Sunday, April 21, 2013

Reading between the lines

Maybe we don’t all judge books by their covers, but we do judge them by their dust covers where reviews are commonly printed. In the same way most of us would be reticent to try a restaurant without Yelp reviews, most of us would never dream of a foray into the unknown territory of a reviewless book. In fact, we probably wouldn’t even know most books existed if not for the reviews they receive upon publication, and for a lucky few, when they are chosen for national book clubs, like Oprah's. Reviews serve as not only a guide for readers, but also for book buyers and librarians to stock their shelves.  And those reviews can determine how a book is received, viewed, and read by audiences. But ultimately, how a book is reviewed (or not reviewed at all), carries a deeper meaning for readers who will judge and validate their own choices based on the opinions of very few at the top of the reading chain.

In the summer of 2010, authors Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner took book reviewers to task for their seemingly unanimous praise of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.  Both writers who have been derided as “commercial” and “chick lit” authors, spoke against literary reviewers in the New York Times over book selections and critiques. Picoult tweeted “NYT raved about Franzen’s new book. Is anyone shocked? Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren’t white male literary darlings.”  While these claims are not completely supported (the New York Times has given credence to female authors in the past), there is cause for concern. 

Oprah loves Jonathan Franzen but he dissed the initial invitation to O's book club saying the he wanted to reach a male audience...

VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts created infographics depicting the number of women-authored books reviewed as compared to men’s and the numbers of reviewers by gender. The charts are striking. And so are the implications. If a book’s reviews measure its acceptability, then there is something wrong with a system in which on average, women represent less than 25% of the literary pool as both authors and reviewers. The New Republic highlighted similar results:

            “The numbers are startling. At Harper’s, there were 27 male book reviewers and six female; about 69 percent of the books reviewed were by male authors. At the London Review of Books, men wrote 78 percent of the reviews and 74 percent of the books reviewed. Men made up 84 percent of the reviewers for The New York Review of Books and authored 83 percent of the books reviewed. TNR, I’m sorry to say, did not  compare well: Of the 62 writers who wrote about books for us last year, only 13 (or 21   percent) were women. We reviewed a total of 64 books, nine of them by         women  (14.5    percent). “We know women write,” poet Amy King writes on the VIDA website. “We know women read. It’s time to begin asking why the 2010 numbers don’t reflect those facts with any equity.” – The New Republic


Reviews drive the perception of a book, but what drives book reviews?  It is from four main sources that books are even considered for review in a prestigious publication like Harper’s or the New York Review of Books. Kirkus ReviewsLibrary Journal, and Booklist all drive mainstream book reviews through their summaries of titles. It is within these one paragraph descriptions of books that reviewers from mainstream sources take their cue.  These summaries also offer reviewers’ opinions about the books. And those opinions matter. A "starred"review in PW still increases a book'schance of getting media coverage and showing up in your neighborhood bookstore.  Unlike mainstream book reviewers, these reviewers are anonymous and sources from these publications say that they are academics, librarians, and subject specialists in the field. The subscriptions to these publications also cost much more than typical magazines that offer book reviews (between $100 and $450 per year). These anonymous reviews give popular reviewers a context with which to frame a book as it is being read. This influences ideas about genre, audience, and literary merit.

When it comes to mainstream book reviews - genre, authorship, and the reviewers themselves are elements that need to be taken into consideration.  In a heavily male-dominated arena that values “literary merit” over genre fiction (such as science fiction, romance, mysteries, etc.), reviews leave many books out of the running.  What we need to remember is that classic authors such as Raymond Chandler, Kurt Vonnegut, and Jane Austen were all considered genre writers at some point before becoming mainstream literary icons and that our biases towards genres are created by book reviews.  By not reviewing books that are considered genre pieces, especially novels about relationships authored by women that are often tossed into the romance pile, we as readers are missing out on plenty of books.

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