When I was an earnest early-20-something, I used to angrily count the gender ratio of the New York Times Book Review‘s annual “100 Notable Books” list, always sure that it would be far from 50-50. My scornful prediction inevitably proven right, I would immediately take to the keyboard and rant about it on my personal Blogspot blog.
So much has changed in a few short years! Now I’m a jaded early-30-something, and Blogspot rants have been replaced by a whole new generation of earnest 20-somethings on Tumblr. And also, far more significantly, the New York Times Book Review has actually made progress on gender.
To be quite serious for a moment, it’s astounding what a few years of well-voiced exasperation on social media, combined with a concerted campaign to get bookish publications to rectify their gender byline counts, all added to an actual new editorial direction, can do.
Indeed, for the second year running, I have no complaints with the year-end Times lists, at least not gender-wise.
In fact, this year I counted 25 novels by women and 25 nonfiction books by women, including some explicitly feminist books on both ends. That’s 50 out of 100, dear readers (do keep in mind that I determined gender by first names and clicking through on ambiguous ones to see author photos, so there’s a real margin of error. Also good to keep in mind: gender is a social construct, and more than two genders exist!). Similarly, last year, I counted 27 novels and poetry books by women and 22 nonfiction books by women. So the count was a very decent 49 out of 100.
Yet in 2012, just before a woman, Pamela Paul, became the editor of the NYTBR and made the section female-friendlier overall, I counted just 22 novels by women and 15 nonfiction books by women. That’s 37 out of 100. Still further back, in 2008 and 2009, when when I was one of those “snarky” bloggers on my Blogspot, the counts were 33 out of 100.
So there’s been a decidedly positive trajectory over time. Furthermore, given that the list is fairly easily predictable, since it overlaps with the books the Times reviews favorably over the course of the year, it means that the change is cultural, not just numerical.
Let us now note that a certain degree of outside agitation, which was frequently deemed bothersome, seems to have helped influence this improved state of affairs all across the literary landscape. I refer both to the annual VIDA count and the reliable gadflying of Jennifer Weiner and like-minded feminist writers.
Meanwhile, from the inside, hiring a woman with genre fiction experience at the Times Book Review obviously made a difference, as Weiner herself acknowledged in a blog post this fall.
Under the leadership of Pamela Paul, who took over last April, the New York Times Book Review has become a more inclusive, more embracing, more interesting place. … Bestselling authors have gotten the cover treatment. Hey, there’s Stephen King! Look, it’s Elizabeth Gilbert! Paul’s Book Review has even found room for the kind of commercial fiction whose presence has long been limited to the bestseller list. Each week, the Book Review publishes “The Short List,” capsule reviews of books grouped by subject or genre…
Beyond Weiner’s points, the section now often features — gasp! — known feminists reviewing feminist books and talking about the nuances and disagreements within the school of thought. Yes, the overall picture is certainly less patriarchal.
So, now what? First of all, it’s way past time to do a VIDA count for nonwhite authors. We ought to be pushing for more visibility for trans authors, and diversity of content and genre, too, in publishing’s big platforms. Lists and byline counts are not the ultimate determiners of greatness. Time is. And lists, by necessity, are always arbitrary and exclusive. No matter what the gender ratio of the list ends up being, some individual writers will still be unhappy with the results, because of course, they’re writers.