take it more seriously.


  1. Hi Biblibio, I do just want to say that I have had a clumn where I list ten books I think are interesting that month, and a lot of my lists have ended up being primarily female writers. Take a look!

  2. What you state here is why I prefer a small, independent publication like Bookmarks Magazine to the others noted in that article. I used to subscribe to a couple of them but cancelled or never renewed those subscriptions. At least with Bookmarks, I always finish an edition feeling like I've read a well-rounded recap of book reviews and opinions and not something akin to pedantic dribble that panders to a type of readership I will never belong or fit into.

  3. The data presented here really surprised me -- I wouldn't have guessed that and I read NYT and The Atlantic regularly. I would have guessed that female literary authors get plenty of attention, but maybe that's just a select few. Thanks for your thought-provoking post.

  4. I'm of two minds about this.

    On the one hand, these numbers are especially surprising when you look at book blogs. The vast majority of book blogs are written by women (there are precious few male book bloggers). You have to assume that the disproportion among book bloggers must mirror the disproportion among readers, at least a little. So it seems odd that traditional publications would ignore the fact that women dominate the book market by employing men to review new titles. From a purely economic standpoint, it would seem advantageous to both the publications and the publishers to employ more women reviewers in an effort to curry a larger market share.

    On the other hand, I would give my left arm to review for an established literary publication. My employment would do nothing to shift these numbers in the right direction, but I'd never, ever say that if I were interviewing for the position.

  5. I remember when I first started reading more feminist news, I was like, "Really, this is a problem?" But it's true that it is a problem, when the world keeps being imbalanced. Women read more and more women are publishing professionals - so why is it dominated by men in the end?

    I love YA, and people love to point out how girly YA is. But Shannon Hale and one of the ladies at Stacked separately ran numbers and found that books by men are often equal to or outnumber books by women on bestseller and awards lists. And there also tend to be more books by women about guys than books by guys about girls.


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