Boy, Girl, Boy


The New York Times Book Review overwhelmingly favors books and book reviews written by men, according to a new study from Brown University. Over the course of a year, the study reveals, 72 percent of all books reviewed in the NYTBR were written by men, and 66 percent of all reviews also carried a male byline. In other words, the most influential venue in the publishing world showcases male authors and reviewers by an average of two to one.

Book Review editor Charles McGrath finds the evidence of bias unconvincing, much to the chagrin of Brown adjunct professor Paula Caplan.

“We’ve known for a long time that if little girls just see books that show pictures of doctors as men, it doesn’t occur to them that women can be doctors,” Caplan told the Voice. “Similarly, when you see mostly men’s names in the Times Book Review, even if you don’t consciously count them, it creates a context. It narrows what occurs to girls and young women as possibilities for their lives.”

The study was compiled by Caplan, a clinical psychologist and author who specializes in women’s studies, and Mary Ann Palko, a psychotherapist in private practice. After analyzing 53 issues of the NYTBR published consecutively between 2002 and 2003, Caplan and Palko concluded that the Times‘ overreliance on male authors and reviewers is demoralizing to women’s psychological development.

The Times profiled Caplan in 1985, after she wrote a book called The Myth of Women’s Masochism. An NYTBR review of the book was favorable, though brief.

Before going public last week, Caplan contacted McGrath and Times public editor Daniel Okrent, hoping that once they learned of the situation, they would hasten to fix it. According to Caplan, Okrent deemed her inquiry “of interest” and said he would await McGrath’s response.

The controversy arises during a season when McGrath is shifting to a new job as Times writer-at-large. At press time, the paper continues to search for a new Book Review editor.

Alas, McGrath was unmoved by the boy-girl imbalance. In an e-mail exchange provided by Caplan, McGrath informed Caplan that “we don’t have any plans at the moment for changing how we review books,” adding, “I’m not convinced that we are guilty of a male bias—either consciously or un-.”

In defense, McGrath wrote that “in the eight years I have been here we have been making a conscious effort to use more women reviewers and, more important, to use more women on the more prominent, attention-getting books.” He added that women have long written the back-page essay (think Laura Miller, Judith Shulevitz), that the Times includes more female authors on its lists of recommended books than it used to, and that women outnumber men on the Book Review staff. No male bastion here!

Focusing on the power handed to male reviewers, Caplan suggested that one remedy would be to increase the number of female reviewers, and offered to supply the names of qualified candidates. McGrath replied that he would welcome suggestions, but “our standards are so high that a great many writers—even published writers—don’t meet them.” As for the attention to male authors, he explained, “more books are written by men than by women.”

Men write more books than women? Caplan and her co-author searched for evidence to support that claim, but found none. When asked for a source, McGrath did not reply. Then Caplan appealed to Okrent, who had been cc’d the correspondence. The ombud wrote back, “If there’s no continued progress, you may have reason for complaint. But as it stands, I think the fair-minded would have to agree that he’s making every effort to move in the direction that you would like to see.”

Caplan calls McGrath’s response “patronizing,” adding, “He didn’t even try to make it look like they were working on it.”

A Times spokesperson declined further comment.

Great Head

Students of magazine history should snap up the January Vanity Fair before it goes off the stands. In it, they’ll find a thumbnail sketch of Graydon Carter’s evolution from satirist to hagiographer, from editing the hilarious but not too profitable Spy in the 1980s to editing the ad-packed, celebrity-worshipping Vanity Fair.

The evolution can be charted by comparing a send-up of former Hollywood superagent Sue Mengers that appeared in the September 1988 issue of Spy and Carter’s editor’s letter in the January VF, which wraps Mengers in a luminous glaze.

In the editor’s letter, Carter recalls a dinner he attended four years ago at Mengers’s house in Beverly Hills. His purpose is to promote a feature about The Producers on Broadway, but in a digression he introduces the reclusive Mengers (who is nurtured these days by David Geffen).

“As it was that night, any dinner at Sue’s house is one of life’s great confections,” Carter writes. “First of all, there’s Sue herself: funny, smart, and still in so many ways the wily knockout she was back in the 1970s, when, as L.A.’s reigning agent, she was the most powerful woman in Hollywood.”

“Wily knockout” was not exactly the phrase Spy used to describe Mengers in 1988, when it mocked her mercilessly under the headline “A Boor Named Sue.”

In those days, Spy was red-hot, thanks in part to a Hollywood gossip column called “The Industry,” written by a mystery author under the pseudonym “Celia Brady” and edited by Carter. In the September 1988 issue, Brady reported that the “logy old William Morris Agency” had brought Mengers “out of retirement” in hopes of restoring “some badly needed star luster” to its roster. But after five months and concerted efforts to “beg, borrow, blackmail, and cajole,” Mengers had “still not been able to sign any of the major-stars-of-the-seventies on her wish list.”

Spy mocked “the now-svelte” “former Shelley Winters look-alike” for trying to lure stars with “figurative offers of unsolicited sex.” It was possible, the column conceded, that when Mengers bragged about “giving great head,” she was talking about good client service, not sexual favors. In any event, her stumbling block was said to be her age, which was 50 at the time. Brady also pinned the blame on Mengers’s producer and director friends, “high-priced but out-of-touch dinosaurs” who were “settling into the long, dark winter of their careers.”

After Spy was sold in 1990, bruised feelings began to heal. Carter went on to edit The New York Observer and VF, leaving his high snarky days behind. By 2000, a gushing Mengers profile had appeared in Vanity Fair‘s Hollywood (“When Sue Was Queen”) and Carter had entered a circle that includes Barry Diller, Geffen, and Mengers.

“She doesn’t go out that much, so people come to her,” Carter rhapsodizes in VF. “As a result, her exquisite pearl of a house is the most coveted dinner spot in town.”