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Hard Facts: A Breakdown by Race of Books Reviewed at The New York Times

By Harriet Staff

Don’t stop us if you’ve seen this piece at The Rumpus already—one of our friends is even posting it on Facebook every half-hour to make sure we all do: Roxane Gay compiled data to reflect “where things stand” for non-white writers in the publishing industry (specifically looking at the breakdown by race of books reviewed at The New York Times).

Gay writes:

I tasked my amazing, incredibly thorough graduate assistant, Philip Gallagher, with looking at every book review published in the New York Times in 2011, identifying the race and gender of the reviewed titles’ authors. The project took fourteen weeks, with Philip going at it for about sixteen hours each week because the only way to find out the race of each writer was to research them. Information for some authors was more readily available than others. Some information was simply ambiguous. Some information could not be found. We originally set out to look at several major publications but without an army of volunteers, it will never be possible to compile a dataset on race similar to VIDA’s. It is simply too difficult to identify race without a great deal of effort and even then, it’s hard to know just how accurate that data is.

We looked at 742 books reviewed, across all genres. Of those 742, 655 were written by Caucasian authors (1 transgender writer, 437 men, and 217 women). Thirty-one were written by Africans or African Americans (21 men, 10 women), 9 were written by Hispanic authors (8 men, 1 woman), 33 by Asian, Asian-American or South Asian writers (19 men, 14 women), 8 by Middle Eastern writers (5 men, 3 women) and 6 were books written by writers whose racial background we were simply unable to identify.

Here’s the handy chart of dismal statistics:

She continues:

There’s a lot that’s incomplete about the data. Writers were grouped into rather broad racial and ethnic categories. The New York Times is only one publication, though certainly, it is one of the preeminent book review outlets. We only looked at one year. Without data about how many books were published by writers, across race, it’s hard to know if the numbers are proportionate or not.

Still.

The numbers are grim. Nearly 90% of the books reviewed by The New York Times are written by white writers. That is not even remotely reflective of the racial makeup of this country, where 72% of the population, according to the 2010 census, is white. We know that far more than 81 books were published by writers of color in 2011. You don’t really need other datasets to see this rather glaring imbalance.

These days, it is difficult for any writer to get a book published. We’re all clawing. However, if you are a writer of color, not only do you face a steeper climb getting your book published, you face an even more arduous journey if you want that book to receive critical attention. It shouldn’t be this way. Writers deserve that same fighting chance regardless of who they are but here we are, talking about the same old thing—these institutional biases that even by a count of 2011 data, remain deeply ingrained.

I don’t know how to solve this problem or what to do with this information. I’m not riled up. I’m informed….

Gay also writes, “The numbers are depressing but I cannot say I am shocked.”

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Posted in Poetry News on Thursday, June 7th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.