Why Literary Mags Review Three Times More Male Writers Than Female

A bunch of pie charts posted last week at the website of Vida: Women in Literary Arts has been causing quite a stir. They visually show the extraordinary gender disparity when it comes to books reviewed in the established print media, whether it be newspapers or literary magazines.

Here's a sampling of the ratios of male to female authors reviewed during 2010:

Books Reviewed Authored by:
Men
Women
The Atlantic
74%
26%
Harpers
79%
21%
London Review of Books
74%
26%
New York Review of Books
84%
16%
The Times Literary Supplement
76%
24%
The NY Times Book Review
65%
35%

In short, the ratio of female authors reviewed was at best about one-third, and at worst less than a quarter!

In the days following this post, people (well, let's be honest, women) have been wringing their hands and wondering how, in the second decade of the 21st century, there could still be such a huge disparity. Could it be the fact that, as Vida's analysis shows, the majority (in some cases substantial majority) of reviewers writing for these newspapers and magazines, are men and the editors are usually male as well?

Perhaps that's a part of it, but there's a more fundamental factor in play, as illustrated by Ruth Franklin's lucid blog in The New Republic. After reading the Vida article, Ruth and her team feverishly paged through the Fall 2010 catalogs of "13 publishing houses, big and small" (and that's a lot of catalogs as the larger publishing houses each have a dozen or more imprints which each have their own catalog). First they discarded books that were unlikely to get reviewed (cookbooks, self-help and the like), then they tallied up the number of male versus female authors.

The results were, frankly, stunning:

The only catalog to come close to gender parity was Riverhead (a Penguin imprint) with a ratio of 55:45 in favor of men. After that it was, as Ruth so aptly puts it, all downhill - Random House, Norton, Little Brown and Harper came in at about one-third female; the rest of the publishers' catalogs had 25% or less female representation; and that wasn't just among the big publishers, the boutique presses were, in many cases, even more extreme, such as Graywolf (25% female), Melville House (20% female) and Dalkey Press (10%).

So, the answer to why so few books by women are reviewed in the literary media appears to be, at least in part, a result of the simple fact that far fewer "literary" books written by women are published than those written by men.

And why would that be one asks?

Ruth Franklin proposes that the bias might set in with the literary journals, such as Tin House, Granta and The Paris Review. To quote her, "For many fiction writers and poets, publishing in literary journals is a first step to getting a book contract. Do women submit work to these magazines at a lower rate than men, or are men's submissions more likely to get accepted?" Meanwhile, Robin Romm, writing at Double X, is ready to get off the fence and do some finger pointing at the predomantly male gatekeepers, who she suggests are "more likely to see their own concerns in men's writing."

So, what of BookBrowse? With some trepidation, I pulled up our own author list for 2010 and early 2011 and started counting. We were running neck and neck through the As with the Adams (Foulds, Haslett, Ross) offsetting the Amys (Chua, Clampitt, Greene); for a moment it looked like the Jonathans (Bloom, Lethem, Rabb, Safran Foer, Tropper) and Peters (Ackroyd, Bognanni, Carey, Carlson, May, Murphy, Singer) were going to sway things; but a run of Marys (Beth Keane, McGarry Morris, Sharratt, Wood) and Rebeccas (Goldstein, Skloot, Stott) balanced the scales. And so it went on until I was ready to push the button for the final count.

49% women vs. 51% men.

Alas, if only we'd chosen a couple more Janes in place of a James, replaced a Gerald with a Geraldine or two, we could have reached gender equality. But that's not what BookBrowse is about - we don't consciously quota - never have, never will - not just when it comes to the split of genders reviewed but in terms of every other criteria, including genres and author ethnicity. Our only criteria is that a book stands out as "best in class". Perhaps it's a natural bias of our all female editorial staff and 80% female review team that has led us to inadvertently balance the sexes against the odds; but, whatever the reason, if you're looking for a place to find out about great books by great authors, irrespective of their gender, may I recommend BookBrowse is the place to be!

What would a pie chart of your reading list look like?


--- Davina Morgan-Witts, BookBrowse editor

Now in my 6th decade of life,I deliberately choose women writers. I am able to find plenty of reading,regardless of the publishing world's bias!
# Posted By Mary | 2/12/11 12:12 PM
I am shocked by your story, as I thought quite the opposite: that more women than men were being published nowadays. That view is doubly embarassing since it reveals my lack of attention and poor reading habits. Anyway, I thank you for your observation and encourage you to keep Bookbrowse as equal as possible.
# Posted By Michael LIttle | 2/13/11 6:45 AM
That was a shocking statistic indeed in the literary magazine world. However, I'm delighted to know that BookBrowse has a much fairer "pie chart" than those "other chaps". I like the idea of doing one for my own reading list. Thanks for the idea.
# Posted By Thérèse | 2/14/11 10:15 PM
I read 47 books last year, 36 of which were written by women. I don't think about authors much when choosing a book, just subject matter but I read a lot of Historical Fiction and that it is a genre that seems to have a lot of women writers.
# Posted By Ladyslott | 2/17/11 8:00 PM
It's not a new thing unfortunately. I subscribed to Granta for years (from the mid-80s until about 2000), and wrote to the editor at least twice during that time about the huge disparity between male and female contributors. It wasn't at all unusual to have an issue with only one or two women out of 20-25 contributors, and this imbalance persisted through editor changes. It was particularly galling to read mediocre stuff by men there, when I was discovering incredible new female writers without Granta's help. It was one significant reason why I unsubscribed.

I read 63 books last year, of which 36 were by women.
# Posted By Veronica | 3/18/11 6:55 AM
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