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Are Women Missing in Literary Reviews?

by Joan Tobin

February 25, 2011

I began an Open Letter to The New York Times earlier this month with this alarmed question: "Shades of Rip van Winkle. Did Sam Tannenhaus, the editor of the book review, fall asleep in 1963 and wake up just in time to edit Late Style, a review of Lastingness The Art of Old Age by Nicholas Delbanco, in the January 23, 2011 issue of the review?"

It seems no one at the review noticed that the 28 writers, painters, composers and literary scholars, alive or dead, mentioned in Brooke Allen's review are all males. That's 28 males and zero females. The book is about "creative achievement in old age." The opening line of the Times review, in large print, is a question: "Why do some artists mature early and run out of steam, while others gain momentum in old age?" As I continued reading the review, I began to wonder which artists Delbanco included in his study. When I finished, I wondered if I had missed something. I reread it. Not one woman was named in the reviewing. Did the reviewer, Allen, herself, fail to include or choose to exclude women artists in her report? Or did an editor delete her text about women? It was not possible that Nicholas Delbanco would have omitted female artists in his study in this day and age.

Back in the 1960s and early '70s when everything began to change for women, there was a small number of very successful women who didn't see any need for feminist activities. Admitted to the upper realm in some important trade or profession, each one thought her upper realm perch showed that she was being treated as the equal of men in all ways. She thought the relevant men agreed. It was just her-and-the-guys. Feminists, then, had an enlightening and deflating response to these women, whom they called queen bees. They thought that if one woman could escape the devaluation of women, all women would want to escape the devaluation of women. Exceptions cannot be allowed in patriarchal societies.

The book review reminded me of that old time of the "bees." The lone female reviewer and the company of alpha males she cited seemed to show that she is keeping their privileged status safe.

Soon after Allen's exceptional book review appeared in the Times, a very informational article about women's fortunes in the occupational work of book reviewing appeared in The New Republic. In A Literary Glass Ceiling? Why magazines aren't reviewing more female writers, an editor at the magazine, Ruth Franklin, begins by using statistics that VIDA A Woman's Literary Organization, published on its web page. The statistics show, "what appears to be gender bias in the book review sections of magazines and literary journals." An example: Harper's in 2010 had 27 book reviews by men and six by women, and about 69 percent of the books reviewed were written by male authors.

Ruth Franklin asked a key question about VIDA's statistics, a groundbreaking question: "What's the gender breakdown in books published last year" as compared to the number of books by each sex reviewed last year?

With help from The New Republic staff, Franklin checked year 2010 catalogs from 13 publishers. Their results showed that "magazines are reviewing female authors in something close to the proportion of books by women published each year." Then, she said, "The question now becomes why more books by women are not getting published." Are publishers receiving less proposals and ideas from women? If they receive unequal amounts of works submitted by the two sexes, then more backtracking might be done to find out why. The original source of the problem might be traced back to Composition Period in elementary school.

In his Introduction to Lastingness The Art of Old Age Nicholas Delbanco writes of "the men and women" he will discuss in his book. The reader expects that male and female writers, artists and composers will be characterized, as they are. Later, in Chapter Five, Delbanco writes, "The reader will have noticed that most of my subjects are male." Yes, now that you mention it. This is partly because, Delbanco explains, "it's simple statistical fact that the great bulk of recognized artists in our culture's history were men." No argument there.

There are arguments to be made for changing that statistical fact, beginning now. For one thing, other components of our culture -- political, academic, military, for example -- have moved on from the patriarchal social model. It's time for the literary world to catch up, and ask itself why it's been lagging behind the rest of the society. Why aren't female authors getting as much recognition as male authors? Why are vestiges of long-disdained characters like queen bees still not able to see the value of other women's contribution to the world's artistic wealth? When will the Western world be able to say that its "recognized artists" are representative of all the people?

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Joan Tobin's first published article appeared in the Ideas section of Long Island Newsday, and since then her writing has appeared in newspapers and small press publications steadily. Her feminist-oriented writing has appeared in the International Mensa Journal, The New York Times, The Hartford Courant, and the New York State and Connecticut State NOW newspapers. In 2002 she was named to the Veteran Feminists of America Honor Roll of Feminist Writers.

Also See "Video: An Iconic Dancer On Her Toes After 50 Years" by Ann Farmer in the Cafe of this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See "Of Hallie Flanagan and Women Who Won't Be Silent" by Alexis Greene in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.


edna demato posted: 2011-02-26 16:36:11

A fine awakening example of drawing attention to the continued struggle for recognition of female artists, e.g., writers, et al.

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