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November 03, 2004

NYTBR Still a Man's World?

by Ron Hogan

Way back in January, clinical psychologist Paula Caplan was sounding alarms about the ratio of men to women in NYTBR; apparently the study she co-authored with Mary Ann Palko has found a home with The Women's Review of Books (thanks for the tip, Moby).

Specifically, out of 807 books reviewed, only 227, or 28 percent, were authored by women. Of the 775 reviews, only 265, or 34 percent, were by women reviewers. This was troubling news, for women who want to write or review a book may be less likely to make the attempt once they make the conscious or unconscious observation that those realms remain primarily male.

Caplan and Palko offer no explanation for they think women might be so quick to quit based on that little sliver of information, as opposed to all the other obstacles that stand between a struggling author and publication, but as a writer myself, I'll humbly suggest that any writer of any gender who would give up their ambitions so readily probably wouldn't have turned out to be a writer worth reading anyway and it's hard to get choked up about them--as opposed to, say, the women who didn't give up and still don't get reviewed. In any event, Caplan and Palko also note that they contacted former NYTBR editor Charles McGrath and ombudsman Daniel Okrent about the issue, claiming "their reactions revealed a pattern of sexist thought." Their evidence? "Okrent replied that he would await McGrath's response before becoming involved, but ultimately, he did nothing." This might very well be sexism, but I suspect the reasons are more likely found in the fact that Okrent had his work cut out for him restoring credibility to the Times as a whole.

McGrath's attempts to fend off the charges, however, did raise serious issues, and the authors continue to hammer away at his weak rationalizations just as they did in January, though it may matter less since he's no longer running the show. Then again, they don't seem particularly impressed with Sam Tanenhaus, either, identifying his lack of interest in discussing any ramifications of their data as more sexism. I'm not as convinced: Caplan and Palko seem to be suggesting that sexism is the only reason any publication would deviate from what they deem an "equitable distribution" of male and female reviewers by skewing towards the male end of the spectrum, and thus they interpret any non-acceptance of an offer to help establish such a distribution pattern as further sexism. But they haven't necessarily proven that "equitable distribution" is, in fact, a solution to sexism on anything more than a superficial level or that they are the best people to consult on the subject and thus deserve Tanenhaus' immediate and undivided attention when he's just getting his Review off the ground. Which is not to trivialize the complaint entirely, only to suggest that the manipulability of statistics is fairly well-known and that there are other ways to think about a complex issue like this one--for starters, this survey seems to be assuming that all books from all authors arrive at the NYTBR offices with equal weight, at which point Tanenhaus and his crew binge on the guy books. Anyone who works in publishing, particularly in publicity and marketing, can tell you that's not the case, and without addressing that systemic condition, complaints to the Times will ultimately have little if any effect.

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