Friday, August 10, 2018

WITMonth Day 10 | Stats (part 2)

Much as I love the cold, hard data behind the general publishing stats when it comes to women in translation (spoiler alert: I love very little about them), there's only so much that publishing can tell us. True, publishers are a fairly major gatekeeper when it comes to the existence of women in translation (indeed, perhaps the only gatekeeper... and the reason I'll be visiting this topic again later this month), but there are many stages from the moment a book is published to the point at which it reaches the reader.

One of these is literary publications and media. Much as we would love to think that nothing affects our tastes and interests, the fact is that marketing does work. This is certainly true of book marketing, with review outlets, bloggers, and the media at large playing a huge part in how books ultimately become hits or misses. Even among indie presses, the way a book is promoted can heavily shape the way it will be sold/recommended in the future.

And so I decided to again check the status of literary reviews, to see whether the situation has improved for women in translation since 2016 (when I last checked this metric). It's pie chart time!

Journals and review sites were selected partially on the basis of visibility within the literary community and recommendations (not a particularly scientific metric, I know), as well as ease of data collection (i.e. chronological posting, well-labeled reviews). Due to the relative limitations in translation-focused literary reviews, this may lead to certain bias simply because of the smaller range of options. This analysis is not nearly as comprehensive as that of VIDA, but is inspired by their work. All assessments done manually, so of course there is the possibility that I have made some mistake - please let me know if this is the case and I will happily make any corrections!


In 2016, The Guardian presented me with a bit of a conundrum. That was the year of Elena Ferrante, with several articles going back and forth as to her identity (remember that?) and her literary merits, and a time in which Asymptote Journal had a weekly feature in the "Fiction in Translation" tag. Ultimately, I found that of reviews, 22% had been of books by women writers in translation, even as the general Fiction in Translation tag had more features and pieces about women writers (30%). This year, the metric is flipped, with only 22% of the general features, reviews, and so on about women writers in translation, but among reviews alone, that number goes up to 29%. Neither percentage, I should note is particularly good. (I should also point out that I have a very strong suspicion as to why women writers are relatively better represented now in reviews - Nicholas Lezard who used to have a column in The Guardian's book pages no longer writes there, and that column featured perhaps three women over the course of the three two I looked at it...)

The reason I start with The Guardian now (and the reason I started with it in 2016 as well) is because I can think of no other newspaper with such a prominent literary review that easily and clearly labels its forays into translated literature, while also not having a paywall. More than that, The Guardian also prominently features online, is frequently shared, and is regarded quite highly as a general book page. Think of the exposure a book reviewed in the NYT or The Guardian has as compared to a book reviewed in a niche journal - the impact of widespread publicity is huge. That The Guardian is still reviewing and featuring so few women writers in translation in their pages is deeply disappointing.

I next looked at two of the major "niche" literature in translation journals, Words Without Borders (which I had checked in 2016) and World Literature Today. While neither journal has quite the reach of a site like The Guardian, they nonetheless have tremendous influence within certain spheres and represent a lot of the brilliant content related to literature in translation. Here, I was pleasantly surprised by review rates. While Words Without Borders does not publish nearly as many reviews as it does original translations or excerpts, it is still a commanding voice when it comes to literature in translation and perhaps the first resource that most readers think of when seeking voices in translation. That their reviews are solidly split between women and men writers is absolutely thrilling, particularly in light of their mediocre rates in 2016. WWB have long supported the women in translation movement and this support is not simply words, as is evidenced both by the numbers and the improvement over time. They have made an active effort to seek out women writers from all over the world, publish them at equal rate as men writers, and, it would appear, also review them at equal rates. This is wonderful.

World Literature Today, meanwhile, (which has significantly more reviews over the same one-year period) is a more complicated situation. 36% is the frustrating zone of "I see that you're slightly better than average, but is this really all I'll settle for?", where ultimately - this is still not a great rate, but it's just a teensy bit better than the industry standard of 30%. It's where WWB was two years ago. With a stunning 83 reviews over a one-year period (significantly more than any other review outlet I examined), WLT has tremendous potential to shift the focus to a more balanced playing field and give exposure to dozens of women writers in translation. I hope they improve on this matter in the future, following in WWB's footsteps.

The next tier was popular online reviews, sites clearly associated with literature in translation that also publish reviews, again ones that I had looked at in 2016. Here, neither result is particularly thrilling. Three Percent is the blog-arm of publisher Open Letter (and where I get all the amazing raw data for my publishing stat posts!), which itself publishes a fair amount of women in translation (but has never reached 50% in a single year I've counted, always clocking in somewhere between 30-40%). The dissonance between a blog praised for its role in the women in translation movement (by virtue of their database, and I'll admit that having gender added has made my life significantly easier than back in 2013 when I went through title by title and added author genders myself!) and a 17% rate of review of books by women writers in translation is jarring, and it should be, especially since that number reflects a significant drop from 2016's 31%. It indicates an additional gender bias beyond the publishing imbalance, one that I do not think reflects well on any publication or review.

And then again, we have a flip: Asymptote, which had a 22% rate in 2016, has now moderately improved that rate to 29%. Neither rate is particularly good, of course, and again there's this significant conceptual gap between how Asymptote present themselves in terms of the women in translation project and how they actually review books.

Finally, I took to Twitter to ask for recommendations of literary journals that review international titles. I ultimately chose three journals for my assessment (again, mostly based on scope, comfort, and accessibility): Latin American Literature Today, Literary Review, and Reading in Translation. None of the three presented with particularly thrilling rates of review, again serving as a disappointing reminder that the bias against women writers in translation (or women writers in languages other than English, more accurately) is pervasive and widespread. It's not a few bad apples; the entire orchard is tilted.

I won't pretend that I'm not largely disappointed by rates that I see. Words Without Borders is a thrilling exception, but it should not be an exception. Having parity is not an unreasonable demand, nor is expecting literary journals to more carefully curate which books they promote. Considering the degree of unknown books I encountered in the last three entries (particularly the Literary Review, which included a lot of nonfiction) and how dominated literature in translation is by independent presses, this is not simply the fault of pushy marketing executives at corporate publishers. Every review we write is a choice of a single book out of hundreds published each year, and journals may choose whether they review significantly more works by men writers than by women. It may not be easy, but one simply has to look at WWB to see how it's done - no fuss, no issue, no grandstanding. Just interesting, thoughtful, and insightful reviews of books by women writers at equal rates as men writers. It's that easy.

Raw data

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