THE BLOG
11/10/2010 02:37 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why Book Review Equality Matters

The first time I looked for a job, Help Wanted was divided into three sections: Men, Women, and General. If memory serves me (I doubt it) men's jobs were the professional ones, women's were the handmaiden ones, and general included dishwashers and drivers.

Trust me, the career paths were separate and not equal.

I remembered these separations when I read about microinequity and micro-affirmation, terms coined by Mary Rowe, who defined micro-inequities as" apparently small events which are often ephemeral and hard-to-prove, events which are covert, often unintentional, frequently unrecognized by the perpetrator, which occur wherever people are perceived to be 'different.'"

A micro-affirmation, in Rowe's writing, is the reverse. "Micro-affirmations are subtle or apparently small acknowledgements of a person's value and accomplishments... They may lead to greater self-esteem and improved performance."

On the front page of Sunday's Boston Globe, is an article entitled: "About-face at Harvard: A push is on to make the portraits on the walls -- white men, almost all -- reflect the diverse face of the university today," Tracy Jan reports: "We simply wish to place portraits of persons of color and others who've served Harvard among the panoply of portraits that already exists,'' Counter said. "We will not displace any portrait, just simply add to them.''

A micro-affirmation of great proportions.

In the same paper are four full reviews of books by men, no full reviews of books by women. ("Short Takes," a column of brief reviews covered two books by women and one by a man.) Monday through Saturday, during the past three weeks, there were 17 reviews of books by men and one review of a book by a woman.

Last weekend, when I mention this on Facebook, a friend asked "but how many books by men vs. women are published?" I'd love to know and spent many hours looking, but I wonder if the Q&A begets a chicken-egg quandary. Additionally, there's questions of equality in marketing, book covers, etc -- a topic well covered by Lionel Shriver (winner of the 2005 Orange Prize and a finalist for the 2010 National Book Awards) in The Guardian UK.

Writing this post terrifies. I've had fair shakes from all media -- great reviews and mentions in The Boston Globe, The New York Times, and NPR, which I write about below. They're my beloved news sources. I've subscribed for enough years to buy a shiny new car. The last thing in the world I want is to bite the hand... but I have two daughters and a tiny granddaughter.

Women writing about reviews can count on eye-rolling responses implying one's tediousness, wild assertions that women run publishing, and responses like, "Unfortunately, what gets lost in this smokescreen is the more important (and dangerously tricky) question of, 'Why isn't there more serious literary fiction being published by women?'" by bloggers such as The Grumbler who perhaps believe women don't deserve serious media coverage.

Thankfully, there is hope, such as The Economist's sharp look at this question, noting how reviews written will translate to books read, writing, "All readers are gently trained to empathize with white male narrators."

Female writers whisper about review numbers, but we're terrified to go public, easily imagining the scenario that could result: "Oh, so you want a review, do you?" asks Important Editor after hearing your whining. "Fine. Here's your review. Read it and weep."

Do I believe an editor would be that crass? No, but there's ingrained fear about not being a good girl. About being called a jealous harpy. When Jennifer Weiner and Jodie Picoult talked about this ugly accusations resulted. Their talent was denigrated, and they're best-selling authors. Why would any woman want to go there? Why do I?

Would it help if men spoke up? Does it matter? Does it matter that in 2009, Publishers Weekly didn't include a single woman in their list of the Top 10 Books of 2009?

Carolyn Kellog writing in the LA Times about Dick Meyer's NPR list of 100 Best Books of the Twentieth Century (a list that included only 7 books written by women) quotes him saying, "My taste is probably medium-brow, male and parochial in many ways. Tough. It's my list." In response, Kellog asks, "but it begs the question: can one imagine a female writing for NPR having a nearly all female Best Books List?"

According to NPR:

As NPR's executive editor, Dick Meyer shapes and oversees NPR's worldwide news operation on-air and online. Meyer plays a critical role in integrating NPR's on-air sound with its dynamic and growing online and mobile platforms, and in fostering the organization's distinctive storytelling and enterprise reporting.

His opinion matters.

Julianna Baggot captured it in the Washington Post, "So how do we strip away our prejudice? First, we have to see prejudice. The top prizes' discrimination against women has been largely ignored. We can't ignore it any longer."

Some not only ignore it, they deny it. Slate.com wrote: "The bookish blogosphere continues to debate whether the New York Times -- and, by extension, other cultural gatekeepers -- really does give white male fiction writers preferential coverage over authors of the distaff and ethnic variety."

In 2002, the Complete Review of Books admirably berated themselves for their miserable coverage of books written by women authors at 12.61 percent. During that same period, they examined the track record of major literary papers of record, where they found a low of 15 percent by the London Review of Books and a high of 30 percent by the New York Times Book Review.

If women's books aren't reviewed, when women's books are declared "less literary, and when women's books on family are declared women's fiction, while men's domestic books are declared brave and eye-opening, it adds many pounds to the micro-inequality pile.

Do we care enough to fight?

People in power rarely give it up voluntarily; sometimes they don't even recognize it, so we need to join brave authors like Julianna Baggot, Jennifer Weiner, Jodi Picoult, and Lionel Shriver. We need to tell ourselves and ask the men who are our friends, who are the fathers of daughters and father of sons who will marry daughters, that it's time we leave micro-indignity behind and remember how the men and women each hold up half the sky.