In 2012, 79.8 percent of the authors of books chosen for review in the New York Review of Books—and the critics tapped to review them—were men. “We certainly hope to publish more women writers,” editor Robert Silvers insisted last year. Now, Silvers has made good on his promise: In 2013, the review featured exactly one more woman than it did in 2012, bringing its percentage of male authors and reviewers down to 79.5 percent.
Every year, VIDA—an organization established in 2009 to assess the status of women in the literary arts—counts up the men and women who have been featured as authors and reviewers in major literary magazines, then bakes them into pie charts to offer a quick glimpse of the gender split. According to its 2013 VIDA count, released today, the New York Review of Books is the manliest journal around, but the London Review of Books and the New Republic are following close behind, tying at 78.5 percent male. McSweeney’s clocks in at 76.8 percent male, Harper's at 74 percent, and the Times Literary Supplement at 73 percent.
Since VIDA started pestering literary publications with its counting in 2009, editors have proffered one dominant explanation for their male dominance. Times Literary Supplement editor Peter Stothard said that his organization’s imbalance reflected that of the “authorship of published books,” and that "The TLS is only interested in getting the best reviews of the most important books," not in “making a fetish of having 50/50 contributors.” Granta editor John Freeman put it this way: “We have to ask a deeper question, which is how gendered are our notions of storytelling?” In 2011, the New Republic’s Ruth Franklin responded to VIDA’s 2010 count by publishing her own brief tally of the gender breakdown in books published that year. After inspecting the fall 2010 catalogs from 13 publishing houses, she found that Penguin imprint Riverhead was the most equitable, with 55 percent of its books written by men, but other major publishing houses favored men by 70 and 80 percent. Just 15 percent of the books published by Harvard University Press were written by women. And independent houses scored even worse—Graywolf published the most women, at 25 percent; Dalkey Archive Press topped out at 10 percent female.
So the men in charge of literary coverage make a compelling argument: You can’t review books that women don’t publish. Look at the literary journals that VIDA found to be the most gender equitable, and you’ll notice that they just don’t review that many books in a given year. Ninth Letter, a journal published out of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, featured 62.5 percent female authors and reviewers last year, but that’s out of 64 people total. N+1 featured 17 women and 16 men in 2013. The Gettysburg Review, Conjunctions, the Paris Review, Tin House, and Callaloo also received high marks by keeping their total counts low. (Though not included in VIDA's official count, the Slate Book Review last year published 70 pieces by men and 58 by women.) Meanwhile, the New York Review of Books featured a total of 800 writers last year. The New Yorker featured 808, the New Republic featured 462, and the Times Literary Supplement featured 2,951. Maintaining gender equity in your book reviews is easier if you can pick and choose a small number to feature out of the thousands of books released every year. It’s harder when you aim to review more than 2,000 of them. When the New York Review of Books’ Silvers admitted that he hopes to publish more women in the future, he also pointed out that his publication functionally highlights the work of more female authors and reviewers than these gender equitable outlets do. He just highlights a lot more men, too.
There’s just one wrinkle in the supply argument, and it is the New York Times Book Review. Last year, incoming editor Pamela Paul pledged to feature “a diversity of author backgrounds and ideologies and arguments, a diversity of genre, a diversity of subject matter” in the review. And last year, the book review published 725 women and 894 men, bringing its male dominance to a slight 55 percent. It did that by publishing more books by female authors than its peers do, but it also did it by focusing on hiring female critics to review them—one aspect of the process that can’t be explained away by the habits of publishing houses. Meanwhile, McSweeney’s featured a total of just 56 authors and reviewers in 2013, and still couldn’t manage to make a quarter of them women. What's its excuse?