Saturday, February 12, 2011

I'm with Peter on this ...

... Women and men in the TLS.

You find the best reviewers that happen to come your way. You don't think about gender or race or whatever.

More comments. So I bumped the post.


  1. Really? You don't think that the imbalances are a sign of societal illness? Women are either valued drastically less than men or value themselves too little — a failure of democratic society in either case.

    I think any person would be hard-pressed to offer a formula for "the best" criticism. Reader response? Historical analysis? Craft and form? Idiosyncratic style, or journalistic lack of style? Short-form or long form? Academic deep insight or breezy general reader?

    Basically, we are being asked to ignore decades of insight into the way society works and pretend "the best" is an idea or measure with any content whatsoever. At least have the respect to say, "I do what I want and publish what I like," which is what is really meant. Or say, we fail to do what we need to do, but don't have the will or resources to change things.

  2. Well, actually, Daniel, I have been a book editor of a newspaper, and questions of gender or race never entered my mind. As it happens, I think I had a pretty even split between male and female. There is even the possibility that I had more women reviewers than men. You can ask Maxine Clarke, Katie Haegele,Helen Mitsios, Susan Balee, Eliza Fox, Meredith Broussard,Elizabeth Hoover -- oh, I could go on, but those are just a few names that pop into my mind. I don't know what those decades of insight are or where those precious insights came from -- I tend myself to rely on experience when it comes to insights -- but I think I know a good reviewer when I read their work. And I don't think about whether the reviewer is a man or a woman. I just don't think about such things.

  3. Susan Balee7:27 PM

    Check out the current issue of the Hudson Review (Winter 2011), Mr. Pritchard. I have an essay therein titled "Five Writers Reckoning." The five writers are Nadine Gordimer, Joyce Carol Oates, Maxine Kumin, Adrienne Rich, and Zadie Smith. The books of theirs I'm reviewing are compendiums of literary criticism they've published over the decades -- heavy weight stuff.

    Read what they've written and see if you think women value themselves too little, or if their male (or mostly male) editors do. I know Frank values women critics, as do all the publications I write for.

  4. I received an email this morning from Peter Stothard, containing the text of a comment Peter tried to make on this blog. It doesn't seem to have got through, so I reproduce it below:

    Daniel Pritchard is right that there are many kinds of book reviews - and many ways to judge them - 'Reader response? Historical analysis? Craft and form? Idiosyncratic style, or journalistic lack of style? Short-form or long form? Academic deep insight or breezy general reader?'

    That in no way invalidates the duty of editors to make judgements. Frank Wilson is one of those judges, a fine one, and it is important that his arts of judgement, and the arts of those equally committed and determined, survive in our turbulent times.

    At the TLS we take most seriously the requirement that the TLS selects, without prejudice, fear or favour, the writers who have the best things to say about the books we think are important.

    We use the word 'best' within a long and evolving tradition that defines what the TLS is.

    To give any requirement a higher priority than excellence - or to commission reviews for any other reasons than that - would risk the intellectual reputation that is more vital to us than any other.

    Quotas are not a new question. Sometimes readers of the TLS tell me we are favouring Oxford over Cambridge, Texas over Scotland, French over Spanish and yes, men over women. Publishers occasionally complain that they are systematically neglected. So do national champions and those who put the highest value on gender equality. We always note what is said.

    No one here, however, has specific instructions in that regard. Nor should they. Equality in any category would be hard to achieve, in every category impossible. I like to see reasonable balances - and would be concerned if it could be shown that Russia had double the representation of Germany, that Harvard produced twice the number of reviewers or books reviewed as did Yale.

    So, yes, Vida's pie charts are good food for thought - and a range of explanations, some of them well beyond the responsibility of editors, have already been given for them.

    The TLS is absolutely open to new critics and writers, young critics and writers, and to those who have new books to promote. That goes some way to explaining why, by Vida's standards, we do better than our closest competitors. I would expect that at the TLS more reviewers review more books by more writers from more places than at any other paper - although I am not about to take time out from editing to produce a pie chart that proves that.

  5. Anonymous3:48 PM

    As a practical matter, I don't think the question for editors is whether we turn stuff away because of who wrote it; it's what we seek out. It's a great big world out there, and most of us probably wish we did more to hunt out new writers where they lurk rather than rely on what presents itself to us. In many fields, including science, diplomacy, and much academic research, women still face formidable obstacles and don't have the time or professional security to develop a sideline as writers for a general audience. I think this is a factor in their presence in serious criticism.

  6. It's an impossible quibble, of course, but my quibble is with the term "the best." Says who? I've run into scads of situations where "the best" merely means "I like this"—I am not saying an editor in particular has made this obviously taste-based equation, but we all know it has happened many times before, and will again.

    And "the best" has a sidebar issue: The best, says who, where and when andy? I have been turned down lots of times not for writing less than the best, but for unsuitability. Not every match is a good one. There are some journals that have asked me to write for them, then rejected what I wrote. Submitting blind never gets me anywhere. Mostly you just get ignored.

    I know I am hardly unique in this experience.

    I publish periodic reviews on my blog which no one ever reads. Back when I was writing CD and concert reviews for a monthly print arts newspaper, at least I knew I had something of a readership. Ditto when I repeated some of my reviews on local community radio. These days the access to e-publishing is so easy that anyone can do it—but you end up shouting down a well because no one is listening.

    So I seriously question the idea that there is a "best" and that anyone can define it. I have read really well-written reviews that are laughably wrongheaded, and also brief throwaway reviews that really nail the book in question. I agree that reviewing is an art, and a worthwhile one—and far more useful than literary criticism, because at least with a review you're getting an honest reaction to a book, not a book reviewed because there was an ideological axe to grind.

    The idea that reviewers are genderless and equal in quality, as though voices in a vacuum, is an idea parallel to the idea that 1. quality can be determined objectively; and 2. that anyone can definitively say what it is. That's extremely debatable. So while I respect individual positions on the matter, as expressed here, I can't help but think that underlying it all is a hankering for the good ol' days, when none of this gender or other valuated stuff was on the radar. It's a hankering I don't share, because it has been proven many times that the lack of an agenda IS an agenda.

  7. Just to note: I've sent an email over to Peter in response; I certainly thought he deserved it, for being generous enough to engage with this issue publicly. Waiting to hear back from him.

  8. For those still at all interested, my letter to Peter Stothard in response: