Feb 2011: Last year’s book reviews show men still rule the world

In the category of subtly disparaging news for those who care about gender equality, an article in The New Republic laments that about three in four novels published in 2010 was written by a man. Moreover, women wrote just one in four book reviews on average across several major publications.

I blogged a week ago about how 85 percent of Wikipedia’s authors are male, continuing the age-old precedent of a history written by men who often overlook and ignore issues of importance to the opposite gender, thus leaving a hole in our understanding of the world.

The New Republic’s senior editor Ruth Franklin explores the gender disparities between men and women in the literary world in a piece titled “A Literary Glass Ceiling?”

The numbers are startling. At Harper’s, there were 27 male book reviewers and six female; about 69 percent of the books reviewed were by male authors. At the London Review of Books, men wrote 78 percent of the reviews and 74 percent of the books reviewed. Men made up 84 percent of the reviewers for The New York Review of Books and authored 83 percent of the books reviewed. TNR, I’m sorry to say, did not compare well: Of the 62 writers who wrote about books for us last year, only 13 (or 21 percent) were women. We reviewed a total of 64 books, nine of them by women (14.5 percent).

Only Penguin boutique Riverhead came close to gender equality in publishing last year, with 45 percent of its books written by women. Ruth Franklin notes that her own reviews are not free from this disparity; only 33 percent of the books she reviewed in 2010 were female-authored. She writes that these “statistics made me wonder afresh about the ways we define ‘best’ and ‘most important’ in a field as subjective as literature, which, after all, is deeply influenced by the cultural norms in any given age.”

I’m surprised. I can easily name a number of female authors, and I recall most of my high school English teachers being female (although that switched in college, when most of them were men). Possibly in America, where we’ve had consecutive female secretaries of state and numerous women politicians, and where more women than men today graduate from high school and college, the disparities are easy to overlook.

Moreover, a bunch of new literature has argued in recent years that men’s dominance, actually, is on the decline. Consider Hanna Rosen’s article last summer in The Atlantic, called “The End of Men.” She writes:

Man has been the dominant sex since, well, the dawn of mankind. But for the first time in human history, that is changing—and with shocking speed. Cultural and economic changes always reinforce each other. And the global economy is evolving in a way that is eroding the historical preference for male children, worldwide. …

Earlier this year, for the first time in American history, the balance of the workforce tipped toward women, who now hold a majority of the nation’s jobs. The working class, which has long defined our notions of masculinity, is slowly turning into a matriarchy, with men increasingly absent from the home and women making all the decisions. Women dominate today’s colleges and professional schools—for every two men who will receive a B.A. this year, three women will do the same. Of the 15 job categories projected to grow the most in the next decade in the U.S., all but two are occupied primarily by women. Indeed, the U.S. economy is in some ways becoming a kind of traveling sisterhood: upper-class women leave home and enter the workforce, creating domestic jobs for other women to fill.

If Hanna Rosen is right, then Ruth Franklin is an alarmist. Either way, I’ve just added two female authors to my daily tally, so I’m feeling pretty darn smug about promoting gender equality.

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