On gender and book reviewing (@AusWomenWriters #AWW2018, with thanks to @tony_domestico)

 

On one of the rare occasions where almost every article recommended on Twitter is thought-provoking, my attention was drawn to an essay titled “Men Reviewing Men: Why was I never asked to write about a female author?” The author, Anthony Domestico (@tony_domestico), is an assistant professor of literature at the State University of New York’s Purchase College. He is also the books columnist for Commonweal Magazine (@commonwealmag).

In his essay, Domestico confessed: “It took seven years of reviewing, usually around a piece a month, before an editor asked me to take a look at a female author.” He then discovered his own male-to-female pitch ratio was “something like three to one: for every three Franzens I was interested in reviewing, I was interested in one Morrison”. Consequently, in an effort to rectify this “casual misogyny of literature culture”, he had to CONSCIOUSLY pitch more reviews on female than male writers.

Domestico offered two possible explanations on why even the most liberal-minded male editors and literary critics tend to “naturally” focus on books written by men. His words are worthy of being quoted to some length:

“First, there’s the unspoken assumption that, as a male writer, I’ll be more interested in writing about other male writers. In our culture, assuming that gender determines readerly interest starts young… This readerly sorting-by-gender isn’t specific to my suburban Massachusetts upbringing; it’s a fact of American culture. When reading suggestions do cross gender lines, it’s almost always in one direction: it’s far more common that a young, bookish girl will have Charles Dickens suggested to her than that a young, bookish boy will have George Eliot suggested to him. Why wouldn’t my editors, consciously or unconsciously, think I’d be more interested in Junot Diaz than Joy Williams when they’re told this, explicitly and implicitly, all of the time?”

In Domestico’s view, the other possible explanation is that men might be more equipped to write on male instead of female writers. In his words: “If to fully inhabit and make aesthetically convincing a particular identity requires experience of that particular identity, then might the same be true for criticism?” Domestico rejected this argument, because: “Sharing an identity with one’s protagonist might make things easier for the novelist, but it’s certainly not necessary.” He further quoted American author C.E. Morgan: “The project of the novel is founded on the inhabitation and depiction of the Other. And the Other is everywhere and every thing, including the so-called self.” Domestico then argued: “The project of criticism [is] to fully inhabit the perspective of the Other who is the author, to treat this perspective first with sympathy and then with analytical distance. The best critics are those who engage with such difference imaginatively and daringly.”

Regarding gender, we already know that both the Vida Count in America and the Stella Count in Australia track the percentage of male and female reviewers published, as well as the percentage of male and female authors reviewed, in leading literary journals/magazines. Knowing that book reviewing “in the shrinking world of print” is a “zero-sum game”, Domestico urged editors to offer more review assignments to women, because “every review of a female author that I publish is a review not published by a female critic”.

I agree with Domestico’s conclusion: “The solution to this unjust system has to be both to encourage more female critics and to assign more female authors to both male and female authors.” More importantly: “More boys need to read female authors; more male critics need to write on female authors; more female critics need to be asked to write, period.” With that said, Domestico’s essay got me pondering upon several other issues, which I want to discuss here. I believe this is what a good literary critic is capable of doing and should strive to do whenever possible, i.e. to encourage deep reading and provoke thinking beyond the writing.

For example, I wonder whether the Vida Count and the Stella Count could take into consideration the slow yet steady decline of readership “in the shrinking world of print”, and shift their attention to investigating how female authors and reviewers are performing on the Internet. While it is nearly impossible to grasp the number of books reviewed everyday on the Internet and the genders of their authors and reviewers, I believe there is a healthy growth in recent years not only in the number of female authors being reviewed, but also in the number of female critics reviewing authors of both genders.

A related issue is how book reviews are perceived these days. We all know one of the best ways to support authors is to review their books. To inform authors how much we enjoy their work is to encourage them to keep going. More importantly, to provide critical, constructive and courteous feedback helps drawing attention to the existing and emerging strengths of an author’s work. Contrary to the common notion that to be critical is to express disapproval, I like the idea that criticism is all about exploration, evaluation and interpretation. Book reviewing should also be like this: We strive to offer authors as much inspiration and delight as that which we have found in their writing, so we can learn from each other.

But book reviews are increasingly seen as a way to help authors sell their books. For example, a casual search leads me to a certain popular article on the Internet, which explains to aspiring and emerging authors “why book reviews are extremely important to your publishing success”. It basically says that because people are talking (good or bad) about a book, it proves they have bought and read it, which in turn enhances other people’s trust in this book and legitimises its author. The key sentence: “At the end of the day, based on Amazon’s algorithm, reviews influence how much they’re willing to recommend your book and THAT has a HUGE IMPACT on your book sales.” As a result, we are led to believe the easiest way to support authors is to give five stars to their books, whatever their merits or faults are. We are spoon-fed with the MISCONCEPTION that writing is all about money, while reading and reviewing books is just a tool to boost sales.

Finally, as a supporter of the Australian Women Writers Challenge since 2016, I know I often “consciously” choose to read and review books by female authors. While I also read and review male authors whenever I can, I am often fascinated by the number, quality and diversity of books written by women in Australia and overseas. In many cases, female authors present stories about women in all kinds of human relationships, which are well written and widely embraced by women, as demonstrated by the number of reviews these stories receive. On occasions where female authors tackle those themes that are traditionally considered to be relating to men, I find these authors doing a fine job probing men’s inner struggles and how the manifestation of men’s conflicting beliefs, desires and intentions can impact on individuals and communities around them.

Hence I would join Domestico in urging more men and boys to read more books by female authors. But I would also encourage women to write more about men, as well as reading and reviewing more books by male authors.

Image thanks to: “Women’s Rights and Gender Equality”, Peace Palace Library.

 

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