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Most readers are women, yet female writers still dominated by men.

February 7, 2011

A Young Woman Reading, Alexandre-Évariste Fragonard.

In what might be called “the persistence of patriarchy in the most surprising places,” a new study reveals that leading literary publications in the U.S. and the U.K. still review far more books written by men than women. But don’t expect me to apologize to Jodi Picoult or Jennifer Weiner.

That’s because I stand by my reaction (here and here and here) to Weiner and Picoult, bestselling popular novelists who took offense last fall when Jonathan Franzen dominated the book world with his (admittedly over-rated) literary novel Freedom. Picoult and Weiner cried sexism when, in my estimation, they were just peeved their books weren’t getting this kind of attention. Millions of devoted readers, big Hollywood adaptations and, you know, great gobs of money weren’t enough. They want literary approval, too.

Nonetheless, I will concede they right about one thing: Women writers get short shrift. Really, I can do nothing else in the face of this report in the Guardian, which quantifies gender bias: In the London Review of Books, for example, 74 percent of the books reviewed were written by men, while men wrote 78 percent of the reviews.

Woman Reading, Alexander Deineka.

In the (London) Times Literary Supplement 75 percent of the book were by men, while 72 percent of the reviewers were men. In the U.S., men wrote 83 percent of the books reviewed by the New York Review of Books, where 83 percent of the reviewers were also men. At The New York Times Book Review the numbers were slightly less embarrassing, with 65 percent of the books by male authors and 60 percent of the

Woman Reading Mujer Leyendo, Fernando Botero.


The single most amazing thing to me is that the worst offender — The New York Review of Books — is  decidedly liberal publication. While the New York Times in general is not nearly as liberal as its detractors like to pretend (anyone remember Judith Miller? She writes for the right-wing news site Newsmax now), it is certainly nobody’s idea of a conservative publication.

So if liberal journals like this can’t yet get anywhere close to gender equity,  nearly 50 years after Betty Frieden launched the modern women’s movement, then what the hell is going on?

At first I had a twinge of skepticism. The study quoted by the Guardian was funded by an outfit called Vida, described as “an American organization for women in the literary arts,” causing me to squint and wonder if it is any more trustworthy than a drug trial financed by a pharmaceutical company.

Woman Reading, Heidi Berger.

But as the Vida website observes, “the numbers don’t lie.” And in every single magazine, now matter how liberal, dramatic gender imbalance is found. The New Yorker?  Eight women book reviewers and 29 men. Harpers? Twenty-seven male reviewers to six women. Tin House? Eighteen books by men reviewed vs. only four by women.

Some of the responses by editors of these publications, while attempting to make it look, as Peter Stothard of the TLS says, “[w]e take it pretty seriously,” actually just make it worse. Stothard went on to say:

“I’m not too appalled by our figure, as I’d be very surprised if the authorship of published books was 50/50. And while women are heavy readers, we know they are heavy readers of the kind of fiction that is not likely to be reviewed in the pages of the TLS.”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, qualifies for our “Smart People Saying Stupid Things” honor. Go on, Pete, crowd in there with Jennifer and Jodi, plenty of room, plenty of room. I mean, good lord, don’t people think before they open their mouths? Not only is Stothard’s remark stupefyingly sexist, with its implication that women aren’t smart enough or refined enough for the kind of books favored by the TLS, it’s also just plain wrong.

As I noted here and here last year, men make up only 20 percent of the book-buying public. So any kind of book you want to

Old Woman Reading a Bible, Gerrit Dou.

name, even those (sniff!) reviewed by the TLS, are overwhelming read by women. It’s all chick-lit, even  Hemingway, as Lakshmi Chaudhry noted at In These Times in 2006.

So there you have it. Most readers are women, publishing houses are dominated by women — yet even the most liberal magazines and journals that still bother with book reviews heavily favor men. To quote a pop culture teen icon: That makes the kind of sense that doesn’t.

Vida draws no conclusions, but invites discussion. My only thought is that the success of feminism on some fronts has been so dramatic that maybe we tend to overestimate how far Western society has actually come on gender issues. Or maybe it’s a statistical anomaly, a butterfly flapping its wings in an Indonesian jungle, so to speak.

Please tell me what you think about this imponderable situation.


6 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice Simmons permalink
    February 7, 2011 3:26 pm

    We’ve come a long way baby? We (as in the “fairer” gender) know we haven’t.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 7, 2011 3:29 pm

      I would quibble by saying, yes, you have come along way (watch Mad Men if you doubt me) but there’s a long, long way yet to go.

  2. Sophie Morgan permalink
    February 23, 2011 6:39 am

    The really interesting thing is that not just ordinary female readers, but even female reviewers and critics favour men’s writing. One only has to consider Virginia Woolf’s description of the work of Margaret Cavendish to realise this is hardly a new phenomenon: higgledy-piggledy, in torrents of rhyme and prose, poetry and philosophy which stand congealed in quartos and folios that nobody ever reads…. as if some giant cucumber had spread itself over all the roses and carnations in the garden and choked them to death.’ (A Room of One’s Own – Even the most feminist critics still haven’t adapted to viewing the way in which women are conditioned to write, or choose to write, as as good as what is generally seen as ‘male writing’ – something which I think applies particularly to academic writing. I’m currently studying English Literature at the University of Cambridge, and while the course is significantly female – I’m not sure of the exact figures but around 70% of the students are female, but the highest marks in finals are usually about 70% male. As the exam papers are marked anonymously, and women are predicted as many high marks as men, and in fact until university girls are statistically far more likely to perform well in exams, I think this can only reveal some kind of institutional bias towards ‘male’ writing, whatever that is. I know this is slightly off-topic, but I thought you might find it interesting.

  3. April 19, 2014 9:11 am

    I think women were reading more than men long before feminism brought them to the forefront. Books like “The Awakening” rocked early 20th century society! Women will always read more than men, they are more intelligent.
    “A Sense of Duty” author: Ava Armstrong

  4. April 25, 2014 10:05 pm

    One of the inspirations for my new book, “A Sense of Duty” is, believe it or not, READING! Both main characters share a love of reading. In fact, Lara discovers so much about Ben by setting up his personal library in his university office. In turn, Ben finds out a lot about Lara by the things she reads. It is an intellectual love story, contemporary. I think reading can actually bring men and women together on an intellectual level, which is always exciting.


  1. Sexist Reading Habits | Katie O'Rourke

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