The New York Review of Books publishes mostly men, and in that, they’re not alone, joined by pretty much every major print magazine in this country. But the NYRB’s editor, Robert Silvers, responded to a criticism of their mostly-maleness this week with an amazing, somewhat baffling form letter. The letter, which was sent to multiple people who complained about a specific issue of the magazine, lists every woman the NYRB has printed in the last year. That didn’t take long, considering there were 40 of them total, compared to 215 or so male reviewers. Happy now, ladies?
We’ve written before about VIDA, an organization devoted to promoting women in literature and journalism, which each year publish the Count, a breakdown of just how bad the gender gap in major magazines is. The NYRB, says VIDA spokesperson Erin Belieu, “has been one of the worst offenders over the 3 years we’ve conducted our Count.”
But VIDA’s membership was pushed over the edge by the August 15 issue, which, even by the low standards of women’s inclusion in media, is pretty bad. VIDA says there was one woman and over two dozen male contributors; looking at the issue online, I see two women, a review by April Bernard and a closing essay by Joan Didion, “The Deferential Spirit,” a reprint of a 1996 piece. (Update, 10 a.m.: VIDA’s Count Director, Jen Fitzgerald, explained the discrepancy in a brief phone call. In assessing the NYRB, she says, they only look at the main part of the magazine, noting the gender of the reviewers and of the authors being reviewed. Letters to the editor and closing essays are not included in the count.)
In either case–one or two women to several dozen men–the ratio isn’t great. So VIDA sent a letter to the NYRB:
To the Editors,
We write to express our disappointment with NYRoB’s editorial practices. Your organization’s ongoing dismissal of women writers generally is exhibited yet again in your August 15th issue. That issue included 26 pieces by male writers and 1 by a female writer. Of the 29 books reviewed, only four were written or co-written by women.
We at VIDA: Women In Literary Arts have been publishing our much discussed Count since 2010, documenting the rates of publication between male and female writers in major American literary venues.
In a country in which women represent the majority of literary consumers, this gender bias on your part has come to appear willful, or else weirdly tone deaf to the cultural conversation happening around you. We strongly suggest you open your ears if you wish to remain a relevant force in our literary culture.
As the writers associated with VIDA’s leadership represent both established and emerging authors across all genres, we know that major literary reviews solicit most, if not all, of their content; therefore, responsibility for your distinction as one of the worst offenders included in VIDA’s Count rests with your editorial policies. At present, it appears that NYRoB believes women have little to add to our country’s literary conversation. We doubt your readers, a large proportion of whom are women, will continue to subscribe to a journal that pointedly devalues women’s contributions to our literary culture. Nor do we think your advertisers will continue to be comfortable supporting the message that men’s voices are the only voices of real value in our community. Times are changing. A wise man (or woman) looks to the future.
Besides VIDA, many of their supporters wrote similar letters. They didn’t necessarily expect a great response from the magazine, Belieu says, noting that a lot of publications that get called out by VIDA respond with “wounded, reactionary defensiveness.”
“We know that much of gender bias is unconscious,” she explains. “People aren’t sitting down daily in editorial staff meetings to actively plot ways to disenfranchise women writers. It’s much more subtle and pernicious than that.” Besides that, she adds, “Individuals mostly want to believe they are fair-minded people who make their decisions from a rational place. And men as a group put a high value on their supposedly rational approach to the universe. And writerly types generally want to believe themselves most particularly educated, sophisticated, liberal sorts.”
So the responses they tend to get are mostly along the lines of, as she puts it, “‘What are you talking about? Some of my best friends are lady writers! And look here, we had a woman in this issue. What more do you gals want?’ The thing they don’t want to say out loud–though many do from the easy anonymity of comment boxes–is that they truly believe men are simply genetically better writers than women.”
Silvers’s response didn’t even go that far, because he didn’t bother to engage in much discussion at all (nor did he respond to a request for comment from the Voice). Instead, he sent this to VIDA’s leadership, and identical letters to everyone else who wrote:
Dear Erin Belieu, Lynn Melnick, Suzanne Paola, Jennine Capo Crucet, Alyss Dixson, Amy King, Cate Marvin, and Ann Townsend,
In response to recent comments about contributions by women to the New York Review, I want to say that we certainly hope to publish more women writers. But I wonder if our critics have fairly considered the many reviews, essays, and poems by women that have appeared in the Review and on the Review’s blog. A list of their contributions just during our last year of publication follows. No one who has read the work of these writers could say that the New York Review dismisses the work of women writers generally, or that the New York Review “believes women have little to add to our country’s literary conversation.”
Zoë Heller on Vagina: A New Biography by Naomi Wolf; Joyce Carol Oates on NW by Zadie Smith; Sue Halpern on four books about cyber hackers; Jenny Uglow on A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos by Dava Sobel; Helen Vendler on What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination, and the Natural World by Robert Hass; Cathleen Schine on Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon; Jana Prikryl on Pauline Kael and the movies; Ingrid D. Rowland on Money and Beauty: Bankers, Botticelli and the Bonfire of the Vanities; Marcia Angell on the Death with Dignity Act; Lovisa Stannow (with David Kaiser): “Prison Rape: Obama’s Program to Stop It”; Anne Applebaum on four books on Soviet spies; Elisabeth Sifton (with Fritz Stern): “The Tragedy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi”; Francine Prose on This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz; Elizabeth Drew on the presidential election; Diane Johnson on How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti; Rachel Polonsky on Living Souls by Dmitry Bykov; Mary Beard on How to Win an Election: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians by Quintus Tullius Cicero; Alma Guillermoprieto on mexican journalists risking life for truth; Jean Strouse on Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece by Michael Gorra; Anne Applebaum: “How the Communists Inexorably Changed Life”; Claire Messud on Astray by Emma Donoghue; Amy Knight on The Moscow Bombings of September 1999: Examinations of Russian Terrorist Attacks at the Onset of Vladimir Putin’s Rule by John B. Dunlop.
Janet Malcolm: “What Happened to Michelle Malakova in Forest Hills?”; Elaine Blair on Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by D.T. Max; Joyce Carol Oates on Freud’s Sister by Goce Smilevski; Janet Malcolm: “The Fate of Michelle Malakova”; Zoë Heller on Joseph Anton: A Memoir by Salman Rushdie; Elizabeth Drew on voter rights; Janet Malcolm: “Michelle: Surviving in a Fixed World”; Zadie Smith: “Joy”; Ingrid D. Rowland on the exhibition Late Raphael; Cathleen Schine on Blown Away and Dear Life by Alice Munro; Hermione Lee on two books by Colm Tóibín; Nomika Zion on Siderot and Gaza; Rosanna Warren: “Toward High Point” (poem); Yasmine El Rashidi: “Egypt: The Rule of the Brotherhood”; Lorrie Moore on Homeland; Marcia Angell: “How to Die in Massachusetts”; Claire Messud on The Life of Objects by Susanna Moore; Joyce Carol Oates on The Round House by Louise Erdrich; Helen Vendler on Now All Roads Lead to France: A Life of Edward Thomas by Matthew Hollis; Sue Halpern on two books about dogs; Helen Epstein on Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children by Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner; Elizabeth Drew: “Are the Republicans Beyond Saving?”; Fiona MacCarthy on The Pinecone: The Story of Sarah Losh, Forgotten Romantic Heroine–Antiquarian, Architect, and Visionary by Jenny Uglow; Cathleen Schine on Odds Against Tomorrow by Nathaniel Rich.
Francine Prose on The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates; Florence Williams on Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen; Diane Johnson on two books about Scientology; Alison Lurie on The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud; Anka Muhlstein on the exhibition Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity; Mary Beard on Spartacus by Aldo Schiavone; Marcia Angell on Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study by George E. Vaillant; Joan Acocella on Isadora Duncan; Elizabeth Hardwick on Sylvia Plath (reprint); Anne Applebaum on Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg with Nell Scovell and The End of Men and the Rise of Women by Hanna Rosin; Jenny Uglow on Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson; Susan Sontag on Simone Weil (reprint); Zoë Heller on Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers by Janet Malcolm; Anna Somers Cocks: “The Coming Death of Venice?”; Joyce Carol Oates on two books by Derek Raymond; Aileen Kelly on Isaiah Berlin: The Journey of a Jewish Liberal by Arie M. Dubnov; Elaine Blair on Sontag: Reborn; Terry Castle on two biographies of Sylvia Plath; Hermione Lee on The Selected Letters of Willa Cather; Paula Bohince: “Carousel” (poem); Hannah Arendt: “Reflections on Violence” (reprint); April Bernard on Metaphysical Dog by Frank Bidart; Joan Didion on Bob Woodward (reprint).
Foreign affairs (Alma Guillermoprieto on Venezuela, Stephanie Giry on Cambodia, Amy Knight on Russia, Haleh Esfandiari on Iran, Yasmine el Rashidi on Egypt, Sarah Birke on Syria, Ingrid Rowland on Italy);
Philosophy (Agata Sagan);
Politics (Elizabeth Drew);
History (Natalie Zemon Davis);
Human rights (Helen Epstein, Xiaorong Li);
Film (Francine Prose, Emily Eakin);
Television (Elaine Blair);
Poetry (April Bernard);
Art (Negar Azimi)
The letter is odd for a couple of reasons, the main one being, as Belieu says, “As if we didn’t already have this information. Hence our letter.” The implication kind of seems to be that the ladies at VIDA don’t know how to count. And Silvers’s statement that the magazine “certainly hope[s] to publish more women writers” is oddly non-committal. It’s something you’d think he has control over, being the editor and all.
Judging from Silvers’s tone of total disinterest, that seems to be pretty much the end of that discussion.
“We don’t need them to engage if they don’t want to,” Belieu says. “But they–along with a bunch of other magazines– would benefit from actually listening to a conversation that is clearly important to a whole lot of literary consumers. What we’re asking them to do isn’t terribly difficult. Finding more super talented women writers really isn’t heavy lifting for an editor. And it could be a great pleasure if they’d allow it to be. As an editor for many years myself, I know that finding new voices is one of the most satisfying parts of the job.”
In the meantime, she says, “We at VIDA keep working to educate readers and writers about why it’s important to seriously consider what organizations you want to support. Like many others, I don’t eat at Chick-fil-a and I don’t shop at Walmart. I try and make ethical decisions as much as I possibly can about what I give my money to. We at VIDA will be encouraging others to do the same.”
There’s much more discussion about the NYRB over at VIDA’s Facebook page.