Friday, September 24, 2010

Women, Men, Reading, and Publishing

About a month ago Jodi Picoult got mad about Jonathan Franzen being fawned over and blamed The New York Times for giving a disproportionate number of reviews to "white male literary darlings." This prompted The New Republic to look at the numbers, and they discovered that 62% of NYT reviews were for books by men, and of the books that got two reviews, 72% were by men. I don't read NYT reviews, but I did notice a disparity at The Complete Review when I went to look for Zadie Smith and found that they had none of her three novels. After the NYT controversy, The Complete Review looked at their review choices and were disturbed to find only one in eight of the books they review are by women. That means 88% of the books they review are by men. From a sample of other publications, they came up with these statistics:

15% of books reviewed in The London Review of Books are by women.
18% of books reviewed in the New York Review of Books are by women.
30% of books reviewed in the New York Times Book Review are by women.
25% of books reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement are by women.

The question everyone asks is this: are there simply more books by men? If the percentage of books published by men is the same as the percentage of reviews men get, then the review choices are fair and publications like the NYT are off the hook. But nobody knows how many books are published by men versus women. So nobody knows whether or not it is valid to ask the question that logically follows: why men are so much more likely to get published than women?

I bring all this up because of an article in Publisher's Weekly that asks whether the disproportionate number of women working in the publishing industry is the reason men aren't reading as much as women. If the majority of the people greenlighting books are women, are they going to accidentally publish more books that appeal to women? And is that why men don't buy as many books? Former editor Jason Pinter thinks this is the case, and makes his argument in an article in the Huffington Post: "Nobody can deny the fact that most editorial meetings tend to be dominated by women. Saying the ratio is 75/25 is not overstating things. So needless to say when a male editor pitches a book aimed at men, there are perilously few men to read it and give their opinions."

Here is what confuses me: whether or not more men get published than women, it is a verifiable fact that a vastly higher percentage of men get more attention for their books than women. This does not suggest to me that men are being underrepresented in the publishing industry. If men aren't reading, it's not because there's nothing for them to read. There may be a myriad of gender-related factors to explain why men think there's nothing for them to read, and some of the blame may fall on marketing departments, but it isn't true that women are standing between men and books. Sure, if more books were marketed specifically to men, men would buy more books, but you can easily turn that around: if men bought more books, more books would be marketed to them. The problem is not one-sided.

Something about this debate is ugly, and I think it's the implication that women are unable to look past the fact that they're women. And that men are by nature fair-minded. It is as if publishing would be better off if it were run by men, because men would be able to recognize a potential big seller no matter who wrote it. Women, of course, will be unable to fathom what market there could possibly be for a book about, for example, pro wrestling, because all that estrogen clouds their judgment and they can only respond to warm, fuzzy books about feelings. That's complete nonsense. All editors realize they have to go where the money is. And the money, statistically, is with women. It's a matter of business, not gender. No one is going to publish a book that won't sell out of the goodness of his or her heart. There's only one conspiracy in the publishing world, and it isn't a secret: they want to make money.

I sincerely doubt Jason Pinter intended to insult women with these implications. They probably didn't even occur to him, which makes me question how well he thought this through. If you're going to impugn the ability of an entire gender to do a specific job, you need to have more than one anecdote and unsubstantiated conventional wisdom to back you up. It may not even be true that men don't read as much. Yes, they make up less than half of fiction sales (45% -- hardly a dismal number), but do they use libraries more? Does anyone know? Has anyone asked? Also, is it possible that men, believing for some inconceivable reason that reading is girly, underreport their own behavior? Is there no other explanation for men's reading habits than the interference of women? I am automatically skeptical when a man blames a frustration he has about his own gender on women, and doubly so when the only available facts suggest he's wrong. If, in the billion books available to us all, any voices are being marginalized, it is emphatically not first-world, English-speaking men.

The articles I referred to are:
The New Republic: The READ: The Franzen Fallout
The Complete Review: How Sexist Are We?
Publisher's Weekly: Where the Boys Are Not
Huffington Post: Why Men Don't Read: How Publishing is Alienating Half the Population

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