Why isn't this woman smiling?
Back in the summer of 2010, some female writers (including me) used the occasion of the orgy of coverage around Jonathan Franzen’s FREEDOM to make a point that seemed obvious to anyone paying attention: the New York Times does not do a very good job at covering women writers.
After a tsunami of indignation swelled across the Internet – a tsunami that, unfortunately, was directed not at the Times, but at the female writers who dared to complain about its policies -- Slate.com confirmed the problem: of the 545 books reviewed between July 2008 and August, 2010, 62 percent were by men, 38 percent were by women…and of the 101 books that were reviewed twice in that time period, 71 percent were by men.
Did the Times do any better a year after FREEDOM?
To quote Reverend Lovejoy of Simpsons fame, short answer yes with an if, long answer no with a but. No male writer received the kind of saturation-level combination of reviews, profiles, think-pieces and mentions that surrounded Franzen's new book...but if you're hoping for equality, the paper's got a long way to go.
I counted the number of novels and short-story collections that were written up in the Times, mostly because fiction is what I write, and what I read. Numbers first, analysis at the end.
In 2011, the Times reviewed 254 works of fiction. 104, or 40.9 percent, were by women, and 150, or 59.1 percent, were by men.
Of the works of fiction that got two full reviews, 21 were by women, 22 were by men.
Of the works that received one full review plus a mention in a round-up, 5 were by women, 11 were by men. (This can be largely explained by Marilyn Stasio’s weekly round-up of crime novels).
Finally, of the works of fiction whose authors were reviewed twice (either with two full reviews, or review plus roundup) and profiled, one was a woman and ten were men.
The men who received two reviews plus a profile were David Foster Wallace, Albert Brooks, Julian Barnes, Kevin Wilson, Nicholson Baker, Tom Perrotta, Russell Banks, Jeffrey Eugenides, Haruki Murakami and Allan Hollinghurst.
The only woman who received two reviews plus a profile was Tea Obreht (who also received a mention in the TBR column).
J. Courtney Sullivan (a former Times employee), received a full review and a round-up mention, and was featured in the “Sunday Routine” column, where she discussed her preferred brunch, her work habits, and her favorite dog park.
Sullivan also appeared in the "Inside the List" column, wrote a book review, and published a piece on her hobby -- dollhouses.
Ann Patchett was reviewed twice, and was written up in a story that had to do with her buying a bookstore than her as a writer.
Ann Beattie was also reviewed twice for her book, MRS. NIXON, and mentioned in T Style, in a Q and A about holiday gifts. (Also featured? Gary Shteyngart and Jeffrey Eugenides.)
No female novelist received two reviews plus a Sunday Magazine profile, while two men (Nicholson Baker and Haruki Murakami) hit that trifecta. The only woman novelist profiled in the Sunday Magazine was independent publishing sensation Amanda Hocking. None of Hockings’ books were reviewed in 2011. The magazine also ran a great piece on cartoonist and nonfiction author Lynda Barry and her "workshop for nonwriters." Barry's last novel, CRUDDY, was published in 2000.
Finally, there’s the issue of timing.
The ideal situation for an author is to have a new book reviewed within days of its publication. New books hit shelves and e-tailers on Tuesdays, which means a review the Sunday before is ideal, as is any day-of-publication ink.
Of the authors who received two reviews within two weeks of their publication date, seven were women and twelve were men (David Foster Wallace, whose THE PALE KING was published on April 4 and received his reviews on March 31 and April 5, almost made the cut.)
The year had some bright spots. Commercial mystery writers Lisa Scottoline and Chelsea Cain were reviewed, as was YA queen Meg Cabot and chick lit-ish writer Allison Pearson.
Of the five works of fiction chosen as the year’s best, three were by women: Karen Russell's SWAMPLANDIA!, Eleanor Henderson's TEN THOUSAND SAINTS and Obreht's THE TIGER'S WIFE.
Only one of them – THE TIGER'S WIFE – was reviewed twice, while both men who received the honor (Chad Harbach and Stephen King) also got two reviews.
The Times showed improvement, at least in terms of fiction, in the two-review department, but the disparity between men and women who get that coveted two-reviews-plus-a-profile is still shocking.
Final thoughts? Like they say on the subways, if you see something, say something…and if you don’t see something, say something about that, too.
Social media means that everyone gets a voice – not just authors and publishers, but readers, too.
So if you believe that PEN-prize winning Jennifer Haigh's new book FAITH deserved better than a throwaway mention under the heading “For the Ladies” in a Janet Maslin summer beach-book round-up…or if you notice that Tom Perrotta got two reviews and a profile within three days of publication, while Erin Morgenstern’s THE NIGHT CIRCUS received a single review, three weeks after its pub date…or if you wonder why memoirist Meghan O'Rourke is posing in a Missoni sweater in T Style Magazine, while novelist Gary Shteyngart talks technology...or if you believe the Times could have swapped one of its multiple pieces on well-connected cross-dressing memoirist Jon-Jon Goulian for a write-up of National Book Award-winning Jesmyn Ward (who was eventually reviewed, once, months after SALVAGE THE BONES was published)…or if you believe that a book review that makes space for mysteries, thrillers and horror novels can also spare a few paragraphs each week for romance, commercial women’s fiction and quote-unquote chick lit, get on Twitter, get on your blog, post something on Facebook. Speak up.
The near-equality among the twice-reviewed and the best-of lists, and the occasional not-entirely-dismissive mention of a commercial female author suggests that, even if they’ll never say so, people at the Times are paying attention. Things can change.
(Last but not least, a special thank-you to my assistant, the indomitable Meghan Burnett, who compiled all these numbers).