the complete review Quarterly
Volume III, Issue 4   --   November, 2002

How Sexist are We ?
Looking for books by women at the complete review

       Beside their informative weblog and other features, MobyLives also conducts some amusing surveys. First they did one on how generous The New York Times is in coverage of books by authors who happen to also write for The New York Times . Recently, Dennis Loy Johnson has been conducting another survey, The Talk of the Rest of the Town, looking at the bylines in each issue of The New Yorker and noting how many (or rather: how few) of the pieces are by women.
       The results are quite striking, with a significant preponderance of male-written pieces, across the board. Still, we have to admit that we couldn't really understand what all the fuss was about. As readers of most anything at the complete review-site will have noted, questions of authorship and attribution aren't much of a priority hereabouts -- see, for example, the byline (or rather: the absence thereof) on this and most pieces in the crQuarterly. Men, women -- these or any other categorizations of authors shouldn't (we feel) matter much. (That said, our book review index does prominently feature one of the most arbitrary of divisions, listing authors by nationality (expanded, slightly less arbitrarily, to divide them by language as well).)
       Chuckling over the MobyLives-survey did, however, get us thinking (a feat in and of itself). It occurred to us that we didn't seem to have reviewed particularly many titles written by women. Not recently. Not -- we wondered -- ever ? We had just posted our 900th review, and looking back over the last hundred ... well, there were a few feminine bunches: trios of books by Brigid Brophy and Ama Ata Aidoo, and a quintet by Gjertrud Schnackenberg. But there didn't seem to be that many more.
       With puffed chest (who else bothers to review three books by Brigid Brophy nowadays, or three by Ama Ata Aidoo, or everything Schnackenberg's published to date ? we asked, proudly) we looked more closely, counting all the titles out of the last hundred we reviewed that were by women.
       There were seventeen.
       Not exactly a jaw-droppingly tiny number, but certainly not very impressive. So much for puffed chest, anyway.
       Curious, now, and a bit concerned, we delved deeper, counting up all the books. It turns out that of the 900 books we had under review by then, a mere 113.5 had been written by women. (The .5 is half of a husband-and-wife team).
       That is 12.61 percent.
       12.61 percent !
       Barely one out of every eight.

       At nine hundred our sample was certainly large enough. To find that only one out of every eight of the books we reviewed were written by women (a rate that held surprisingly steady over time too, it turns out -- see this breakdown for details) was shocking. If for no other reason than that it is mathematically inelegant: men and women populate this earth in, essentially, equal number, and even if men out-write (and -publish) women two or three to one (which does not seem to be the case) this male-female disparity is far beyond what one could reasonably expect.
       In fact, one would have to work pretty hard to get such a clear disparity.
       What, we wondered, is going on here ? And the question moved from the joking: 'Are we sexist ?' (no question about it) to the more disturbing: 'How sexist are we ?'

       Unfortunately, there is no simple way to determine to what extent published male authors outnumber published female authors (maybe 8:1 ? we almost hoped). Looking over most any author-list -- pages from Books in Print, book-listings in Publishers Weekly, books reviewed in various periodicals -- it does appear that there are more male-written books than ones written by women. It also seems clear that the disparity used to be much greater. But there are few hard manageable numbers to go on (tallying up the entire Books in Print being quite beyond us) -- and, except for a few highly selective slices (say, Elizabethan drama) the ratio of male to female authors is certainly better than 8:1.
       The complete review also only reviews certain types of books -- though it is admittedly an odd selection. The best points of reference would appear to be periodicals which review similar books -- so we looked at how sexist four of them were, for the periods:        Their reviews could be broken down as follows:

Reviews of Books by Women
Publication Total percent
London Review of Books 40 15.00
The NY Review of Books 76 18.42
The NY Times Book Review 120 30.00
Times Literary Supplement 130 24.60
. . .
TOTAL 366 24.04

       Note: "Total" refers to the total number of books reviewed which had an author or editor whose sex could be identified (books with multiple editors of differing sexes were ignored). "Percent" refers to the percentage of these reviews that were of books we understood to be written (or edited) by women.

       So -- sadly -- these results came as something of a relief. Sexism runs rampant ! The London Review of Books is hardly better than we are ! (Though it should be noted that everybody was at least a bit better than we were.)
       Apparently men do write considerably more books that get reviewed than women do. Whether it means they write and publish so many more too isn't as clear.

       Trying to look at things from another point of view we also examined the bestseller-lists from the 13 October issue of The New York Times Book Review (hardcover and paperback, each for fiction and non-fiction), to see how the sex-divide worked out there:

Bestselling Books by Women
Type Total percent
Fiction - HC 15 46.67
Non-Fiction - HC 13 30.77
Fiction - Pbk 15 66.67
Non-Fiction - Pbk 15 33.33
. . .
TOTAL 58 44.83
. . .
all Fiction 30 56.67
all Non-Fiction 28 32.14

       Note: "Type" refers to the four different bestseller lists -- with "HC" referring to the hardcover lists, and "Pbk" to the paperback lists. "Total" refers to the number of books which had an author or editor whose sex could be identified (books with multiple editors of differing sexes were ignored) -- several couldn't. "Percent" refers to the percentage of books we understood to be written (or edited) by women.

       These were less reassuring results -- particularly the fiction/non-fiction divide. The fact that women make up a a greater percentage of fiction-authors than they do of non-fiction authors was also clear from the review coverage in the periodicals we looked at. It offers little comfort -- while most periodicals tend to cover more non-fiction than fiction, the complete review definitely has a strong pro-fiction bias (and one should therefore expect a slight edge for women authors, certainly when compared to other periodicals).
       Admittedly, the bestseller lists don't accurately reflect what we (or the other periodicals we examined) review: very few of the titles that make the bestseller list (especially the fiction lists) get review coverage in the periodicals considered -- and only two of these fifty-eight are under review at the complete review (Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections and Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation). Still, they presumably give a pretty fair idea of the sex of authors currently being published and read.

       None of the review forums we looked at appeared to cover books by women authors in anything close to equitable fashion. (The 13 October issue of The New York Times Book Review (not included in the table above) for example has a decidedly unspectacular 2 non-fiction books by women under review (out of 14), and only 3 titles by women out of 9 fiction and poetry books which get full-length reviews.) The disparity is troubling (especially since women authors seem to have no trouble competing on a more even footing as far as bestselling-books go) -- and while it is a bit reassuring to see that all the periodicals shared our sexist bent we note that we are still at the very bottom of even that sexist spectrum.

       The 900th book we reviewed was Martin Amis' The War against Cliché. In our review we expressed some disappointment about the fact that Amis only looked at certain segments of the literary world. The collection is dominated by reviews of books by Engish and American authors, and includes very few of books originally written in other languages -- which we thought was unfortunate. And Amis pretty much ignores all authors of his own generation, or his juniors -- which we also thought disappointing.
       We did not say we were disappointed that he barely included any women writers.
       He doesn't, by the way. A few Iris Murdochs, books by Fay Weldon, Jane Austen ... but the overwhelming majority of books he covers are by male authors. There were reviews that pointed this out, but ours wasn't one of them. Why ? we wonder.

       The sex of the authors of the books that we review isn't of much concern to us. So we say. But if that were true, then surely the disparity between the number of books by men and the number by women would not be as great as it is. In fact, statistically the ratio we've achieved -- 8:1 in favour of male authors -- is an extremely unlikely one. Even more so because it also does not appear to be a temporary aberration: the disparity remains fairly steady across time, from the first 100 books we reviewed to the last (19 out of 100 is the best female showing we ever had, 7 the worst; see this breakdown for details).

       We also have Author pages on our site, devoted to authors who are more extensively reviewed at the complete review. When we reached our 900th review we had 36 such pages -- and six of them were devoted to women authors -- 16.67 percent, one in six, slightly better than the review-total. (In a curious and inexplicable statistical aberration three of the six were authors who wrote in French .....) The average number of books under review for each of these 36 authors was 7.14; the average for the six women was 7.17 -- so at least on one level we treated them pretty much the same.

       The statistics are not impressive -- there's some sort of failure going on here -- but we'll be damned if we can figure out the root of the problem. (We cover too few books by women authors -- but that's the problem, not the reason.)
       We'd like to say we will cover more books by women authors in the future, but we're not sure we will. Our selection process doesn't (consciously) take the author's sex (or any other distinguishing feature about the author) into account, and we don't want to start practicing some sort of affirmative action just to redress one failure. (There are others on the site as well, other groups of authors and types of books that are under-represented .....)
       We always have too many books to get to, and too little time (and too limited resources, etc.). Some books do get priority: hot new titles (such as, this fall, Donna Tartt's The Little Friend and Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex), for example -- but that should be a fairly sex-blind category. The only other types of books that get quicker attention are those by authors whose books already are extensively reviewed at the complete review -- meaning, usually, by authors we have Author pages for. But since we have a higher percentage of women authors with author pages (1 of 6) versus just reviews (1 of 8) that obviously hasn't helped (well, it probably has -- without these the disparity would probably just be worse).

       We don't really know what to say. We don't even know if we should apologize or what -- we find the situation utterly baffling.
       At least our users are now aware of it -- and free to do with this information as they see fit. We hope there won't be too many boycotts or burnings-in-effigy, but readers are of course free to act on this information in any (legal) way they deem appropriate.

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© 2002 the complete review Quarterly
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