Reviews Page Redesign (And a Reflection on Sexist Reviewing Habits)

Books, Literature, Reviews, Writers

So I updated Biblioklept’s Reviews page.

The page had just been a list of the reviews, riffs, and essays published on the blog, with each new entry stacking up in chronological order. For years I’ve known that this unorganized review dump was essentially useless, and I’d been meaning to turn it into an alphabetical index—and I finally did. (I kept the chronolist too, mostly for myself).

Anyway, as I went through this boring, sort-of-arduous process, I couldn’t help but reflect on a few of the habits that manifest under the surface:

The obvious: The reviews on the blog trend very heavily toward male authors. I already knew this, but counting things up makes it plain:

To date, I’ve run reviews of approximately 221 authors (approximate in the sense that I counted only once); of those reviews, only 36 were books by women. That’s about 16%. (This analysis doesn’t even begin to consider the multiple reviews of authors—for example, there are like a ton of reviews of Roberto Bolaño books, but only one review of a Clarice Lispector book). This ratio runs counter to what I’d like to believe are my principles; the number certainly contrasts with the fiction and poetry that I run on the blog (public domain stuff), which trends toward female authors. The number also contrasts with the ratio of male to female authors — roughly 1:1 — that appear on my course syllabuses.

If my tone sounds defensive, it’s because it is. The Read Women 2014 project has helped to highlight sexist reading habits—including my own. Sexism—any kind of prejudicial ism (and every ism is prejudicial) manifests as a blinding structure: Part of the structuring condition of ideological sexism is that the sexist person usually cannot see that he is sexist (he cannot see that he cannot see). I’m not offering this as a defense of my own habits: I’m not saying, Look, I’m aware of my skewed reviewing habits, and my very awareness of my inherent sexism makes me less sexist, absolves, me, etc. (But look at how I rhetorically dance around simply writing, My reviewing habits are sexist; look at how I’m still unable to simply type I’m probably a sexist, let alone I’m sexist, let me hedge, use parentheses, etc.).

Can I turn attention away from myself and onto the aesthetic critic Harold Bloom? In his Paris Review interview, he claimed:

I do not for a moment yield to the notion that any social, racial, ethnic, or “male” interest could determine my aesthetic choices. I have a lifetime of experience, learning, and insight that tells me this.

Bloom’s statement is a perfect example of I cannot see that I cannot see. (Stephen Colbert essentially ridicules this kind of blindness on his satirical show The Colbert Report by repeatedly claiming that he is not racist because he cannot see color).

I think that (I know that) a certain male interest determines my aesthetic interest. At the same time, I understand Bloom’s resistance to the notion that aesthetics are somehow contingent on gender. Could a man have written “A Good Man Is Hard to Find?” or To the Lighthouse or Death Comes to the Archbishop or Their Eyes Were Watching God? (A man didn’t). We’d like to believe that the Great Stuff transcends the material world—that part of its timelessness is that it’s not bound to mortal gendered coils. Etc.

What about now? What about Read Women 2014? I’ve been reading more women authors, I think, but I haven’t been reviewing them. I recently reread Flannery O’Connor’s collection Everything That Rises Must Converge, some Gertrude Stein I’d never read before (including Tender Buttons), and some short stories by Eudora Welty and Willa Cather. I’ve read far less contemporary stuff though, although I did review Jessica Hollander’s excellent collection In These Times the Home Is a Tired Place. In general though, I tend to read less contemporaryish fiction now than I used to—I’m reading three books now, and only one is by a living author (Ben Marcus). Of the three books I’m reading now, only one is by a woman (Zelda Fitzgerald). Of the last ten book reviews published on this site, four are of books by women.

Data and numbers are unappealing—especially when they quantify something we (and when I write we you know I mean I) don’t want to acknowledge. We’d (I’d) rather qualify than quantify. Etc.

I suppose it’s the idea of a conscious effort that so repels some of us (me). The notion that I (we?) might have to make an actual intellectual (not aesthetic, perhaps non-intuitive) effort to differentiate our reading. But that’s what it takes, right? An effort. A recognition. A looking.

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4 thoughts on “Reviews Page Redesign (And a Reflection on Sexist Reviewing Habits)

  1. I couldn’t agree more and, like you, am being far more deliberate about reading more women this year. If anything I think I’d prefer to see an imbalance in my reading (say 70:30) as a corrective to the male-dominated voice which prevails in any form of media. It isn’t as though there are a shortage of great books by women.

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  2. I’ll tell you what’s worse: being a woman and realizing that you are biased against reading books by your own gender. No, I don’t deliberately seek out written by men more often, or choose to read them based on that single factor, but I have noticed that I tend to evaluate books written by women & men quite differently. I expect female writers to be more… self-aware, I guess would be the term. I generally cut male writers more slack. Very odd, no?

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  3. It really feels like the readwomen2014 deal is taking off, and not because there is an organized attempt, but because so many different people/outlets/websites, etc. all started thinking and feeling, because feeling does matter here, the same thing around the same time. I went into this year thinking about reading more women, then discovered so many other people were on the same page.

    Critical Flame is on this in a big way, dedicating the year to women writers: http://criticalflame.org/note-from-the-editor-in-which-the-critical-flame-dedicates-one-year-to-women-writers-and-writers-of-color/. I’ll be working on an essay/review of two books for them: Sworn Virgin, by Elvira Dones and We are the Birds of the Coming Storm by Lola Lafon. I’m excited about both, and about how they could play off each other as a pair.

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