Why are there so few women in book criticism?
The VIDA Count — VIDA’s annual tabulation of writers by gender at top magazines — reveals the bias against female critics and authors at top publications, such as Harper’s: in 2012, 90 percent of the book reviewers at that magazine were male. That same year, the outlet reviewed five times as many books by male authors as books by female authors.
So where does this lack of female voices come from, and what can editors and writers do about it?
Several panelists noted that the problem is not overt sexism but rather a tendency for men to overvalue their work and for women to undervalue theirs.
Rob Spillman, founder and editor of the literary magazine Tin House, said that of the authors they solicited, “Men were twice as likely to send me stuff.”
Moreover, women were five times less likely to submit additional work after they had been rejected, whereas “one hundred percent of men will continue to send me something” after receiving a rejection letter, he said.
Pamela Paul, editor of The New York Times Book Review, agreed: “Women are often reluctant to put themselves forward, to have an argument, to state something very strongly unless they feel like they’ve got it down perfectly. Men? Not a problem.”
Kathryn Schulz, book critic for New York magazine, said, “I would like to see women critics taking a little more control over the literary conversation … [to] stake out for ourselves what we think is important and interesting out there.”
Erin Belieu, co-founder of VIDA, said that women are particularly reluctant to enter the conversation due to the personal attacks they receive. “Just simply publishing books, my fitness as a mother has been called into question,” she said. “Really, you’re talking about my kid in a review?”
Despite the elbow-throwing that Belieu mentioned, Schulz encouraged female critics to claim their seats at the table.
Schulz said, “By the time you are old enough to read a chapter book — if you are a little girl — you know how to cross-identify. That goes double if you’re a person of color, and that goes double if you’re queer.”
Therefore, female writers must continue to bring their “imaginative advantage” to the cultural conversation.
And as for female authors struggling to enter the literary landscape, part of the problem lies with book publishers. Author Meg Wolitzer pointed out that publishers sometimes pigeonhole work by female authors as chick lit — a category less likely to land the book in more prestigious magazines and newspapers. “How is my publisher making [my novel] look, who have they gotten to blurb it, and then who is reviewing it?,” she said. “There are nuances within that.”
Wolitzer had mentioned that the majority of the book buying audience is female, which prompted one audience member to ask about female participation on the book recommendations site Goodreads. Though women contribute heartily to Goodreads, Belieu circled back to the VIDA count and the gender byline gap at elite magazines: “The more prestigious the space, the fewer female voices there are.”
Schulz said, “The only real answer here … is a structural answer.”
A fascinating case study is Spillman’s magazine Tin House. In order to close the gender byline gap, he said, “I basically stopped soliciting men. I quadrupled my effort with women.”
As a result, last year’s Tin House contributors featured 56 women and 42 men. Moreover, the quality of the magazine remained as high as ever; the publication received about the same number of nominations for Best American Short Stories, O. Henry awards, and the Pushcart Prize.
Spillman said that editors should take more responsibility in cultivating diverse voices.
“It’s sort of like when you’re a teacher, and you’re facing a room with 25 very smart writers, and there’s always the three or four entitled males who dominate the conversation,” he said. “It’s the quiet people in the back who are the really smart ones. You’ve got to draw them into the conversation.”
Photo by Grace Lichtenstein via NBCC’s Facebook page