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Back To Literature, Past
A Literary & Poetry Column
By Carolyn Howard-Johnson


On Toni Morrison, Reviewers, and Other Sad Tales

Right after Toni Morrison's book, Love, was published, I heard her speak at Book Expo America. I paid $25 for the privilege of hearing her and other book luminaries speak before a packed house of book sellers, librarians, reviewers and publishers who certainly weren’t there for the very light breakfast. I remember--and this may not be an exact quote—she said that her new book LOVE was a great book. Bravo! She is unashamed to acknowledge her own art just as she has taught her students to do over the decades.

Later that year, I was stunned to read Lev Grossman’s review of LOVE in Time magazine. He indirectly accuses it of not being much “fun,” as if that is the direction all novels should take. He makes a couple of snide comments about how difficult it is to read and accuses her of being drawn to ugly people. I know he that he knows literature, that he knows great characters (and characterization) are not necessarily pretty. And, get this! He says she gave way to some embarrassingly maudlin emotions. I asked myself, like what? Love?

That was when I started asking myself why Mr. Grossman had turned from reviewer extraordinaire into The Shredder. The answer did not come to me until yesterday. My fellow author, Leora G. Krygier sent me a clip from the alternative newspaper, Village Voice. It spotlighted a Brown University study that surveyed the New York Times Book Review. The inquiry found:

• 72% of all the books reviewed by the New York Times Book Review were by men.
• 66 percent of the reviews were written by men.

The editor of The NY Times Book Review, Chip McGrath, showed less contrition than Pete Rose. He said, “we don’t have any plans at the moment for changing how we review books,” and “I’m not convinced that we are guilty of a male bias—either consciously or un-.” He went on to explain that the reviews staff has more women than men. So why more reviews by men? Could it be that when he used the word “staff” the term included support personnel rather than writers?

McGrath also said that The Times has been trying to use their women reviewers on more publicity-prone books. Really why would that be?

And here’s the trigger: He says, “more books are written by men than women.”

I’d like to know where he came up with that zinger. Is he including all those romances and erotica (probably mostly written by women unless names like Kristie Leigh Maguire are pseudonyms for more masculine types)? Does he actually have a count of all those books that are subsidy and self-published lying around in his slush pile? If there is any such study that is reliable, I’d like to know just where they (and he) got that information and how?

Naturally, that got me to wondering what Time Magazine’s review of Morrison’s book would have been like if they had assigned a female reviewer.

After my award-winning novel This is the Place was published, a review of it was posted on This reviewer strenuously objected to what another reviewer had said, that my book was as surely part of the cultural past of Utah as Gone with the Wind was of the South. His objection was prompted by his belief that subtle discrimination and prejudices don’t count for much; they’re only important if they balloon to the dimensions of slavery or the holocausts. “Insensitive man,” I thought, practicing a little prejudice of my own. Two days later another reviewer, one of Amazon’s top reviewers at that—took him to task for his insensitivity, praised my book and lambasted Gone With the Wind. He, too, was a man.

Which brings me full circle to how the possible, even probable, imbalance between feminine and masculine perspectives at the New York Times Book Review affects their coverage. Do I believe that disparity exists? Yep. Do I think it is warranted because it reflects the existing inequality in the publishing world? No. Do I think there really are more men writing than women? I’m not so sure. It may be.

And therein lies the saddest tale of all.

Tips and Tidbits

(Each month in this box, Carolyn lists a Tidbit that will help authors write or promote better. She will also include a Tip to help readers find a treasure among long-neglected books or a sapphire among the newly-published.)

A Tip for Writers: :

Don't forget that I give a Noble (Not Nobel!) Prize for Literature every year. Check the January Back to Literature columns on this Web site for information. All past columns are archived and the Nobel is given each January.

A Tip for Readers' Tip:

Magdalena Ball and I coauthored a book of poetry to celebrate earth and the universe for Earth Day and every day of the Year. Sublime Planet is the first full book of poetry in our Celebration Series that includes chapbooks for holidays including Mother's Day, Father's Day, Christmas, Valentine's, and Women's Day. .

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