Women Critics Helped Make ‘The New York Review of Books’ Great — And It Needs to Start Publishing Them Again

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Round 57,657 of “Literary Men Have Terrible Gender Politics” has erupted this week with the observation that the latest edition of the New York Review of Books includes only one female contributor on a roster of 27. (There is also a reprint of one of my favorite Joan Didion pieces.) To this I’d add that people of color don’t appear to fare much better on that list — I count three, but then I don’t know everyone’s heritage.

At this point one is beginning to have byline-count fatigue, not so much because byline counts can’t provide decent measures of exactly how sexist and racist public discourse is today, but because they provide an increasingly depressing catalog of how little editors at the major general interest publications appear to respond to them. Every new round is a new document of failure to launch. I find myself steeling myself for the inevitable whenever I begin to see one passing around Twitter. The news is never good.

The New York Review of Books, though, is for me a particular case. It’s not just that I revere it, on some level, like just about every “serious” young person who comes to New York. It’s also that it stands for a particular kind of writing I think is very, very important and very, very unprofitable in this Age of BuzzFeed. And it’s also that as I’ve been reading through the issue there’s not a lot I’d quibble with on an editorial level. It’s the NYRB doing what the NYRB has always done, which is provide smart, long-form, and intricately edited commentary on the culture and politics of the day.

But the strange history of this particular publication is that in a prior age it did so much better. The NYRB, after all, was a publication that was edited by the critic and novelist Elizabeth Hardwick, whose essay on Sylvia Plath should be required reading for every young woman who’s ever admired that poet. Hardwick was the kind of writer about women’s writing whom you wanted to be aware of even when you disagreed with her, because her thoughts always led in productive directions. The (also late) Barbara Epstein was another editor who had a reputation for being quietly supportive of women writers, even though she herself did not write much. And though the NYRB has always had an ambivalent relationship to feminism qua feminism, the contributions of those women were important steps in making women public voices that men would listen to.

It was a publication, after all, that included Susan Sontag and Mary McCarthy in its first issue. It also launched Didion’s commenting-on-politics phase, which led to some of my all-time favorite writings of hers — “Insider Baseball” is a particular treat. Alison Lurie’s articles on children’s literature and the figures who produced it are also required reading. In other words: the particular space that the NYRB has, in the past, given to women, has not just been good space. It has been space that, critically, allowed women to claim authority on matters of general interest. And though statistically not much has changed, it’s therefore very hard for someone like me — for whom all of these women have been giant influences — to throw the NYRB baby out with the bathwater.

This, after all, is what a lot of women propose to do, in light of the intransigence of certain editors. When the news of this week’s abysmal byline count appeared on the VIDA Facebook page, the comments were swift — and furious. It is a testament to the notion that the NYRB is alienating a large potential audience by its ignorance of this issue. “They need to be honest and change their name to New York Men’s Club Review of Books, if they insist on this exclusive discriminatory behavior,” said one, not totally incorrectly. “Yes the Elitist New York Penis Club,” said another.

So, I have been known, from time to time, to make jokes about the male-centricity of the literary gaze — take this recent example in Vanity Fair, which I would have titled “Sausagefest in the Literary Hamptons.” I have also written endlessly on the byline-parity issue for various publications, almost never to any avail. I have hosted panels which have been, in what I imagine to be the epitome of success in this field, totally and completely misunderstood by male critics who weren’t listening very hard. So I hope that my credentials as someone who thinks the byline issue is important are impeccable. But even as such I really feel like the emphasis here needs to be less on the byline counts, and more on pointing out to the Review that every time they do something like this they are betraying a part of what made the Review the institution it now is: the women who formed it.

The legacy of the magazine, after all, is the point most likely to affect Robert Silvers. In his 80s, he’s still the head of that publication, 50 years after he founded it. Admittedly, it’s hard to think of someone in their 80s changing his mind about his favorite brand of peanut better, much less editorial priorities. But the point of byline parity was always that women simply deserve an equal chance to formulate the sweeping statements about the “human condition” that are the province of the “intellectual.” And appeals to the “intellectual” — well, even the most upstanding members of any Elitist Penis Club can be flattered and swayed by those.