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Micro-Inequality: Why Review Equality Matters

November 8, 2010 Books, Opinion, Publishing 22 Comments

By Randy Susan Meyers

The first time I looked for a job, Help Wanted was divided into three sections: Men, Women, and General. If memory serves me (I doubt it) men’s jobs were the professional ones, women’s were the handmaiden ones, and general included dishwashers and drivers.

Trust me, the career paths were separate and not equal.

I remembered those categories while writing this post (which I wish I wasn’t writing) when I came across the terms microinequity and micro-affirmation, first coined by Mary Rowe, who defined micro-inequities as “apparently small events which are often ephemeral and hard-to-prove, events which are covert, often unintentional, frequently unrecognized by the perpetrator, which occur wherever people are perceived to be ‘different.’”

micro-affirmation, in Rowe’s writing, is the reverse phenomenon. “Micro-affirmations are subtle or apparently small acknowledgements of a person’s value and accomplishments. They may take the shape of public recognition of the person, “opening a door,” referring positively to the work of a person, commending someone on the spot, or making a happy introduction. Apparently “small” affirmations form the basis of successful mentoring, successful colleagueships and of most caring relationships. They may lead to greater self-esteem and improved performance.”

On the front page of today’s Boston Sunday Globe is an article entitled: “About-face at Harvard: A push is on to make the portraits on the walls — white men, almost all — reflect the diverse face of the university today.”

In this article, Tracy Jan reports: “There’s a significance to portraiture, in demonstrating to people of all backgrounds that their presence and contribution are appreciated,’’ said Dr. S. Allen Counter, director of The Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations, which for eight years has been quietly commissioning portraits of distinguished minorities and women to hang in Harvard’s hallowed halls.

“We simply wish to place portraits of persons of color and others who’ve served Harvard among the panoply of portraits that already exists,’’ Counter said. “We will not displace any portrait, just simply add to them.’’

A micro-affirmation of great proportions.

Also in today’s Sunday Boston Globe are four full reviews of books by men, no full reviews of books by women. (“Short Takes,” a column of brief reviews covered two books by women and one by a man.) Monday through Saturday, during the past three weeks, there were 17 reviews of books by men and one review of a book by a woman.

Microinequality.

Last weekend, when I briefly touched on this on my Facebook page, a friend asked “but how many books by men vs. women are published?” I’d love to know and spent too many should-be-writing hours looking, but I wonder if the question and answer would beget a chicken-egg quandary. In addition, there is the question of equality in marketing, book covers, etc—a topic well covered by Lionel Shriver (winner of the 2005 Orange Prize and a finalist for the 2010 National Book Awards).

To repeat: I didn’t want to write this post. I’m frightened of writing this post (but impulse and passion control has never been my strongest suit). I’ve had very fair shakes from newspapers and radio—great reviews and mentions in The Boston Globe, The NYT, and NPR (referenced below). They are my main and beloved news sources. I’ve subscribed to both for enough years to have bought a shiny new car.

The last thing in the world I want is to bite the hand . . . but I have two daughters and a tiny granddaughter.

When women write about this phenomenon, they can usually count on the eye-rolling responses, the sigh that says “isn’t this topic getting tedious” and wild assertions that women run publishing. Disparaging responses such as, “Unfortunately, what gets lost in this smokescreen is the more important (and dangerously tricky) question of “Why isn’t there more serious literary fiction being published by women?”” by bloggers such as The Grumbler who assert that women don’t deserve reviews in serious media.

Thankfully, I also find great hope. The Economist took a sharp look at this question, noting how reviews written will translate to books read, writing, “All readers are gently trained to empathise with white male narrators.”

In private, most female writers talk about mainstream media (and often non-mainstream media) review numbers, but we’re terrified to go public, easily imagining the scenario that could result:

Oh, so you want a review, do you?” asks Important Editor after hearing about your . . . whining. “Fine. Here’s your review. Read it and weep.”

Do I truly think an editor would be that crass? No, but there is that ingrained awful fear about not being a good girl. About being called a whiner, a baby, and a jealous harpy. When Jennifer Weiner and Jodie Picoult talked about this they were accused of ugly motives as well as having their talent denigrated, and they’re best-selling authors. Thus, why would any woman want to go there? Why do I?

Would it help if men joined in this?

Does it matter? Does it matter that in 2009, Publishers Weekly didn’t include a single woman in their list of the Top 10 Books of 2009?

Carolyn Kellog writing in the LA Times on Dick Meyer’s NPR list of 100 Best Books of the Twentieth Century (a list that included only 7 books written by women) quotes Meyer as saying “My taste is probably medium-brow, male and parochial in many ways. Tough. It’s my list.” In response, Kellog asks, “but it begs the question: can one imagine a female writing for NPR having a nearly all female Best Books List?”

Does this matter? According to NPR,  “As NPR’s executive editor, Dick Meyer shapes and oversees NPR’s worldwide news operation on-air and online. Meyer plays a critical role in integrating NPR’s on-air sound with its dynamic and growing online and mobile platforms, and in fostering the organization’s distinctive storytelling and enterprise reporting.”

That sounds to me as though his opinion very much matters.

The number of book reviews of women is indicative of a micro inequality, which piles up to matter quite a bit. Julianna Baggot captured it well, writing in the Washington Post, “So how do we strip away our prejudice? First, we have to see prejudice. The top prizes’ discrimination against women has been largely ignored. We can’t ignore it any longer.”

Some not only ignore it, they deny it. Writing about this issue, Slate.com wrote: “The bookish blogosphere continues to debate whether the New York Times—and, by extension, other cultural gatekeepers—really does give white male fiction writers preferential coverage over authors of the distaff and ethnic variety . . . So we decided to gather some statistics in order to determine whether the Times’ book pages really are a boys’ club.”

You can download the actual spreadsheet at Slate, but their conclusions boiled down to this: Of the 545 books reviewed in the NYT between June 29, 2008 and Aug. 27, 2010:

—338 were written by men (62 percent of the total)
—207 were written by women (38 percent of the total)

Of the 101 books that received two reviews in that period:

—72 were written by men (71 percent)

—29 were written by women (29 percent)

In 2002, the Complete Review of Books admirably took themselves to task for their miserable coverage of books written by women authors at 12.61%.

During that same period, they examined the track record of major literary papers of record:

Reviews of Books by Women
PublicationTotalPercent
London Review of Books4015.00
The NY Review of Books7618.42
The NY Times Book Review12030.00
Times Literary Supplement13024.60
...
TOTAL36624.04

If women’s books aren’t reviewed, when women’s books are declared “less literary, and when women’s books on family are declared women’s fiction, while men’s domestic books are declared brave and eye-opening, it adds many pounds to the micro-inequality pile.

Do we care enough to fight about this?

I think it comes down to this: people in power rarely give up power voluntarily; sometimes they don’t even recognize that they have the power. I think it’s up to us to join the brave authors like Julianna Baggot, Jennifer Weiner, Jodi Picoult, and Lionel Shriver, who are willing to talk about this. We need to tell ourselves and ask the men who are our friends, who are the fathers of daughters and father of sons who will marry daughters, that it’s time.

It’s time to rid ourselves of micro-indignity, and remember that men and women each hold up half the the sky.

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Currently there are "22 comments" on this Article:

  1. Bill says:

    Very thoughtful post Randy. I remember my mother telling me that when she went to nursing school (mid 1960′s) there were basically four options for her: teacher, nurse, secretary, or cleaning houses/janitorial. Just think about how the world has changed and my two young daugthers have so much more opportunity when it comes to career, family, etc……

  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Nichole Bernier, Kathleen Crowley. Kathleen Crowley said: Outstanding, important post by @randysusanmeyer on gender bias in book reviews. Do not miss. http://j.mp/9453pp #writing #amwriting [...]

  3. Hooray for you and for this post!

    Over the weekend, a family member asked me, “So what ever happened to that recent dust up about women and reviews?” and I said, “Well, there were a number of studies done and they pretty much all showed shocking inequities.” I described in particular the NYT stats you have above. Someone in the room, shocked by this, said, “Wow! What’s happened now that people know that?” And I said. . . . “Well, actually. . .nothing.”

    I admire you for keeping the subject alive and out there. And for doing so, as ever, with such clarity and intelligence.

    I’m gonna post the heck out of this – and hope others do too.

  4. I’m not being facetious but I wonder if bringing it to the attention of these media outlets will change anything at all, or if women need a new — but well respected and traditional — outlet for the review of books by women. I realize that the intent is to encourage change, but aren’t many of these venues old-boy networks? Isn’t change unlikely? I still believe it’s good to get the word out, but perhaps it’s up to someone to take it on. I don’t know who that someone is, but with all the powerful, intelligent, female authors and publishing professionals behind it — something could be done.

  5. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Amy MacKinnon, Mireya Mayor, Ph.D., Lisa Bonchek Adams, Backspace, Randy Susan Meyers and others. Randy Susan Meyers said: WIth a bit of trepidation (stop whining!) I writer about why book review numbers matter (men vs women) http://bit.ly/9B9Ms3 [...]

  6. The numbers are so irrefutable that the only response from people who don’t want to listen is to stick their fingers in their ears and go, “La La La!”

    Unfortunately, there seems to be a lot of that going around.

  7. Jane Roper says:

    Excellent post, Randy, and brava to you for writing it. This is something that *must* be talked about more.

    Check out this recent article by Katha Pollitt (or did I get the link here?? Ha!) about the hoopla over Franzen’s Freedom, which poses the question whether a book by a woman would ever have that kind of publicity / anticipation / etc.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/sep/19/books-franzen-gender-wars-reviews

  8. Terrific post, Randy! The whole micro-inequity/micro-affirmation idea gives depth and definition to a phenomenon we all know exists, and the fact that this “dust up” came and went with no conclusions, resolutions, agreement or even willingness to continue the debate is frustrating, at the very least. (Actually, more like infuriating.)

    But what really bugs me is that people are still arguing about the numbers (how many male authors, female, what percent published, how many could be considered literary, etc.) There’s no good reason for this murkiness. How big can the population of published authors be? Two million? Three million? How long would it take a team of researchers to figure out which are male and which are female? A year? Two years? These numbers pale in comparison to what most businesses, scientists and researchers deal with every day. So why has no one done the work? Aren’t there any Ph.D. candidates looking for a dissertation topic?

  9. Randy Susan Meyers randysusanmeyers says:

    Thank you all. Jane, that post by Katha Pollitt (who I love!) is a great one. Chris, I so agree. I looked for hours and couldn’t get a clue. Weird. So hard????

    Oh, and Joe–you put a picture in my mind that will live there all day.

  10. Gender is not the only inequality where reviews are concerned, and I think authors need to be aware of this, too. As I’ve experienced first-hand when pitching reviewers for author clients, the review world tends to be extremely clannish, with the web of agent-publisher-reviewer connections playing strongly into decisions about what to read. This can shut out many talented authors while including others who may or may not be as deserving. And sometimes something as simple as a book’s length (too long) or word-count per page ( too dense) will make it so that a fabulous book sits in a reviewer’s pile forever without getting read.

  11. Becky Tuch Becky Tuch says:

    This is great, Randy!

    I also think it’s time for writers to ask–where are all these reviews coming from?

    Here’s a handy list of major media conglomerates and what they own. This might give writers some sense of why publishing and reviewing continues to meet the interests of a very small portion of the population (ahem, richwhitemen):

    NEWS CORP. owns:
    Fox Searchlight Pictures
    New York Post
    Wall Street Journal
    Harper Collins

    TIME WARNER (the largest media conglomerate in the world) owns:
    CNN, HBO, Cinemax, TNT, etc.
    Warner Bros. Pictures
    over 150 magazines including Marie Claire, People
    DC Comics

    BERTELSMANN AG (one of the world’s largest media companies) owns:
    Random House

    TRIBUNE owns:
    23 television stations (reaching more than 80% of US households)
    26 newspapers
    10 magazines
    several publishing companies

    CBS owns:
    Simon & Schuster

    …and on and on…

    Does anyone else see a problem here? The newspapers and magazines that review books are OWNED not only by the same people who own most of our publishing houses, but by the same people that have a very high stake in keeping a certain status quo in place.

    Thus it’s not only women who are affected by this problem, but books and writers and topics that deal with “taboo” issues or in any way challenge our current social norms.

    And it’s not enough to take it up with individual reviewers at various newspapers, because they are merely operating within a chain of command that has profit, profit, profit as the bottom line.

    I have totally hogged this comment section, but Randy, your wonderful post has inspired me, and I think we writers need to start thinking about who produces our work and how cultural ideas are distributed.

    I mean, do we really want our books to continue to be packaged/marketed/reviewed/sold by the same people who make Coca Cola commercials??

    (The above info was taken from: http://www.freepress.net/)

  12. Thank you for this post, Randy. Sadly women’s issues are seen as trivial where as men’s issues are seen as all important. Romance books are put down, seen as drivel when written by women, yet when men write on the same subject their work is seen as genius. But I don’t think one article will change anyone’s mind. Men have gotten away with discounting women for thousands of years. Even if there is more equality now than ever before, it still isn’t equal. Women in the work force are not on equal footing. Women must be craftier, smarter, work harder, and just be plain lucky to get as much money, respect and honor as their counterparts. Many women do more at home, in their communities, and on the job than most men do and get little if any credit because people expect them to work hard.

    It would be easy to get angry over this inequality, but life isn’t to be lived angry. Many women know their value to society even if society isn’t ready to state plainly that women are important. My main wish is that all women valued their own lives instead of letting society dictate worthlessness. Having micro-affirmations is nice, but sad that we even need to point that it’s nice to have micro-affirmations.

  13. I was 24 when Pauline Kael panned Robert Redford’s “Ordinary People.” (A review that may have been deserved; that’s not my point, and anyway I was young.) So I decided to look to see if Kael had any prejudices against domestic movies. What I’d expected to find, namely that she reviewed more foreign films than domestic, was not evident in the statistics. But what I did discover was that, although she reviewed roughly equal numbers of both foreign and domestic films, her reviews were 80% favorable for the foreign films, and way less approving of domestic films.

    Were domestic movies that much worse in 1980? Or was Kael guilty of picking which movies to review so that her reviews fit her own prejudices?

    This is why this topic is so thorny — are we (women, and specifically women writers) asking the New York Times and other sources of reviews to put a thumb on the scale and thus deliberately ensure that ti reviews more fiction written by women, or are we accusing them of unacknowledged bias such that if they just admitted and addressed it, the numbers would balance out over time?

    The net result could be the same either way, but the former makes it look like we’re whining childishly for some moral redress after centuries of literary sexism, and the latter suggests a “j’accuse” mentality that could get us branded as bitchy.

    What might work is if male writers jumped up and down, demanding that their female counterpoints get the micro-affirmation Ms. Myers outlines. Personally, I’ve never met a man who was getting an obvious benefit by virtue of biology to a) admit it’s just biology, and b) hand back the benefit in favor of fairness.

  14. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Sara Thacker, Sara York. Sara York said: RT @Thrillerauthor: Great blog post http://bit.ly/cueI6u [...]

  15. Christiane Alsop Christiane Alsop says:

    Awesome post. You not only describe the problem, you deliver tools to understand it better. Noise making and debating this will foster change. Look at the great, high level discussion you triggered here.

  16. Beth Hoffman says:

    Outstanding post, Randy! Brava for your courage and insight … and guts. And Joe’s response is wonderful! Love that guy.

  17. step #1: awareness-awareness-awareness

    Thanks for posting, Randy.

  18. Great post, Randy. Ever since FREEDOM, I’ve found myself reading books with an eloquent & original take on domestic subject matter wondering, Why not this one? Is Franzen’s insight and expression really that far superior? And so much so that these other names aren’t even— forget Time-magazine worthy—widely known?

    I would be very, very curious if there were any way to have a year of blind reviewing. No way such a thing could be done, of course—sales are announced a year before on PM, and industry knowledge of what’s in the pipeline is too great.

    But wouldn’t it be interesting if the books could be chosen and reviewed without knowledge of the name or gender of the writer, the way writing contests are done? Would there be a difference in the perceptions of the books, and the size/positioning of the review, if the publication didn’t know whether the book had been written by a woman or a man, their ages, the way they look on a book jacket, and their backlist?

    Of course there would. The weight of preconceived notions is just too much, and gender is a part of it. Earlier today I was reading an article about people on social media, and there was the patronizing throwaway line, “…and moms playing FarmVille.” Though I suppose before I get too steamed, I should undertake a demographic study of exactly who is playing FarmVille.

  19. Dell Smith Dell Smith says:

    Thanks Randy for summing up this problem and compiling the facts. Also to Becky for that scary reminder about how much of a white male-driven monopoly game the entertainment industry remains today.

    As a male writer and, more important for this subject, a male reader, I tend to read more male writers. I may have missed the stat, but are most of the reviewers writing these reviews male? And if women read more female writers the way I (a typical male reader?) read more male writers, It would make more sense, business-wise, to review more novels written by women since (I’ve heard that) women comprise 80% of all fiction readers/buyers.

  20. [...] are many reasons why ‘The Count’ is important—not the least of which, to me, is how these micro-indignities and inequalities effect a girl’s perception of herself, as she becomes a woman, and a boy’s perception of [...]

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Randy Susan Meyers

Randy Susan Meyers
The dark drama of Randy Susan Meyers’ debut novel, The Murderer’s Daughters, published by St. Martins Press in January 2010, is informed by her years of work with batterers, domestic violence victims, and at-risk youth impacted by family violence. She was raised by books, in Brooklyn, where she could walk to the library daily. Each book she read added to her sense of who she could be in this world. Reading In Cold Blood at too tender an age assured that she’d never stay alone in a country house. Biographies of women like Marie Curie and Elizabeth Blackwell opened doors to another world and A Tree Grows In Brooklyn taught her faith in the future. Each time she read it, she was struck anew by how the author Betty Smith knew so much and dared to write it. Read Full

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