In late middle age, I focus less on gender than I used to. In fact, one of the nicest things about the post-menopausal period of life has been that I now think about gender mainly in terms of the depiction of women’s lives in literature.
But the 2013 VIDA statistics show a considerable gender gap at book review publications in the U.S. and UK. Many more men than women still review books, and more books by men than women are reviewed.
As far as gender gaps go, we are not naive. There are many more serious gender issues.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women earned only 77 cents for every dollar that men earned in 2012. Studies show that women are paid less than men even when they have the same experience and same job.
And the gender gap at book reviews is not the only gap in publishing. A study in the journal Nature showed that male scientists publish more research than women, and that researchers are more likely to cite papers written by men.
But back to book reviews: VIDA monitors prestigious publications like The New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, and The New York Times Book Review, though my favorite American book review publication, The Washington Post Book World, was not “audited,” nor was The Guardian, which published a blog piece taunting the abysmal LRB stats. VIDA pretty much ignores the Midwest: there are women book review page editors at the Chicago Tribune, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and the St. Louis Dispatch. Perhaps the Midwest is more equitable for reviewers.
I started my own freelance career as a book reviewer in the Midwest. I submitted a review of a small-press book to a newspaper, and the editor liked it and began to give me assignments. I was one of those solid, reliable reviewers who could take on something, anything, fiction or nonfiction, at the last minute: and if, whoops!, a prominent book had somehow been overlooked, I could dash off a review in 24 hours.
If there was a gender gap, I didn’t notice it. At parties I milled and thronged with other reviewers, and even the male reviewers seemed biased in favor of women: Elizabeth Bowen and Nancy Mitford were the favorite authors of one of my male reviewer friends.
These days I would rather read than review, and I am more concerned with the quality of reviews than the sex of reviewers.
This is not to say I don’t take the gender issues seriously, but surely the editors can add intelligent female reviewers into the mix without taking away work from the tried-and-true regulars (both male and female). This is not a life-and-death issue.
In general, women’s issues seem not to be treated seriously in publishing. A backlash against feminism is reflected in the promotion of S/M romances jump-started by Fifty Shades of Grey, not to mention popular Y.A. novels like Twilight and its successors. In both Fifty Shades and Twilight, clutzy, passive heroines are constantly in need of being rescued. Sex with sadists and vampires (and, believe me, I’d prefer the gentleman vampire any day) can lead to bruises and breakages.
And so, VIDA? Keep it in mind, but don’t make all the changes at once.