Thursday, February 17, 2011


Recently, VIDA published a set of statistics that makes it horrifyingly clear how underrepresented women are in book reviews and as book reviewers. Everyone who has anything to do with book reviewing right now probably wants to hide under their desk; it's very embarrassing. For example, The New York Review of Books had 239 book reviewers last year, and 200 of them were men. It published 365 reviews, and only 59 of them were of books by women. These numbers are not just a little hinky, they are wildly insane. And they're very similar across the vast majority of book-reviewing publications.

This subject came up a few months ago and I wrote about it then, wondering whether there simply are more books by men, and if so, why? Apparently men do get published more readily (surprise), and the anecdotal concensus is that it's because women don't submit as much work. The anecdotal logic behind the anecdotal concensus is that women are not as aggressive, are more easily discouraged by rejection, or are probably too busy, you know, doing laundry. There's also a whole thing about the perception of what constitutes "real" literature, as in, if it's about lady-problems, or even just from a lady-perspective, maybe it doesn't really matter universally in the way that books by or about men do. Which is a can of worms that makes me too angry to write about coherently so I'll save that for later.

Anyway, I thought before I started criticizing book review editors' decisions, I should look at what I read over the past year and see whether my completely random reading habits led me down the evil path of accidental sexism. AND THEY DID. Mostly. Facts (not scientific):
  • Of the 47 books I read in the past twelve months, only 18 were by women, which is 38%. Since women make up roughly 25% of published authors (last year, anyway), I'm doing better than average. Especially considering that I was making no particular effort to read women.
  • However, I was making a particular effort to read more translations, and I managed to read 13 of those, or 28%. Translated fiction makes up less than 1% of work published in the US annually. So the fact that I read that pathetically low percentage of women while reading that ridiculously high percentage of translations suggests to me that I should pay more attention.
  • But back to the point: Of the 7 authors by whom I read more than one book, 4 were women. (A. S. Byatt, Zadie Smith, Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen, Sigrid Undset.) But, one was a trilogy, so I don't know if that counts.
  • Of the books that stand out as being the best writing, 3 were by women, and 3 were by men. (These were, incidentally, Byatt's Little Black Book of Stories, Heller's Catch-22, Dinesen's Out of Africa, Sayers's Gaudy Night, Gavelis's Vilnius Poker, and Cunningham's The Hours -- I recommend them all except maybe Vilnius Poker, which has to be the most harrowing masterpiece I've ever read.)
  • Women were more likely to have male main characters than men were to have female main characters. (Michael Cunningham was the sole male author with a female main character -- three, in fact -- although David Mitchell had a pretty awesome female ensemble character in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet who carried the narrative for a while.)
  • Women were also more likely to have developed male characters in their ensemble cast than men were to have developed female characters in theirs.
  • Men were 100% more likely to talk about genitals. Men were also 100% more likely to write scenes in which women throw themselves at the main character, to the point that it stretched the limits of my credulity. This was particularly true of translated fiction for some reason, but I'm limiting my generalizations today to men and women; perhaps I will generalize about Europeans and South Americans in another post.
  • On a non-gender-related note, in the past year I've read nothing published earlier than 1920. It is very odd for me to go an entire year without reading a Victorian novel. I had better go read some Brontës lest I forget how to use words like "lest." (I had to go back and change to "Brontës" from "Dickens." You see, you see how it gets in your head that men are the standard? AAAAAUGH.)
In the future I will probably pay more attention to the gender of the writers I read, because that's the only way to be sure that more of what I read is by women. That may not seem sensible, numbers-wise, but I don't think my picture of the world is complete unless everyone is being represented in at least a reasonably fair way. If female writers weren't living in a male-dominated society, and that society weren't being reflected back at them in 75% of the books they read and learned from, maybe more of them would believe it is their duty to submit their work, that the world cannot do without it any better than it could without work by men, and then we'd have more of their work to read, and then we could change what kinds of attitudes would get reflected back at us. And eventually a woman could run for president without her clothing or her emotions being a subject of debate, and the media would stop blaming the victim, and girls would grow up to be scientists, and everyone would stop using the word "woman" as a qualifier in front of words denoting certain professions, and the 2010 VIDA statistics would be so absurd we'd all laugh.

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