The Rumpus // On Being Part of the Problem: A Personal Response to the VIDA Report

The following essay ran on 3/20/13 at The Rumpus.

On Being Part of the Problem:

A Personal Response to the VIDA Report

1. 23.5%

I’ve done the math and it turns out that I’m part of the problem. That’s an awful realization. I can’t even tell you how heartbroken I am.

Since 2009, the grassroots organization VIDA: Women in Literary Arts has taken on the enormous task of addressing the deep-rooted and endemic sexism in the publishing world. Its primary goal is to “explore critical and cultural perceptions of writing by women through meaningful conversation and the exchange of ideas among existing and emerging literary communities,” and it does great work.

VIDA is best known, I think, for its blistering annual report, called simply “the Count.” The Count looks at the gender disparities in some of our better-known periodicals, and the 2012 edition is discouraging to say the least. Instead of cherry picking some convenient statistics from the Count to cite here in support of some argument, or make myself look good, I’ll simply share the numbers for the four publications they analyze and which I currently subscribe to.

In 2012:

  • Harper’s reviewed 54 books by men and 11 by women (17%)
  • The New Yorker reviewed 583 by men and 218 by women (27%)
  • New York Review of Books reviewed 316 by men and 89 by women (22%)
  • New York Times Book Review reviewed 488 by men and 237 by women (33%)

These statistics are sobering. They’re also indictments—calls for those of us who review books to look at our own habits, biases, and presumptions. Inspired by the 2012 edition of The Count, I went back and looked at my own history as a book critic, and what I found was tremendously embarrassing. I was both surprised and mortified by what I discovered.

Since 1996, I have reviewed 280 books for various publications.[1] The complete list can be found at my web site. I’m ashamed to say that of those 280, only 66 were written or edited by women. That’s a dismal 23.5%.

And it gets worse, simply because I should know better.

Before doing this self-evaluation, I would have said that I’m a champion of and activist for literature by women. I’ve successfully pitched and written up radical books like Bitchfest: Ten Years of Cultural Criticism from the Pages of Bitch Magazine and From Black Power to Hip Hop: Racism, Nationalism, and Feminism by Patricia Hill Collins. I graduated from a college that went co-ed shortly before I arrived and which maintains a proud, feminist tradition. I love the fact that my undergrad degree in philosophy and religion was so steeped in feminist thought, and I continue to reread (and, now, teach) essays like Linda Nochlin’s classic “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” I’ve written a fair amount about my own white, male privileges. My wife’s doctoral dissertation was on women composers and their lack of representation on concert programs, for crying out loud. I’m someone who gets it—or so I thought. The glaring distinction between my (deluded, as it turns out) self-image as a progressive, pro-feminist critic and the reality of my track record is extremely upsetting.

The big question I face now is: What can I do to change this? I don’t want to be part of the problem any longer.

Again, the VIDA report raises two separate concerns: (1) the number of book reviews written by women, and (2) the number of books written by women that get reviewed. In my own writing life, I plan to address both of these. Please understand that I’m not out to tell anyone else what to do. Every critic and book-review editor and publisher has to remain true to his or her own vision.[2] My concern here is the personal responsibility I feel.


2. The Number of Book Reviews Written by Women

It would appear, on the surface, that the number of book reviews written by women is beyond my immediate control. Sure, I understand that every review I write will take precious and steadily diminishing review space away from a woman who could have contributed, but I’m not going to stop reviewing books in the hope that my assigning editors will hire more women. I wish they would hire more women, of course, but I plan to keep reviewing books too. One terrific potential consequence of the VIDA report, I hope, is that it will encourage every editor who assigns review coverage to split the review assignments equally among women and men. Were that to happen, it would present me with fewer opportunities to review books in print, which on one hand would be disappointing and financially problematic, but it would also provide me with more new voices to read, and I love the sound of that. A healthier literary community is good for everybody, even if it costs critics like me a bit of work and a few bucks.

I’ve also recently accepted the position of contributing editor at the new Philadelphia Review of Books. I don’t have a firm job description or much authority or anything like that, and it’s unpaid, but I will attempt to use that platform to assign more reviews to women writers.


3. The Number of Books Written by Women that Get Reviewed

Although I don’t review nearly as many books as I used to, this is where I can make an immediate impact.  My book-review assignments come two ways: either a book-review editor suggests a title, or I find a book that appeals to me and I pitch around a review.

When an editor does contact me about reviewing a book, I almost always say yes. It’s very rare that I turn down paying work.[3] Historically, I have had little say in what books my editors have asked me to review. The vast majority of the time, I’m asked to review books written by men, but I can certainly better communicate with my editors about my preferences and about my desire to review more books by women. I once did just that with a now-departed book review editor at the Believer, but even then, for some reason, it took months for the two of us to come up with a good assignment. It ended up being a review of Anne Carson’s Nox.

When I find a book that appeals to me, I like to pitch it around to a few different book-review editors. That’s precisely how I now plan to address the gender disparity in my own reviewing record. Thanks to the wake-up call of the VIDA report, I will actively look for and pitch more reviews of books by women. It is a responsibility I’m glad to take on, even if I’m doing so a bit too far along in my career.[4] I can’t guarantee that my newspaper editors will accept more pitches for reviews of books by women, but I will certainly try harder to bring worthy titles to their attention.


4. Looking Forward

One last sticking point comes to mind, and I really don’t know what to do with this. It’s fairly obvious, or it should be, that treating a person differently because of her gender is sexist and offensive. What I’m proposing to do here in attending to authors’ genders strikes me as slightly disconcerting. I don’t want to treat books by women differently than I do books by men. Maybe that’s naïve. Something has to change, right? I have to change. Is there such thing as benign sexism? I wish our society didn’t have a need for affirmative action, but it does and will continue to do so until things improve and there’s genuine equality.

What I’ve come to realize, thanks to VIDA and the Count, is that my feminist convictions do not make up for the low number of books by women I’ve reviewed. Not yet. Good intentions are not enough. It’s people like me, people aware of the persistent sexism of our society, who need to do a better job of promoting books by women. To ignore the gender disparity in publishing is to perpetuate it. I can’t do that any longer. Instead, I will continue to champion all of the books I love in every way I can—only now I will do so with a clearer understanding of just how far we still have to go in building the literary community that we all deserve.


[1] This number includes one review that has been submitted but not yet published.

[2] I’m aware that I’m oversimplifying this. In addition to their own consciences, publishers and editors are responsible to advertisers and to the reading public. If we all demand more literary fiction by women, for instance, and do so with our wallets, I’m confident that more will get published. The responsibilities of publishers and book-review editors and book critics and readers are ultimately inseparable, but change has to start somewhere.

[3] There are some exceptions. I won’t review books by people I know, obviously. And if the book ends up being terrible, I will often speak with my editor and try to bail on the assignment. At this point in my life, I’d rather give up the paycheck than spend my time and energy on a book I don’t like.

[4] Publishers large and small also bear some responsibility to usher more literature by women into the world and to properly promote it, but I’m not trying to pass that particular buck at the moment and I’m far more interested here in my own responsibilities.