The Rise of the Female Book Review Editors: Will Anything Change?

A guest column written by Joanna Scutts.

The most recent VIDA count of men and women in the book criticism business, from bylines to books reviewed, depressed and enraged plenty of writers. Most publications were silent or defensive, blaming the disparity on the fact that women don’t pitch as often as men, while a very few acknowledged the problem and spoke seriously about institutional bias, and their efforts to correct it. One thing the count doesn’t measure, however, is the masthead. There’s evidence there that some female book critics are doing very well indeed, and the appointment of women as senior editors raises the question of whether this might change the culture at their publications. I’m a skeptic of any and all claims about trickle-down benefits, but perhaps there’s some cause for hope here.

Two high-profile posts in the field of books and culture coverage will soon be held by women: Pamela Paul is set to replace Sam Tanenhaus as editor of the New York Times Book Review, and Ann Hulbert has been appointed books and culture editor of The Atlantic, following veteran literary editor Benjamin Schwarz. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Paul—who was originally hired as the children’s book editor at the Review—was full of praise for her publication, her predecessor and her staff, including regular female reviewers Parul Sehgal, Alida Becker, and Jen Szalai. And Katha Pollitt, for one, has suggested that increasing the number of powerful, high-profile female editors is the only way to get female byline counts up.

In interviews Paul repeatedly emphasizes that the NYTBR is the last remaining stand-alone book review section in the country, and she therefore has a keen sense of its importance and the urgency of her role. She won’t speak to any concrete changes she has planned, but points to the paper’s increased coverage of book apps and e-books as evidence of their commitment to innovation. The popular Q&A section “By the Book” is her baby, too, and suggests some recognition of the movement in books coverage toward recommendation and personal testimony. Asked directly about the VIDA numbers by Poynter, Paul expressed a commitment to “diversity” in the Review, but didn’t go into details about how she might guarantee it. After all, the responsibility of being the Last Review Standing is also a kind of freedom: Hey, we exist. What more do you want?

In his memo appointing Ann Hulbert to the role of books and culture editor, Atlantic editor-in-chief James Bennett praised her extensive experience writing for many of the magazines that came in for a VIDA drubbing, including The New Republic, The New Yorker, and The New York Review of Books. She’s currently a Spencer fellow at Columbia’s Journalism School, studying community college reform, and like Pamela Paul is the author of three books (both editors have, incidentally, written books about parenting and parenting culture.)

Hulbert is not alone in her impressive credentials: Kathryn Schulz at New York magazine, Laura Miller at Salon, and Ruth Franklin at The New Republic (not to mention Janet Maslin and Michiko Kakutani at the Times) are certainly evidence that there are women at the forefront of cultural criticism right now, at least as it survives along a narrow, traditional, New York-Washington axis.

The newly elected president of the National Book Critics Circle, Bloomberg News’ Laurie Muchnick, is also, it seems, committed to taking seriously VIDA’s numbers and keeping the count in the news. She’ll be chairing an NBCC panel at this year’s Book Expo America about “The VIDA Count and Gender Bias in Book Reviewing,” along with Pamela Paul, Kathryn Schulz, novelist Meg Wolitzer, and poet Erin Belieu. Also on the panel is Rob Spillman, editor of Tin House—one of the few journals reviewed by VIDA to take active, and successful, steps to correct its gender imbalance, by acknowledging the problem and making concerted efforts to reach out to women and scaling back its calls for men to submit. Yet the NBCC also needs to look to itself: Just nine of its 24 board members are women, and exactly twice as many men as women (16 to 8) have won its Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing since the award’s inception in 1987.

Oh, excellence. Such an admirable, and such a slippery idea. It sneaks in just after the commitment to “diversity” and catches it by the tail: But after all, we only want the best. When asked about what goes into deciding which books to review, Paul replied, “We ask ourselves, ‘does this book matter?’” The obvious follow-up question—to whom?—is elided. Will this interest our readers? isn’t the point; it’s clear from a cursory glance at the Review that the names on the bestseller lists (Mary Higgins Clark, Lisa Scottoline, James Patterson, David Baldacci) only rarely cross over with the subjects of serious, front-page reviews, and the books people are buying bears only the tiniest resemblance to the books that are covered in its pages. So books that matter becomes a pretty circular proposition: Books that matter are those that matter to the people who say they matter: overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male reviewers.

The problem with all this, as I see it, is not a problem of goodwill, and when we try to make it one, we get bogged down in not-terribly-useful ad hominem attacks about bias. No editor, male or female, sets out to promote male authors or reviewers, white authors, coastal authors, or any other privileged group. But we all have biases in our reading preferences.

For example: I’m not a genre reader, and with the exception of Dorothy L. Sayers, haven’t read any mysteries (not even Gone Girl!) romances, sci-fi, fantasy, or YA novels in years. I’m wary of the murky waters of self-publishing, having worked in enough editorial roles to fear the delusion, exploitation, amateurishness, trolling, and plain old crazy that swims around there. I get excited by cultural history, essays, literary fiction, criticism, war histories, and forgotten early twentieth-century books, and that tends to be what I pitch and review. But I would never dream of saying that what I like to read is more important than what you like. Good, smart writing—the best of its genre, as judged by those who immerse themselves in it—should be reviewed, and discussed, and rewarded, however it came into the world, and wherever in the bookstore (yep, I’m an optimist) it happens to be shelved.

So what it comes back to is what it always comes back to: There’s not enough space for everybody—or rather, there’s not enough space in the little sunny garden where writers are paid for their work. There’s limitless space in the shade. Freelance book reviewing for even high-profile newspapers and magazines pays a (very) few hundreds of dollars a pop, and it works out to a pitiful hourly wage once you factor in the time it takes to read the book with care and attention. I do it because I love it. But if we really care about the diversity of book reviewing and book reviewers, the best thing we can do is pay for it: Donate or subscribe to online reviews, make it possible for them to pay their writers, and make it possible for writers to at least break even by reading and writing smartly about books and culture.

Diversity is a numbers game: It’s up to all of us to get the numbers up.

Joanna writes about books and culture for The Washington PostThe Wall Street Journal, and the online reviews Open Letters Monthly, The Millions, and Biographile. Joanna is also associate editor of PEN America, the biannual journal of the PEN American Center, and teaches writing and research at NYU’s Gallatin School.