Gender imbalance in books won't die
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It was a relatively smooth 2010 in the book world. No fake memoirs, plagiarism charges or hot political exposes to speak of.
That placid picture can't hide the reality that the oceans of personal recollection continue to roll on unabated.
The Sunday New York Times Book Review enlightened us -- again -- about the memoir Matterhorn last month, calling the present situation "a sea of people you've never heard of, writing uninterestingly about the unexceptional ..."
Maybe in that avalanche ahead this year will be another James Frey or Augusten Burroughs. We can only hope.
One significant issue raised last year dealt with the imbalance between male and female in book reviewing. My cloudy crystal ball tells me that the story will continue throughout 2011.
The wide, largely positive reception for Jonathan Franzen's novel "Freedom" rankled two female novelists, Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, certainly not in Mr. Franzen's league as writers, but successful creators of many books.
Ms. Picoult's 19th, "Sing You Home" (Atria Books, $28), goes on sale next month, and like a lot of her earlier works, is concerned with "identity, love, marriage and parenthood," to cite the cover flap.
Ms. Weiner confines her seven novels to the struggles of 30-ish women with identity, love, marriage and parenthood (my description).
At the risk of sounding unoriginal, their novels fall mostly within the sub-genre called dismissively "chick-lit."
The two ganged up on the nation's book reviewers when they pointed out (accurately, as it turns out) that male novelists get most of the space while women authors finish in second place.
Ms. Picoult got the ball rolling on Twitter when she groused, "Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren't white male literary darlings." The tweet followed two reviews of "Freedom" within a week in the Times.
Ms. Weiner followed up:
"I think it's a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that when a man writes about family and feelings, it's literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it's ... something unworthy of a serious critic's attention."
The battle was joined, touching off a barrage of attempts to test the Picoult-Weiner thesis. The first efforts were a little unscientific, including mine, as I totaled the figures for Post-Gazette book reviews in 2010.
The breakdown was about 60-40 percent men and I will admit that none of the women was Jodi Picoult or Jennifer Weiner.
Part of the statistical difficulty with charting reviews by the gender of the author is the lack of figures on the numbers of books written by men and women to compare that number with the review numbers. As far as I could determine, there isn't one.
So, that's where we left it last year, but the fire is far from out. A more definitive stack of figures about male vs. female authors is available from the relatively new website, www.vida.org (Women in Literary Arts.) Thanks to Sherrie Flick, writer and co-founder of the late, great Gist Street Reading Series, for this information.
VIDA's findings are pretty stark. Totaling the gender of writers in a variety of publications with book coverage, the figures show a significant gender gap.
For example in 2010:
Boston Review reviewed 41 books by men and 14 by women; Harper's, 46-21; London Review of Books, 195-68; New York Review of Books, 306-59; Sunday New York Times Book Review, 524-283; and the London Times Literary Supplement, 1,036-330.
These figures are pretty breathtaking, particularly in the London Times.
While more research is necessary, it seems the decks are stacked against women even in the literary world where they are such a significant part. VIDA figures confirm what Ms. Picoult and Ms. Weiner pointed out.
The issue will be and should be a major one in book discussions this year.
First Published February 13, 2011 12:00 am