Does Slate’s Book Coverage Favor Men?

We subject Slate to the “Franzenfreude” treatment.

Jonathan Franzen

The effusive welcome for Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom has triggered a debate over gender issues in book reviewing, which has in turn inspired some number crunching. As Slate’s book editor, I realized I had little idea how Slate itself would measure up. To set the stage for comparison, here is a quick recap of other outlets: A DoubleX inventory of the New York Times’ reviews of fiction over the past two years revealed that books by women amounted to 38 percent of the total. Of the fiction that got both a Sunday and a weekday review, 29 percent was by women. In a “XX Factor” post, Erin Belieu reported that over the past seven months the New Republic has published 160 men and 32 women “in the categories of nonfiction, poetry, and book reviews.”

Since I haven’t been a bean-counter, I dug into the archives of pieces under Slate’s “Books” rubric in suspense. Between Jan. 1, 2009, and Sept. 6, 2010, Slateran 34 reviews of fiction under the “Books” rubric. Nine of them were of books by women (I’m squeezing in Agatha Christie’s journals), for 26.5 percent of the total.

I was curious about the overall gender breakdown, taking nonfiction into account as well. Surveying the authors of all the books we’ve reviewed so far since the start of 2009, I found that 76 of them were men and 38—or one third—of them were women. In 2010, I found that 33 of them were men and 19—or 36.5 percent—were women. In 2009, 45 were men and 19—or 29.6 percent—were women. I also decided to look at the gender of reviewers while I was at it. Out of a total of 105 reviewers whose work I published between January 2009 and this September, 41 were women, or 39 percent.

The results looked discouraging—except that the number of pieces we run is small enough that it doesn’t take big shifts to bring Slate’s coverage closer to parity, or even beyond. And that’s exactly what happens when we add in DoubleX’s coverage of books, which the editors run by me and I take into account as I assign. We’ve conferred very closely during the past year since DoubleXwas folded into Slate, but we also consulted regularly during 2009, when Double Xwas a separate site. With DoubleXs contributions, the fiction balance improves somewhat for 2010 (though we’re still behind the Times): From January to September, two more novels by women were reviewed under the DoubleX rubric, which boosts the total to seven out of 20, or 35 percent. But step back and consider the past two years of our efforts combined, and the result is much closer to parity. Out of a total of 29 works of fiction covered, 13 were by women, or 44.8%—and we even had our own Dahlia Lithwick writing a whole novel online.

The bigger picture—the overall number of women authors and reviewers, of fiction and nonfiction alike—also looks a whole lot better. Add in DoubleX’s book-related pieces for 2009 and 2010 so far, and a grand total of 88 books by men were covered, compared with 72 by women, or 45 percent. As for the gender breakdown of reviewers, it turns out to be a perfectly even split: 80 men and 80 women. (I haven’t factored in our various Audio Book Clubs but have included written interviews.)

So are there any lessons to be drawn from our relatively limited book coverage at Slate?It does seem to take concerted and explicit attention to gender in book coverage to boost the number of women reviewers and authors, but it doesn’t entail anything like bending over backward. As an editor who started out at TNR back in the boys’ club days (I was the second editor ever to request a maternity leave, and bylines were as male as the masthead), I’m struck by how co-ed to its core Slate’sstaff and ethos now are. Taking for granted the defining presence of women’s voices means, among other things, that looking for more of them isn’t motivated primarily by a self-conscious mission of fairness. It is good for business. I haven’t examined our data on readership to see how DoubleX book pieces rank in popularity, but my sense is they’re right up there with the rest of the book coverage—and drawing more readers, I’d like to think, than they would have had DoubleX remained a separate site.

I doubt you need a critical mass of women editors to make a such a shift in gender balance happen, but if Slateis any guide, putting several female heads together helps broaden and normalize a process that might otherwise feel, and look, more like gender ghettoizing. None of this was planned. Slatewasn’t expressly looking for a female books editor, and when I began, DoubleX was not yet a gleam in anyone’s eye. The way we’ve ended up combining our efforts has evolved more organically. My DoubleX colleagues consider books more as vehicles for discussing gender issues and experiences—both female and male—than I do. That’s partly because I know they have that front covered. (Perhaps not surprisingly, of those 11 books reviewed under the DoubleX rubric, seven—including the one by a man—were memoirs.) They in turn know I’m keeping an eye out for quite different kinds of books, and book pieces, by women.

If you’d asked me before Franzenfreude hit what the numbers in the fiction realm might be these days, I’d have guessed something quite different from what the Times ledger, and our own, seems to suggest. Yes, the “big novel” hoopla treatment and prizes do seem skewed toward male authors; we’ve had very interesting debates about why that’s so. But as far as general coverage goes, I think I’d have predicted female dominance, if anything, because women are all over this field—writing fiction of all kinds, reviewing it, reading it. Here’s a weird thought: Given that the facts suggest otherwise, could it be that precisely that (mis)impression is partly to blame for the male bias in reviewing? That the poor literary darlings are deemed in need of extra help? How ironic it would be if a subliminal sense that the market will take care of the women reinforces a long ingrained habit of paying special critical attention to the men.

But that’s mere speculation—and in fact, despite the data thus far gathered, so is all the Franzenfreude fallout. As we debate the critical reception of books, let’s not forget that we don’t know how men’s and women’s production of any genre, fiction included, stacks up. Maybe women publish more fiction than men do, or maybe less—maybe more so-called literary fiction, maybe less. Maybe on average their books make more money, maybe less. We await more numbers, but I take it as a good sign—the kind likely to spur writers on to yet more creative discoveries and editors to further self-scrutiny—that the answers aren’t obvious and the questions are being asked.

Also in Slate: Meghan O’Rourke examines  the Jonathan Franzen flap and unconscious gender bias. On the “XX Factor” blog, O’Rourke responds to the allegation that female novelists work “in miniature,” dissects women and the quest to write the Great American Novel, and explains why she doesn’t yawn when she talks about women writers. And a heads-up: The DoubleX Audio Book Club will discuss Franzen’s book Freedomin October. (We picked it before the feminist flap, and now we really can’t resist.)

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