Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Women Writers and the New York Times Book Review

"Women in Power," New York Times Book Review, Sunday, 12 October 2014

Today's "Special Issue" of the Times Book Review is, as its title proclaims, "special": "special," in this case, meaning that it focuses on books by women. The "Fiction" section looks at one novel by a woman, Caitlin Moran's How to Build a Girl, reviewed by Anne Friedman, and includes the "Shortlist," reviewer Meghan Daum's quick view of three novels by women, Rebecca Makkai's The Hundred Year House, Susan Croll's The Stager, and Margaret Bradham Thornton's Charleston.

The "Nonfiction" reviews also feature works by women, including, among them, Katha Pollitt's Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights and Joan Biskupic's Breaking In: The Rise of Sonia Sotomayor and the Politics of Justice, as well as Jonathan Eig's book on "women's" issues, The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution (in addition to Margaret Sanger, Eig's "four crusaders" include Gregory Goodwin Pincus, John Rock, and Katharine McCormick). There is also an interesting "Author's Note" by Alexander Chee, "Gender Genre," responding to several recent calls to "read more women this year." Chee writes, "In 1988, at the age of 20, I stopped reading men and read only women for a period that lasted almost three years." These days it evidently takes a hashtag to encourage readers to read women writers?*  

Not that this effort to highlight books by women is problematic. Who would complain? But why do we need #Readwomen2014 or a "special" issue? Why can't reading work by women be normal, regular, routine, the way things are and should be? This week's NYT fiction bestseller list ("Hard Cover Best Sellers"), for example, includes 8 books by women writers among the top 15. The nonfiction list is less balanced, with 10 books by men, 3 by women, and 3 coauthored by a pair of writers, one man and one woman. (Books by Joan Rivers and Hampton Sides are tied for the fifteenth spot.) So why does writing about women's work require a "special" issue? Why do we have to enlist Twitter to normalize reading books by women? 

It's not that readers, male and female, aren't reading books by women. It's that their work still isn't being reviewed adequately and sufficiently, and that women still aren't afforded enough opportunities for reviewing the work of others, work written by men as well as other women. As the latest VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts count illustrates, women are making some, but not enough, progress:
Each year women from across the country dedicate thousands of combined hours to perform an arduous task: we manually, painstakingly tally the gender disparity in major literary publications and book reviews.We break down thirty-nine literary journals and well-respected periodicals, counting genre, book reviewers, books reviewed, and journalistic bylines to offer an accurate assessment of the publishing world.
We were not surprised to find that men dominate the pages of venues that are known to further one’s career.
The VIDA Count, annual since 2010, has not only effected change in the publishing industry, but has also created a strong community of writers and advocates who stand with us. There is much more work to be done.
With our annual VIDA Count we offer up concrete data and assure women authors (and wayward editors) that the sloped playing field is not going unnoticed. We ignite and fan the flames of necessary discourse. Our literary community can only benefit from a range of voices.**
VIDA notes that the Times gender disparities have "significantly" improved in its latest count, but there is still quite a way to go:

From the 2014 VIDA Count

A weekly Book Review issue that pays attention to women writers and that affords women writers the opportunity to review the work of others should be normal, not "special."

*Update, 12 October 2015: And now even the hashtag is dead!!!

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