The Beam in My Own Reading Eye

In the summer of 2010, the New York Times penchant for Great White Male Novelists was a major topic of discussion, spurred by vocal criticism from Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult, among others, of the tendency for the Times to review certain types of writers over other types—men over women in general, but even within the “literary over commercial” framework, when the Times deigned to notice commercial fiction, it was almost overwhelmingly male-written. I’ve written about the Times‘ rebuttal to the data, which was Sam Tanenhaus’s insistence that his section is focused on “that fiction that really will endure,” and why I find that rationale less than compelling; I’ve also written about why I think what types of books get review coverage matters, along with the ways that coverage is handled.

So, in early 2012, Jennifer Weiner decided to look at the Times book coverage for 2011, to see what changes the paper might have made in its handling of women writers. The needle moved slightly; while 38 percent of the fiction covered between July 2008 and August 2010 was written by women, in the 2011 calendar year, women could now claim nearly 41 percent of the coverage. Unfortunately, when it came to the writers upon whom the Times chooses to dwell, designating them as culturally significant by virtue of coverage in both the daily arts section and the Sunday book review magazine plus some sort of profile, only one out of the eleven so blessed was a woman.

(Outside the scope of Jennifer’s analysis, but perhaps worth mentioning: Only one of those writers, Haruki Murakami, was of non-“white” ethnicity.)

The reaction to Jennifer’s statistical breakdown was predictable. Salon wrote a particularly insipid article about how male “midlist” novelists were the real victims—this article was seriously so terrible that I’m not going to give it the benefit of a link; instead, you can read John Scalzi’s explanation of why it’s “the most incoherent piece of enviously fumbly writer spew” he’d seen in some time. Later, when the Huffington Post picked up on Jennifer’s story, an anonymous female staffer at The New Republic used the book section’s Twitter account to accuse Jennifer of “[making] mountains out of molehills” and condescendingly ask if she was calling for “affirmative action” in the book pages. She then went on to declare, “Literary criticism can’t fall victim to numbers games. A review section should be a well-rounded meritocracy.” She further dismissed Jennifer’s statistics as “an anecdotal barometer, [and] not a measure of the state of criticism,” then, when I entered the debate, informed me that “evaluating the numbers is a silly way to get at the complicated business of literary crit.”

My basic point in that back-and-forth, which she first refused to acknowledge and then declared was “a much larger question than I can answer,” was that book critics, like everybody else, have culturally embedded biases which, when left unchecked, tend to reinforce the status quo. In this case, no matter how often prominent figures in the world of literary criticism insist gender plays no role in their decisions about what to review, male writers consistently get the better deal. And we’re not just talking about The New York Times—according to a Boston Phoenix article, NPR’s book coverage is even more imbalanced. As Eugenia Williamson writes:

“The truth is that major publishers put out more books written by men than women. Print publications write more about books written by men. NPR discusses more books written by men. Unsurprisingly, the best seller list is dominated by books written by men: men outnumbered women 25 to 11 on last year’s number-one-best-seller fiction charts. And to be honest, I’m not innocent of this either—in the last calendar year, of the 76 books I wrote about, 42 were by men and only 34 were by women.

Clearly, female novelists have neither the cultural capital nor the financial capital that male novelists do. When will people face up to that? And when will it change?”

Notice that Williamson concedes that she isn’t any better than the Times or NPR at this. And Williamson isn’t just a staff writer at the Phoenix, she’s also a managing editor for The Baffler: someone, in other words, whose liberal credentials are well in order.

Of course, now, the obvious question is, well, what’s your track record, Mr. Hogan?

As it happens, I’d been giving this a lot of thought lately, as I decided to map out my tentative reading choices for the weekly posts I write for the USA Network’s Character Approved writing section. Since the archive listings for this section tend to be accompanied by author headshots, I imagined what that photo gallery would look like as the months progressed. Since the site’s overall mission is to recognize “the people, places and things that are making a mark by positively influencing our cultural landscape,” it’s important to me that the books and writers I feature aren’t just great on their own merits, but that—taken as a whole—they’ll reflect the diversity of American culture (and I’m not just thinking about gender here). I don’t want to limit myself to a literature that simply reinforces my own attitudes and experiences; I want to find books that push me into unfamiliar territory. And I think I’ve done a pretty good job of finding those books for the upcoming months.

When I looked back at 2011, however, I realized that my performance so far had been somewhere between the NPR and Times percentages. How did that happen? Why, despite my intentions, which had already begun to take shape, did I tend to veer towards this book rather than that one? It’s not that I’m picking “the wrong books,” I’m pretty sure of that. If I can jump over to my Shelf Awareness reviews for an example, taking on Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son is a judgment call I don’t question; it’s an extremely well-written novel with a vision of North Korea’s totalitarian society that’s become even more relevant than it already was. But why, before I’d found that out by reading it, did I lean towards this novel rather than, let’s say, Krys Lee’s short story collection, Drifting House? I need to think about things like that as I continue to choose books to review for those outlets, as well as books to feature here.

And I can’t fall back on excuses like “these are the books that publishers send me,” or more broadly “these are the books that get published,” to justify these results, because that’s just lazy; the books are out there, and it’s my job to search for them. And I haven’t given myself the luxury of limiting myself to “fiction that really will endure,” because I’m not reviewing books to perpetuate an aesthetic canon. I like to tell myself that I’m reviewing books to hold a mirror up to contemporary culture—more often than not to celebrate it, true, but in the broadest sense to engage with it. It seems, however, that I may be at risk of holding a mirror up to myself. I say that a truly interesting critic is one who recognizes that his taste is a cultural product that needs to be ruthlessly interrogated, when the truth is that I haven’t been challenging myself as hard as I should have been in that regard. Now that I’ve become conscious of the problem, I can take steps to do something about it, and do it consistently.

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27 January 2012 | theory |