"The best reviews of the most important books"

By Harriet Staff

Ruth Franklin, in The New Republic, responds to VIDA’s recent count of gender disparity in major US publications. She refocuses part of the blame: instead of forefronting the disparity in magazines, Franklin points out the disparity in publishing houses:

We looked at fall 2010 catalogs from 13 publishing houses, big and small. Discarding the books that were unlikely to get reviewed—self-help, cooking, art—we tallied up how many were by men and how many were by women. Only one of the houses we investigated—the boutique Penguin imprint Riverhead—came close to parity, with 55 percent of its books by men and 45 percent by women. Random House came in second, with 37 percent by women. It was downhill from there, with three publishers scoring around 30 percent—Norton, Little Brown, and Harper—and the rest 25 percent and below, including the elite literary houses Knopf (23 percent) and FSG (21 percent). Harvard University Press, the sole academic press we considered, came in at just 15 percent.

Small publishing houses didn’t fare any better. So what conclusions can we draw from this? Well, that’s up for debate. But the first and most obvious conclusion is that we need to rethink the way we value literary objects, as this quote from Peter Stothard makes clear:

Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement, told The Guardian that he refused to “make a fetish” of having an equal number of male and female contributors. “The TLS is only interested in getting the best reviews of the most important books,” he said. I, too, like to think I choose the books that I review for their inherent interest, their literary quality. But the VIDA statistics made me wonder afresh about the ways we define “best” and “most important” in a field as subjective as literature, which, after all, is deeply influenced by the cultural norms in any given age.

Originally Published: February 7th, 2011