The effusive welcome for Jonathan Franzen's Freedom has triggered a debate over gender issues in book reviewing, which has in turn inspired some number crunching. As Slate's book editor, I realized I had little idea how Slate itself would measure up. To set the stage for comparison, here is a quick recap of other outlets: A DoubleX inventory of the New York Times' reviews of fiction over the past two years revealed that books by women amounted to 38 percent of the total. Of the fiction that got both a Sunday and a weekday review, 29 percent was by women. In a "XX Factor" post, Erin Belieu reported that over the past seven months the New Republic has published 160 men and 32 women "in the categories of nonfiction, poetry, and book reviews."
Since I haven't been a bean-counter, I dug into the archives of pieces under Slate's "Books" rubric in suspense. Between Jan. 1, 2009, and Sept. 6, 2010, Slateran 34 reviews of fiction under the "Books" rubric. Nine of them were of books by women (I'm squeezing in Agatha Christie's journals), for 26.5 percent of the total.
I was curious about the overall gender breakdown, taking nonfiction into account as well. Surveying the authors of all the books we've reviewed so far since the start of 2009, I found that 76 of them were men and 38—or one third—of them were women. In 2010, I found that 33 of them were men and 19—or 36.5 percent—were women. In 2009, 45 were men and 19—or 29.6 percent—were women. I also decided to look at the gender of reviewers while I was at it. Out of a total of 105 reviewers whose work I published between January 2009 and this September, 41 were women, or 39 percent.
The results looked discouraging—except that the number of pieces we run is small enough that it doesn't take big shifts to bring Slate's coverage closer to parity, or even beyond. And that's exactly what happens when we add in DoubleX's coverage of books, which the editors run by me and I take into account as I assign. We've conferred very closely during the past year since DoubleXwas folded into Slate, but we also consulted regularly during 2009, when Double Xwas a separate site. With DoubleX's contributions, the fiction balance improves somewhat for 2010 (though we're still behind the Times): From January to September, two more novels by women were reviewed under the DoubleX rubric, which boosts the total to seven out of 20, or 35 percent. But step back and consider the past two years of our efforts combined, and the result is much closer to parity. Out of a total of 29 works of fiction covered, 13 were by women, or 44.8%—and we even had our own Dahlia Lithwick writing a whole novel online.
The bigger picture—the overall number of women authors and reviewers, of fiction and nonfiction alike—also looks a whole lot better. Add in DoubleX's book-related pieces for 2009 and 2010 so far, and a grand total of 88 books by men were covered, compared with 72 by women, or 45 percent. As for the gender breakdown of reviewers, it turns out to be a perfectly even split: 80 men and 80 women. (I haven't factored in our various Audio Book Clubs but have included written interviews.)