For the past three years, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts has been conducting a count of how many of the books reviewed by prominent publications were written by women and by men, and how many of the book reviews were assigned to female and male reviewers. The lopsided results have helped begin a conversation about gender bias in the literary world.
This past Wednesday, May 29, 2013, that conversation took the form of a panel discussion at the Center for Fiction in midtown Manhattan hosted by the National Book Critics Circlewhose annual meeting was held in the same building earlier that afternoon (and of which this examiner is a voting member). The panelists provided anecdotal accounts that support the findings of the Vida count: women authors are under-reviewed at major publications where women book critics are still a minority of book reviewers.
One of the panelists, New York Magazine's recently hired book critic Kathryn Schulz, did a count of her male predecessor Sam Anderson's book reviews and found that his reviews of books by male authors outnumbered his reviews by female authors 8 to 1. She then did a count of her own reviews and found that her ratio was 4 to 3, still favoring authors who are men.
Of the fifty or so book reviews this examiner has published (mainly on New York Journal of Books) books by men outnumber those by women 3 to 2. In my own defense I will point out that the few books I have panned and criticized most harshly have all been by men. Going forward I will make more of an effort to find women authors whose work I enjoy.
Overall there are a roughly equal number of books published by men and women authors, but the numbers vary by genre: male authors predominate in non-fiction, women authors predominate in children's literature and are also a majority of authors of poetry books, and the genders are about equal in adult fiction.
Another panelist, New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul, pointed out that when that publication wants to draw attention to a particular book and indicate its significance the review is always assigned to a reviewer whose gender is the opposite of the author.
The sole male panelist, Tin House editor and co-founder Rob Spillman, quoted statistics that show he takes the Vida count seriously and in the past three years has achieved gender parity among the authors reviewed by his magazine as well as among its reviewers. Unfortunately Tin House appears to be in the minority among periodicals that review books.
Mr. Spillman also noted that male writers handle rejection better than female writers. He said that even if encouraging words requesting a writer's next piece of writing are added to a rejection letter women writers will not submit to that publication again, whereas men will send in more work no matter how emphatic and negative the tone of the rejection letter.