Last week, I posted about authors Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner and their reactions to fellow writer Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Freedom. They weren’t just rankled that Franzen was lauded on the cover of Time magazine as a “Great American Novelist.” Or even that fact that it made headlines when President Obama snagged an advance copy. Picoult and Weiner were upset that The New York Times Book Review had reviewed Freedom twice in one week.
“Is anyone shocked?” Picoult tweeted. “Would love to see the Times write about authors who aren’t white male literary darlings.” There was a hell of a lot of fallout from this, which, frankly, would be quite lengthy explain; I suggest you read NYmag.com’s thorough recap if this whole story interests you. In any case, while I personally shared Picoult and Weiner’s opinion that female writers are revered less in general from the get-go, as of today there is now hard data to back up their complaint against the Times Book Review.Slate, an online magazine, has done an old-fashioned, counting-by-hand study of The New York Times Book Review and the numbers speak for themselves. Of the 545 fiction books reviewed between June 29, 2008 and Aug. 27, 2010, 338 were written by men (or 62 percent of the total) and 207 were written by women (or 38 percent of the total). Of the 101 fiction books that received two reviews in that period (one in the newspaper during the week and one in the weekend’s Book Review), 72 were written by men (or 71 percent) and 29 were written by women (or 29 percent).
So, when Picoult tweeted, “If you’re the NYT, for every [Edwidge] Dandicat/ [Juno] Diaz, there are ten [Jonathan] Lethems and Franzens,” she was not actually correct. For every one Edwidge Dandicat (a female writer), there are one-and-a-half Jonathan Frazens.
Of course, the essential piece of data is how many fiction books are published each week/month/year by men versus women. (You would also have to factor in how many fiction books are co-written by both men and women, as well as fiction books which are written anonymously.) That piece of data is damn near impossible to find. A commenter on the Slate piece searched the last 50 fiction books published and said the gender disparity he found matches Slate’s data — i.e., arguing the Book Review is not favoring anyone. But how do you account for books sold by really small publishing houses or university presses which don’t sell their fiction on Amazon? You can gauge the number, but to only consider figures from Amazon.com — which I love and use to buy some of my own books — is certainly not painting a complete picture.
I particularly appreciate the Slate’s analysis of the data. Sexism in book publishing and literary culture can take a lot of forms. Slate realizes that the cold, hard numbers of women being reviewed less and the respect afforded to female writers (i.e., labeling fiction written by women as “chick lit”) are intertwined problems, but they are two separate problems. Slate’s DoubleX staff writes:
“As far as we can tell, [Picoult and Weiner] were not complaining about the disparity of reviews allotted to all fiction writers but to the ones that fall in a hazy space somewhere between literary and commercial. ‘I don’t write literary fiction,’ Weiner explains in an interview. ‘I write books that are entertaining, but are also, I hope, well-constructed and thoughtful and funny and have things to say about men and women and families and children and life in America today. Do I think I should be getting all of the attention that Jonathan ‘Genius’ Franzen gets? Nope. Would I like to be taken at least as seriously as a Jonathan Tropper or a Nick Hornby? Absolutely.’”
Hey, fellow lady writers, wouldn’t we all?