It’s Time for a More Inclusive Book Review

For more than a few years now, America’s literary community has been talking about the the gender imbalances that take place in mainstream book reviewing. Each year, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts compiles the data to show that male writers are still getting reviewed disproportionately in comparison to women writers; each year, the mainstream media sniffs at the so-called bean-counting approach to literary criticism and attempts to turn its deficiencies into strengths by claiming they’re focused on the books that “really will endure,” as former New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus put it.

New York TImes Book Review, Authors Reviewed 2010-2012

I’ve talked about this a lot over the years. I’ve even described how, as a reviewer, I’ve fallen into the same traps despite my best efforts when I’m writing about books here or for other outlets. And the gender gap is only part of the problem: Though it’s gotten less media attention, some critics have pointed out that, if we look at the ethnic backgrounds of the writers getting reviewed by the mainstream press, it’s an awfully white looking field. So, after all this time spent clamoring for change and not seeing it, I began asking myself: What do I want to do about this?

Here’s what I came up with.

The mainstream media clearly isn’t going to fix itself. So I’ve decided to prove that the type of inclusive coverage they’re so vigorously resisting will produce literary criticism as good as what they’re doing—maybe even better, although that’s for readers to judge.

I’m partnering with a new online media site called Beacon to create a book review column with a conscious agenda of upending the gender rations of mainstream literary coverage. It’s not just going to be closer to 50-50 women and men; it’s probably going to feature more women writers. And, inspired by the model MSNBC host Chris Hayes uses to book guests for his show, I’ll also pay deliberate attention to covering writers of diverse ethnicities and sexual identities. The intended result, as I’ve been explaining it in conversations over the last week, is that with every 100 writers featured in my column, you might see 20 white men… 25 at most.

I know the criticisms that will be raised against this approach. Two years ago, a staffer at The New Republic (not coincidentally home to one of the most imbalanced book review sections) deflected criticism by declaring, “Literary criticism can’t fall victim to numbers games. A review section should be a well-rounded meritocracy.” The obvious rejoinder is that review sections at TNR and elsewhere aren’t anywhere near as well-rounded as they could be, and if it takes deliberately, consciously keeping in the forefront of our minds the possibility that somebody besides a white man might write a book worth discussing and sharing with others, so be it.

New Republic, Authors Reviewed 2010-2012

You see, I’m not interested in “fiction that really will endure.” I don’t even pretend to know what that is. What I’m interested in is books that have something interesting to say to me right now—ideally, not something that’s going to reinforce cultural biases that have guided mainstream literary criticism for years. I want to discover new writers, new voices… and I know I’m not the only one who feels that way.

Let me tell you a bit about how it’s going to work. Beacon is a subscription-based website, but it’s one where you get to choose which writer you’re directly supporting. When you sign up (for $5/month), you’re saying, for example, “I want to support this book review column,” but you’re getting access to everything else they publish along with my reviews—and there’s a lot of great writing there, on a lot of important issues. My plan is to start out biweekly; if the support from readers is strong enough, I’ll start moving it up closer to weekly. (If the support is really strong, I’ve got even more ideas about what I’d like to do.)

As a “proof of concept,” to demonstrate that the audience for this more inclusive literary criticism exists, Beacon and I are looking for 200 readers. You can try it out for two weeks and then cancel if you’re not satisfied, or you can sign up for as much as a year in advance. (Or just a month! That’s fine, too!)

I’m in the middle of my first column now, and aiming to post it soon; in the meantime, though, if you want an idea of what sort of book reviewing you’d be getting for your $5 each month, see what I’ve written about Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni or Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow.

I know there are far more than 200 people who care about the state of contemporary book reviewing, though. People who want to read book coverage that’s more diverse, more inclusive than what they’re getting now. And I firmly believe that mainstream media outlets could deliver that coverage if they applied themselves to the task—but since that’s not happening, I’m ready to step up to the plate. I hope you’ll join me. I look forward to sharing the books I discover with you.


20 January 2014 | uncategorized |