World Of Literary Criticism Surprisingly Not Immune To Widespread Sexism In Society

CREDIT: MERRICK MORTON/20TH CENTURY FOX
CREDIT: MERRICK MORTON/20TH CENTURY FOX

On Tuesday, VIDA Women in the Literary Arts released their annual count of female representation in literary journalism. The VIDA Count, started in 2010, “break[s] down 39 literary journals and well-respected periodicals, counting genre, book reviewers, books reviewed, and journalistic bylines to offer an accurate assessment of the publishing world.” Included in the yearly roundup: The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, and The New Yorker.

This year, for the first time, VIDA started tracking the representation of women of color. By the organization’s own admission, “our dataset is incomplete, and that is the key point we wish to begin interrogating.”

The VIDA Count typically affirms what attentive readers already know: in the vast majority of these publications, men outnumber women both in number of bylines and in number of books reviewed. Unfortunately, 2014’s results are no exception, though there is some news worth celebrating. Repeat offender NYT Book Review, arguably the most influential publication VIDA tracks, has increased female representation overall (bylines and books reviewed) from 38 percent in 2010 to 47 percent, so close to parity you can almost taste the equality. And 52 percent of the book reviewers for the NYT Book Review were women.

As this year’s report is “cautiously pleased” to share, “Harper’s deputy editor, Christopher Beha, followed through on last year’s public proclamation for improvement.” From 2013 to 2014, “female Book Reviewers grew by 11 percentage points, from 29 percent to 40 percent of the total reviewers, and female-penned bylines increased by 10 percentage points.” The New Republic, acknowledged last year that their stats were “more what you would expect from 1964 than 2014” and increased female representation by seven percentage points, to an honestly-not-great-but-better-than-before 29 percent.

Meanwhile, The Paris Review backslid. In 2013, 51 percent of the overall pie (essays, fiction, interviews and poetry) belonged to women, but last year that number plummeted to 40 percent. The Nation has barely improved since 2011.

Even allowing for the caveats in VIDA’s dataset about women of color (their methodology is explained, in great detail, here), the numbers about women of color are particularly disheartening. Check out the NYT Book Review:

CREDIT: VIDA
CREDIT: VIDA

And The New Yorker:

CREDIT: VIDA
CREDIT: VIDA

Why document the marginalization of women of color in a separate data set? As WAM! (Women, Action & the Media!) executive director Jamia Wilson writes on the VIDA site, “This year’s attempt at counting women of color paves the way for a deeper public conversation about who has power and privilege at all levels of the literary landscape — and how that impacts whose voices are heard… Drawing attention to where disparities exist through this attempt at counting women of color in the literary landscape is an important step towards moving our work, and our stories from margins to the center.”