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Widening the Gender Gap: A Response to Salon's Laura Miller

Posted: 02/09/11 01:43 PM ET

In an article published February 9 on Salon.com, Laura Miller examines the long-argued notion that women are underrepresented in book criticism -- both in terms of what books are covered, and who covers them, expanding on a piece in The New Republic by Ruth Franklin. Now, I will not argue Miller's thesis. I read a fair amount of book coverage, and for the most part -- especially in notoriously stuffy literary journals -- it seems that the majority of review space and bylines are given to men. My problem with Franklin's original piece and Miller's expansion are where they go from there.

Let's start with how Miller herself promoted the piece. In a tweet posted Wednesday morning, containing a link to her column, Miller said, "Literature's gender gap: Are male readers interested in what women have to say?" Interestingly that line is not used until the eighth paragraph of Miller's actual piece. Which leads me to believe that this controversial, anti-male statement was used as link bait. I have no idea if Miller herself wrote that subtitle (often headlines and subtitles are changed without consent prior to publication). But I'm getting agitated. Let's move on to the meat of the column.

(Ruth) Franklin and her colleagues Eliza Gray and Laura Stampler examined the fall 2010 catalogs from an assortment of book publishers, large and small. They eliminated 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.) and found that one publishing house (Riverhead) could boast that women authors were responsible for 45 percent of its fall list. For most of the rest, women accounted for around 30 percent of the list, with small independent presses turning out to be even more male-heavy than a behemoth like Random House.

This graph boggles my mind. They eliminated female-dominated genres not likely to be reviewed? My guess is romance and other popular fiction were eliminated as well. As I've argued many, many times, the fault here lies with the critical establishment, not with the publishing houses. I guarantee that if you tallied up the total books by gender, it would be far more even. In fact, let's do that.

I picked one publishing catalog at random: the Grand Central Publishing Spring/Summer 2011 catalog. The only books I eliminated were multi-author/multi-gender anthologies and reprints. Out of the 45 original books on the list, the final tally was:

Books by women: 23

Books by men: 22

And that's without taking into account mass market original publications, including romance and romantic suspense, categories dominated by female writers.

Franklin, who was chagrined to find that only 33 percent of the books she reviewed last year were by women, concluded that "magazines are reviewing female authors in something close to the proportion of books by women published each year. The question now becomes why more books by women are not getting published.

Clearly this statement is spoken by someone whose definition of 'books by women published each year' does not include romance and popular fiction. Again, the fault of the critical establishment, not the publishing houses. I'm simply in awe of the selective reasoning of this statement. This is like talking about Fox News and saying, "Take away Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Sarah Palin and Bill O'Reilly, and I just can't understand why they don't showcase more conservative voices."

If women were only -- or even primarily -- interested in books by women, the logic of the marketplace would dictate that publishers should release more titles by female authors.

They do. Walk into any bookstore, check out the new releases table, and you tell me how many books appear to be geared towards women than men. Again, this ridiculous statement is ignoring the hundreds if not thousands of books published every year that won't be reviewed simply because they're not deemed worthy. For some reason, this equates to them not being published at all.

And here's where we have to get anecdotal. There's really no hard data on how many books by male authors are read by women readers and vice versa, nor are we likely to ever see any. But try this: Ask six bookish friends -- three men and three women -- to list their favorite authors or favorite books, without explaining your motivation. Then see how many male authors the women list and whether the men list any female authors at all.

A couple of researchers at Queen Mary College in London did something along these lines in 2005. They asked "100 academics, critics and writers" to discuss the books they'd read most recently. According to the Guardian, "four out of five men said the last novel they read was by a man, whereas women were almost as likely to have read a book by a male author as a female. When asked what novel by a woman they had read most recently, a majority of men found it hard to recall or could not answer.

Maybe the second sentence of the second paragraph explains the problem. Try asking 100 'regular people', not academics, critics or writers, the last book they read. My guess is it's probably not going to jibe with the literati.

Conventional wisdom among professionals in the children's book business is that while girls will read books about either boys or girls, boys only want to read about boys. Could it be that this bias extends into adulthood, with the preference among boys for male characters evolving into the preference among men for male authors? Or it could be that many male readers simply doubt that women have anything interesting to say.

Pardon me while I stomp around in a rage. Ok, done. Boys reading about boys is suddenly a bias? Here's a newsflash: as a child, you relate to kids like you, and books about kids like you. For the most part, boys relate to boys, girls relate to girls. I can think of dozens of books by men that I loved as a child, but not many by women. And you know what? Now I read tons of books by women. I read based on personal taste and critical acclaim, not whether the author has a penis. As you age, your tastes refine, and your breadth of experience, desire for knowledge and innate curiosity expands. I'm not a huge Woody Allen fan. Doesn't mean I'm anti-Semetic.

Once traced back to the tastes of individual readers, the stubborn persistence of this imbalance becomes less mystifying. Editors can be shamed or pressured (temporarily, at least) into evening up the gender split in their bylines and book review sections, and some women have begun calling for subscription cancellation drives and other forms of economic protest after the release of the Vida survey results.

Good for them. I'm all for gender equality in reviewing. But let's get to the real problem: Franklin nailed the issues, only without her even knowing it. When examining publishing catalogs, she eliminated books that likely weren't to be reviewed--and what do you know, the majority of them were 'by' women. Now, I'm not saying cookbooks should be reviewed by the New York Review of Books, but if more popular fiction was treated fairly (as is popular entertainment in literally every other form of media), I'm certain the gap would close, if not shut altogether.

I used to know once defiantly informed me (apropos of nothing we'd been talking about) that he'd never read a Jane Austen novel and had no intention of ever reading one. Deeming him something of a lost cause, I kept my mouth shut, but it was clear he expected me to get indignant, and to scold. Instead, I could only look at him with pity. The loss was entirely his.

Nothing like using an isolated case to indict an entire gender. On behalf of all the men who 'have' read Jane Austen, aside from offering a sincere raspberry, my suggestion is for the critical establishment to considering its own biases before blaming external factors. The notion that publishing -- which is a hugely female-dominated industry -- is not publishing books by or for women is laughable to consider, but sad when considering the obfuscation that must take place to come to that conclusion. Now, I have nothing against Miller herself. After I wrote my HuffPost article about gender in publishing, she was very kind and accommodating and allowed me to clarify some of what she'd written. However, equality in reviewing should extend well beyond gender lines. The fact that it hasn't is far more of an indictment of critics than anything they could posit on other industry factors. And if you look beyond gender lines, my guess is that critical gender gap would close immediately.

JASON PINTER is the bestselling author of five thriller novels (the most recent of which are The Fury and The Darkness), and is an agent with the Waxman Literary Agency. His first novel for young readers, Zeke Bartholomew: Superspy!, will be released in the summer of 2011. Visit him at www.jasonpinter.com or follow him on Twitter.

 
 
 

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