Faced with credible accusations of gender inequality in the bylines of the august New York Review of Books — which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary — longtime editor Robert Silvers had two choices: publish more women or mansplain why The New York Review so obviously favors male writers. Lamentably, he chose the latter. Guess how that's gone over.
Since 2010, an organization called VIDA: Women in Literary Arts has published a study called "The Count," which, in the organization's own words, charts "the rates of publication between women and men in many of our writing world’s most respected literary outlets." Many of our finest publications come off looking poorly, but The New York Review's bias appears to be especially flagrant:
And then came a recent issue of the Review that was almost hilariously absent of women (well, OK, there was an essay Joan Didion — but it was a reprint of an older piece, so...), which, according to a thorough Village Voice report, led VIDA members to send a letter to Silvers that led, in part:
We write to express our disappointment with NYRoB's editorial practices. Your organization's ongoing dismissal of women writers generally is exhibited yet again in your August 15th issue. That issue included 26 pieces by male writers and 1 by a female writer. Of the 29 books reviewed, only four were written or co-written by women.
In a country in which women represent the majority of literary consumers, this gender bias on your part has come to appear willful, or else weirdly tone deaf to the cultural conversation happening around you.
It should be noted that the preceding issue of The Review had elicited a similar outcry, with Salon positing that the publication has "a woman problem."
Silvers, according to The Voice, has responded to VIDA with a letter of his own, one that does not appear to have allayed concerns. Silvers wrote:
In response to recent comments about contributions by women to the New York Review, I want to say that we certainly hope to publish more women writers. But I wonder if our critics have fairly considered the many reviews, essays, and poems by women that have appeared in the Review and on the Review's blog. A list of their contributions just during our last year of publication follows. No one who has read the work of these writers could say that the New York Review dismisses the work of women writers generally, or that the New York Review "believes women have little to add to our country's literary conversation."
He then proceeds to list women who have written for both the print edition of the Review and the NYRblog. As The Voice notes, there's little reason to do so, since VIDA had already counted female contributors. Merely putting them in list form may look impressive, but it does not obscure basic facts. After all, a similar list of male contributors would be significantly longer.
Nor were others mollified by Silvers's response. This morning, The Daily Dot ran an item that said, flatly, "the NYRB has so far failed to get the memo that inclusivity matters to, well, most of publishing at this point."
Twitter, too, has been aflame with indignation, a good part of it coming — refreshingly — from men:
NYRB's feeble response to the VIDA count: http://t.co/fwX5iXDhy8— DanielleLaVaqueManty (@dlavaque) August 23, 2013
The editor of NYRB mancounts all those women he's published for the benefit of those who'd written to him http://t.co/KkRw1AVQEx— Stephen Murray (@smurray38) August 23, 2013
Sexism at New York Review of Books: It publishes mostly men, responds to criticism w/ condescending form letter. http://t.co/EgPEkv9vtS— Michael Pilla (@michaelpilla) August 22, 2013
Perhaps the greatest irony here is that The New York Review of Books was co-founded by Barbara Epstein. Writing of the female greats who once found a home in The Review (Didion, Susan Sontag, Mary McCarthy), Michelle Dean of Flavorwire argued, "every time they do something like this they are betraying a part of what made The Review the institution it now is: the women who formed it." Amen to that.