Wednesday, February 16, 2011

VIDA and Amazon: Charting Gender Bias in Reading and Reviewing

VIDA's study of gender bias in major review publications has put in numbers to what many of us have long felt: women writers do not get a proportional amount of attention from the mainstream press.

The study is well worth a look for all interested in contemporary literary culture, and I would also recommend reading Bookslut's on-going follow-up discussion about the matter. Frankly, I'm not surprised at VIDA's findings, but I am indeed surprised that anyone would be surprised about the findings. There's quite a bit more to be said about these matters, and I'm still mulling it over myself.

I will say, though, that VIDA's lede caught my attention: "Numbers don't lie. What counts is the bottom line." First, numbers may not "lie," but that's not the same thing as telling the truth. There are a host of reasons that these numbers might be misleading (though I don't think they are).

Second, and more interesting to me, is the idea of a literary "bottom line." VIDA suggests that review ratio is the ultimate measure of cultural attention, but is that the most telling barometer? I'm not sure that it is. Measuring the activity of the gatekeepers is interesting, but isn't what people are reading just as important, if not more so?

One could measure this in several ways (library lending, NY Times Bestseller Lists, Indie Bound Lists), but since Amazon will eventually do most of the bookselling in this country, I thought it would be a good place to start. So I looked at the 100 Bestselling Books, both overall and for Literature and Fiction, and here's what I found.

Of the Top 100 selling books, 47 were written by men, 39 by women (14 multiple-author books had an author of each gender or an institutional author).  

Of the Top 100 selling literature and fiction books, 54 were written by women and 46 by men. 

This suggests to me that what we see in the VIDA statistics is not overt gender bias on the part of readers and publishers, but by the literary-critical establishment, of which The New York Times, The Atlantic, et al are the most visible members. I don't have a totalizing explanation for why this might be, but I do have an idea for some part of it: the way we think about literature and literary history.

Literary criticism tends to be interested in influence and connection: we measure the greatness of today's work through what past great works it seems to be descended from. And the riverheads of literary history are overwhelmingly male. (Just as one example, The Modern Library's list of the greatest English-language novels of the 20th Century includes only six works by women. Time's list has 16. If we were to form lists for earlier centuries, this number would certainly decline). It stands to reason, then, that male writers are more likely to seem descended from the great (male) writers of the past.

What I am suggesting is that there is a bifurcation in literary "attention" between the male-centric world of capital-l Literature, and the habits and tastes of today's readers when it comes to gender (and probably a litany of other things). Which of these "bottom-lines" is more indicative and of what? I don't have an answer, but I suspect each individual's answer to that question say something about their position in the reading world.


  1. Nice try. But Amazon is not the nation's premier seller of books by a long shot. Even Borders, going bankrupt, beats them.

    And you are measuring, almost surely, a lot of books bought by men for women. Men use Amazon much more than women. Geek world.

  2. Mark-
    My mistake with the first. Deleted the link and part of the sentence. Fixed now.

    And I'd like to see statistics about who uses Amazon (and how you would measure who is buying for whom)

  3. It's only anecdotal, but in our household I (being female) use amazon far more than my (male) partner, like to a power of ten more (and I buy really odd books, but that's a different story).

    I do know that there are a lot more women online than people think, mothers with small children go on line when they're asleep so they can have an grown up conversation for example, and amazon is hardly a particularly geek orientated site.

    Anyway, I don't really have much of an opinion about whether selling more copies or getting more reviews is a surer indication of success but there is something I'd like to mention... the number of female authors who hide their gender by using initials instead of their first name, I can't speak for all cases but from reading an interview with J.V. Jones (The Baker's Boy, etc) I know that she uses initials specifically because she writes a genre (apparently) more associated with male authors. I'm not sure what exactly to conclude from that, but I thought it was interesting and sort of relevant.

  4. I find the statistic showing 54 of the 100 top selling literature and fiction works were written by women. I cannot speak for the literary-critical establishment as I take the majority of my recommendations from the blogosphere, letting the anti-establishment establishment weed out the literary-critical establishment rubbish. I believe you will continue to see marketers going directly to the consumer through social media avenues where users can follow other users whose tastes they trust. If that holds true, then the significant advantage female bloggers and literary influencers hold would logically give females a greater voice in future discourse... given the female bloggers and influencers do not exhibit a male author bias.

  5. Aiwevanya-
    I don't have a good sense of the gender breakdown of online shoppers, though I would bet it's pretty even.

    When I was compiling the gender breakdown of the Amazon list, I did have to Google a few of the authors with only initials for their first name. Of the handful with initials, only one was male.

    I think you are dead, dead right. We are all booksellers now (may have to think more about this)

  6. 'Measuring the activity of the gatekeepers is interesting, but isn't what people are reading just as important, if not more so?' I'm not sure this sentence takes into account the VIDA statistics for how many reviews are written by women. Bookslut's coverage has focused mostly on the low numbers of women reviewers at these publications, which poses a problem which is as great, but seperate, to the one of less women being reviewed in these publication. Looking at how many female authors are on those two Top 100 lists doesn't offer an oppossing point of success for these female reviewers specifically. I guess you're suggesting that one gender win is a gender win for all, which it is of course, but that still leaves female reviewers with another problem.

    As an extra point I'd say you're looking at sales vs industry notice which are two different things. It's wonderful to see that female authors sell so well, but that doesn't really have anything to do with the issue brought up by the VIDA statistics. Women are still not getting their work reviewed in these publications. The idea that review ratio may not be the ultimate barometer of cultural attention seems to me unimportant. It doesn't matter if the reviews don't really represent the place most people go to find out about books, they should still contain a decent attempt at an equal gender balance. We needs successful equality to appear in all areas.

    I'm also confused by this statement 'It stands to reason, then, that male writers are more likely to seem descended from the great (male) writers of the past.' Why wouldn't women writers' works seem to be descended from the great male writers of the past? Many literary women talk about great male writers being writers whose work they admire and take inspiration from.

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  8. Jodie-
    Thanks for your comment. Let me take this piece by piece.

    First, you are right that half of VIDA's study looked at the gender of the reviewers themselves. What I was most interested in here was the framing of the findings as being about the "bottom line," which suggests the final and most important accounting. For my part, I think that what people are actually reading makes more sense as the "bottom line" of literary culture. that's not to say gender equity in reviewing is not important, just that I find it interesting that VIDA it is the most important.

    Second, why do we care about industry notice? This isn't a rhetorical question. I would think that industry notice is a means to and end: sales. If sales do not manifest the same disproportion (though admittedly Amazon is only one data point to finding that out), then what is it we feel is lacking? This is the same question many were asking during the Weiner/Franzen debate: of what value, if not sales, is a review in THE ATLANTIC?

    Lastly, this one seems pretty apparent to me: it is easier for men to write in the vein of male writers (Virginia Woolf was the first to argue this). The "voice" of Western literary history is overwhelmingly male, which makes it considerably more difficult for women to be read through that voice. Notice I said "to be read" not "to write"; this is largely about how readers cast male writing as somehow more serious than female writing, apart from any material difference, if there is really even is any material difference.

  9. That last paragraph clears up my confusion about what you were saying, thanks. I'd probably have read VIDA's 'bottom line' comment as this being the final accounting in terms of whether gender does make a difference in getting reviewed, but it's pretty open for interpretation so your idea makes equal sense to me.

    As for 'of what value, if not sales, is a review in THE ATLANTIC' the value of status that being reviewed in large, visible literary publications and the value of being included in the mainstream literary conversation might lead indirectly to increased sales even though readers don't go from review to till directly. The more reviews in large publications, the greater a writers visibility, the more related bookish projects they're involved in (tv shows, radio shows, or just being asked to comment on issues), the greater their profile with the reader(who perhaps don't read the reviews) and another chance to increase sales appears. All speculation and overly simplistic I'm sure as there are so many factors involved in getting from publicity to sale, but maybe something to think about.

    I'm also thinking the value of just having your work included because it's good is important to female writers who are authors selling their books, but at the same time are women looking for equality in their profession. The monetary value is important here, but at the same that harder to explain value that we place on equality everywhere (that feeling that it is right for the proportion of women and men doing, or receiving the opportunity to do anything to be equal) matters. It's a weak phrase to say sales are so important, but it's also the principle of the thing (and who knows if I'd be saying that if I were an author) but it's something like that.

  10. Jodie-
    I would use your second paragraph as evidence that we are sort of collectively unsure of what the value of being reviewed is, beyond encouraging sales.