(Not) Everyone’s a Critic: Why the Lack of Female Literary Critics, Magazine Writers and Women in Media Matters

Tomorrow morning, I’m headed off to NYC (my fave city in the whole world!) to eagerly attend the 1st Annual Athena Film Festival, featuring documentaries and fictional films revolving around women and leadership.  If it’s a feminist event…you know I’m there!  Created to spotlight women in film, it got me thinking about the lack of women in media.

I’m reminded of the Franzenfreude brouhaha last year, sparked when novelists Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner condemned the dearth of female writers being reviewed after The New York Times critiqued Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom twice in one week.  I completely agreed (and still do) with the ire of Picoult and Weiner.  It frustrates and irritates me that the media often ignores women writers.  And when they do happen to pay attention, they reduce female authors’ work to fluffy, innocuous “chick-lit,” or as I prefer to call it women’s commercial fiction.  Author Cris Mazza recently wrote about her thoughts on “chick-lit” (a term she coined), the Franzenfreude debate, how “writing should never be safe,” the perceived perils of self-promotion and how the publishing industry has changed in the past 20 years. Regarding women’s commercial fiction in the 90s, Mazza argued,

“…The literary establishment’s view was simply: Men write about what’s important, and women write about what’s important … to women…The problem we have in overcoming this *is* marketing movements (some would call them “opportunities”) like the chick-lit feeding frenzy. The truth of it is that once the media successfully highlighted the first few seemingly alike books with the brand-name, a formula was born, and, alas, too many women were more-than-willing to follow the recipe and cash in. Then the sheer plethora of these books — with the sameness of their appearance, marketing, content and characters — solidified and publicly validated the already existent condescension about writing by women.”

Sadly, not much has changed.  As I’ve written many times before, men’s topics are lauded as momentous and significant while most women’s are viewed as silly and frivolous.  Because women’s works are often dismissed, less of their work is reviewed…what fueled the Franzenfreude debate in the first place.  But a gender divide doesn’t just happen with authors reviewed.  It also occurs with magazine writers too.  Anne Hays, founder of Storyscape Journal, called for a boycott of The New Yorker for their lack of featuring female writers. As Hays’ vitriolic open letter to The New Yorker states,

“Women are not actually a minority group, nor is there a shortage, in the world, of female writers. The publishing industry is dominated by female editors, and it would be too obvious for me to point out to you that the New Yorker masthead has a fair number of female editors in its ranks. And so we are baffled, outraged, saddened, and a bit depressed that, though some would claim our country’s sexism problem ended in the late 60’s, the most prominent and respected literary magazine in the country can’t find space in its pages for women’s voices in the year 2011.”

While a gender gap exists in the literary world with female authors not as likely to be reviewed as men, there’s a gender disparity within the reviewing world as well (there’s a shocker).  Melissa Silverstein at Women and Hollywood and Meghan O’Rourke at Double X recently wrote about a survey conducted by VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, an organization that seeks to increase dialogue and raise awareness of female writers.  VIDA examined the number of not only female authors reviewed in literary magazines, but also the number of female reviewers themselves. They looked at the gender stats for literary reviews in both large and small publications: The Atlantic, New York Times Book Review, Paris Review, Boston Review, Harper’s Magazine, London Review of Books, The New York Review of Books, The New Republic, The New Yorker, Poetry, Granta, The Threepenny Review, TLS (the Times Literary Supplement) and Tin House.  In only two (The Atlantic’s Cover to Cover Magazine and Poetry), that’s right two, did the female authors reviewed meet or exceed 50%.  And none of the publications’ book critics meet gender parity.  The privilege of patriarchy means men don’t necessarily feel compelled to think about gender and/or sexism.  Not that men don’t or won’t review women but that they’re not stepping outside their comfort zone.  Female critics may also be more likely to seek out works written by other women.

Katha Pollitt at Double X advocates the solution to having more female magazine writers lies in hiring more female editors.  She posits,

“Do women lack self-esteem? Are they too mannerly to put themselves forward? Perhaps, as O’Rourke suggested, they’ve avoided the subjects the male gatekeepers want to cover?…There is probably a bit of truth in all these points: Women do often doubt their knowledge and abilities, and their diffidence probably explains why the pool of writers sending in pitches and proposals and unsolicited manuscripts is, at most magazines, disproportionately male. Women are indeed less likely than men to take up stereotypically male subjects…But it doesn’t explain the other side of the equation…Editors don’t just sit around waiting for writers to get in touch. Female psychology doesn’t explain why women writers who do publish don’t more often become regular contributors, or why they don’t get bigger assignments and regular columns and beats. It doesn’t explain why women are so regularly published on dance—indeed dance seems to be the only critical domain women have a lock on—but not on books. And it doesn’t explain why women’s magazines have no trouble finding women writers, including some pretty good ones. It’s naive to think that the fact that most top editors are men isn’t part of the story.”

While I don’t think that having more women editors would be a panacea to gender equity, it’s a great start.  But I think the problem is also that people believe that what women say, think and create exists outside the realm of what interests men.  Society views men’s books and films as suitable for everyone, while women’s exist merely for the enjoyment of women.  Once people realize that what women say matters equally to men, just maybe things will become more equal.  Maybe.

In addition to books and magazines, gender disparities also exist in film, TV and news broadcasts.  Last year, The Daily Show came under fire for their lack of female writers.  Melissa Silverstein often writes about the “Bigelow Effect;” as Kathryn Bigelow is the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar (and only 4 have ever been nominated) for The Hurt Locker, her victory will hopefully spur more female filmmakers to be funded.  Although that hasn’t happened yet.

Last month, the Women’s Media Center (WMC) sent young female journalists to the Sundance Film Festival to interview film directors and celeb activists Geena Davis, Robert Redford and Gloria Steinem.  They also created a video about the lack of women in media.  Some of the clip’s sobering stats:  77% of film critics are male, 8% of film writers are female, less than 30% of films’ speaking roles belong to women, less than 25% of women write op-eds, men comprise 67% of guests on major cable networks, only 24% of people interviewed on news programs are women.  If you haven’t seen WMC’s A-MA-ZING video, you MUST watch it.  I mean fabulous women protesting gender disparities in films, film production and news media AND set to Dar Williams’ music?! Priceless.

So what’s the problem with all this you ask?  I mean yes, women’s work is reviewed less but we already knew that, right??  The gender gap insidiously infiltrates every aspect of media.  It’s problematic in mediums where we need more women (female directors) but even in ones in which we possess an abundance of female artists (authors).  When it comes to reviewers, this gap is also crucial since critics influence how the public perceives social issues, pop culture and current events.  We form our opinions based on what critics and pundits do and don’t say, what they do and don’t review.  Everyone’s unique gendered experiences shape their views.  It’s important to read books written by and films created by women.  But it’s equally as important to read reviews written by women.  We’ll never achieve equity if we continue to silence half the population.

5 thoughts on “(Not) Everyone’s a Critic: Why the Lack of Female Literary Critics, Magazine Writers and Women in Media Matters

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention (Not) Everyone’s a Critic: Why the Lack of Female Literary Critics, Magazine Writers and Women in Media Matters | The Opinioness of the World -- Topsy.com

  2. I always enjoy the titles for your articles (especially liked this one, very clever!)

    It’s interesting, i was reading the editor’s letter for a publication that will remain nameless, and the acting editor mentioned, “…and when the next editor takes my place, whomever HE may be…” then in paranthesis “(or she)”, it sort of struck me, how it’s assumed the next big editor will be a male.
    It’s like he added “she” as sort of this politically correct aside, he had to do.
    But why not just say, “Whomever he or she, may be?”

    Also, as an avid reader of several guitar publications, there was a period where the editor added “fresh blood” as he put it, including the talents of three, new women writers & reviewers.
    A year later they were replaced by three “gear dudes.”
    The same, faceless “dudes” that populate every guitar magazine!
    Personally, i had enjoyed the input of the women writer’s, so i was at a loss as to why all three were suddenley absent.
    In fairness, the UK music magazines still feature women writers/reviewers (even the Guitar rags).

    I remember being a kid & reading Lisa Robinson’s articles in CREEM (R.I.P.) and CIRCUS, both influential rock publications, in the late 70’s-early 80’s.
    CREEM had several women writers, and these ladies had great knowledge & insight.
    It was a good balance between the sexes, and the writing appealed to everyone, not just men or women.

    “The New Yorker” always struck me as this sort of “Boy’s Club.”
    I think they are getting a bit crusty & need to broaden their scope, a bit.

  3. In the literary magazine world women dominate, their are more female editors, agents, writers, and readers than male. (LA Review editor Joe Ponepinto kept track, he is one of six editors, and the only guy)

    Loosen up, maybe women just would rather read what men write.

  4. Pingback: Cheryl's Mewsings » Blog Archive » Female Invisibility Bingo

  5. Pingback: Sexism and the City: VS Naipaul’s Offensive Comments on Gender & Female Writers

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