The New York Times Book Review has never exactly embraced passionate advocacy—unless it was promoting Pynchon's and DeLillo's place in the postmodernist canon. Even worse, it has become the place where serious feminist books come to die— or more accurately, to be dismissed with the flick of a well-manicured postfeminist wrist.
Recently, Times editors—in both the daily paper and the Sunday section—have trotted out a particularly insidious formula for bashing feminist authors. First, hire a female reviewer to unleash misogynist tropes in her piece and then, lest she appear prejudiced against her own gender, throw in an illogical, contradictory statement about the importance of a less threatening version of feminism that isn't so "polarizing," "provocative," or "strident."
The emergence of this pattern has been troubling for feminist bookworms. One nasty review was irritating, two were bewildering, and three or more became evidence of a downright bias. Professors and journalists have chastised the editors of the Sunday section for ignoring female authors and reviewers. Despite the fact that women constitute a majority of book buyers, the Times has made merely a passing effort to achieve parity on its pages. For instance, none of the paper's "Top five novels of 2007" were written by a woman, and only 13 of 50 on its short list were female-authored.
Beyond this, though, books that take women's issues in hand are rarely taken seriously. It's not just that they are criticized, which they are, but rather that the books, their authors—and heck, the whole feminist movement—are routinely treated with a mixture of giggly naïveté and barbed antifeminist prejudices. In a 2007 op-ed for In These Times, media critic Susan J. Douglas noted that there's "a robust tradition in the Times Book Review to stereotype feminists as single-minded, humorless ideologues who march daily to some shrine where we all genuflect before images of Elizabeth Cady Stanton."
Douglas's analysis is painfully true. In the past two years of book reviews, one can find almost every conceivable antifeminist stereotype applied with splashy strokes. Feminists are bra-burning, smelly, party-crashing, armed and dangerous, pushy, desexualized women who are living in the past and deserving of their own bad reputation. Here, without comment, are some choice excerpts from recent reviews of books with a staunchly feminist agenda.
From gossip blogger Ana Marie Cox's review of Katha Pollitt's Virginity or Death!: "Young, educated, and otherwise liberal women who might, in another era, have found themselves burning bras and raising their consciousness would rather be fitted for the right bra…and raising their credit limit. Katha Pollitt is the skunk at this Desperate Housewives–watching party."
From parenting writer Eugenie Allen's review of Leslie Bennetts's The Feminine Mistake: "Forget about carrot versus stick: Bennetts uses a battering ram. Despite the author's claim that she has no interest in the Mommy Wars, this book is a battlefield."
From former ballet dancer and anal-sex memoirist Toni Bentley's review of Pollitt's essay collection Learning to Drive: "An enraged, educated woman (Vagina dentata intellectualis)…is a force to be reckoned with, a kind of intellectual Mike Tyson—though, apparently, she is still not as likely to be seduced into bed as the bombshell bimbo, one reason she's so irate."
From Arts section doyenne Michiko Kakutani's review of Susan Faludi's The Terror Dream: "This, sadly, is the sort of tendentious, self-important, sloppily reasoned book that gives feminism a bad name."
Kakutani's opening line is particularly perplexing because it reveals her belief that feminism has a bad name to begin with (it certainly seems to around the Times offices) and that feminists themselves, rather than sexism, are responsible for said bad name. This is an odd pair of presuppositions to admit when reviewing a book about a media pushback against feminism.
What's particularly devious about the Times' repeated use of such outdated stereotypes (besides the brazenness of including them to begin with), is that none of these arguments would be accepted from male reviewers; their words would be more easily identified as sexist tripe.
Pollitt reflected on this on the political blog Talking Points Memo soon after Bentley's review of Learning to Drive was published. "It's a strange experience to be attacked in virulently misogynistic language by a woman. I'm used to 'shrill' and 'rant' and other gender-coded terms.… But 'vagina dentata intellectualis'? That's low. If a male reviewer described a woman writer that way we'd never hear the end of it."
By spouting these insults, the reviewers are trivializing the books' issues rather than grappling with them. And by regularly publishing snarky, surface-skimming reviews under female bylines, the Times further undermines women's status in the intellectual arena.
Ironically enough, a week before Kakutani's review of The Terror Dream was published, the New York Times Book Review's John Leonard wrote a glowing piece about the book and praised feminism with verbose and intellectually sophisticated generosity, without a personal dig in sight.
But you'd be hard-pressed to find much sisterhood in the pages of the Grey Lady. After all, this is the paper that for several years gave its sole female-penned spot on the op-ed page to provocateur Maureen Dowd. She spends a good deal of her column space using zippy, ill-conceived metaphors to shame female public figures like Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama back into the feminine sphere. In her book Are Men Necessary?, Dowd blames the failures of "Jurassic feminists" with their "black turtlenecks and Birkenstocks" and their "grubby, unisex jeans and no-makeup look" for her own inability to catch a man who can handle her success.
This is also the paper that, through a series of poorly reported, very highly placed stories, manufactured the myth of the intellectual woman's return to sainted motherhood. The "Opt-out revolution" is a myth that Faludi and Bennetts both take on quite aggressively in their books.
To sum it up, the highbrow catfight is a specialty of the Times publishing. And hiring writers like Cox and Bentley, who are dismissive of feminism, is a surefire way to keep the catfights coming. It's also a way to make sure that feminist tomes aren't put in the same arena as the "important" history books, biographies, and philosophy the Times so adores.
In her op-ed critiquing the Times' coverage, Douglas notes an example of this trend dating a decade back. The Times chose Karen Lehrman, author of 1997's The Lipstick Proviso, to review Notes from an Incomplete Revolution, Meredith Maran's memoir about reconciling the women's movement with family life. Given that Lehrman's own book was about pooh-poohing feminist "groupthink" and advocating for individualism, she was unimpressed with the revolution in question and Maran's take on it. Feminist politics, she wrote in her 1997 review, "are as outdated, repressive and condescending as the politics women set out to change."
The review provoked a furious letter from Skidmore College women's studies professor Mary Zeiss Stange. "Ms. Lehrman has made a career of bashing academic feminists.… I frankly do not recognize my colleagues in critiques by Ms. Lehrman and others who seem determined to forge their careers through the trivialization of other women's work."
The Times' hit squad of reviewers doesn't go so far as to reject feminism entirely. Each piece includes a wisp of pro-feminist rhetoric. Bentley wonders why Pollitt abandoned her "brilliant" political writings to write about her own mottled love life. A year earlier, Cox, in the course of panning those very "brilliant" writings that Bentley so admires, calls herself a feminist—but adds that "strident" feminism seems "preserved in amber" or perhaps in anger. Either way, she thinks it's "tacky."
Reviewer Allen says she agrees with Leslie Bennetts's thesis, but dismisses The Feminine Mistake for being too "polarizing" and declares she's going out to find Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique instead. Similarly, Kakutani compares Faludi's The Terror Dream unfavorably to Backlash and Stiffed, Faludi's previous books.
But where in the Times' extensive archives are the glowing reviews of these seminal works, these feminist classics on which the paper's sorority of snark looks back so longingly? It's hard to find many. And the reviews I found merely proved that the Times' literary misogyny isn't a recent phenomenon, but seems deeply entrenched in the culture of the newspaper.
I dug up a few old reviews: Apparently "provocative" was the "strident" of its time. Caryn James's 1991 review of The Beauty Myth calls Naomi Wolf's breakthrough "slick," "provocative," and "a mess" and compares it to a B movie, but beneath the sneer adds that it raises vitally important questions.
Even further back, the Times' 1963 review of Friedan's The Feminine Mystique called it "provocative" and "highly readable" but said Freidan's blame was misplaced. The reviewer, Lucy Freeman, wondered why Friedan castigates society when women themselves were such a convenient target. "What is to stop a woman who is interested in national and international affairs from reading magazines that deal with those subjects?"
Significantly, this pattern of negative reviews appears in a newspaper section where women's names still remain too scarce, and at a time where book reviews themselves are being cut from major newspapers about the country. In 2006 and the first half of 2007, the mystery writers' group Sisters in Crime monitored book review sections of major papers. They compared the number of female- and male-penned books reviewed across genres. In 2006, the percentage of male to female authors reviewed in the Times was 62.5 to 37.5; in the first six months of 2007, it was 65 to 35.
In my own informal accounting of three New York Times Book Review Sunday sections in late 2007, I counted 27 male-penned books to nine female and 26 male reviewer bylines to 11 female. All three covers featured male authors and male reviewers.
Several years ago, Paula Caplan, a scholar at the Pembroke Center for Women at Brown University, studied a year of the New York Times Book Review and found similar numbers. In an e-mail exchange that was published in the Village Voice in 2004, then-editor Charles McGrath told her, "We don't have any plans at the moment for changing how we review books.... I'm not convinced that we are guilty of a male bias—either consciously or un-." He also added that men write more books than women, an unproven claim that did little to explain the disparity.
Last year, New York Times Book Review editor Barry Gewen offered an even more ludicrous excuse. At a talk at Radcliffe College, Gewen said that the reason women don't get as much space in the section was because they don't write about topics like military history. After being criticized by bloggers and attendees alike, even he admitted it was an embarrassing "Larry Summers moment." But he also explained that the Times culls reviewers from a select pool of other publications. Many of these elite mags, like Harper's and the New Yorker, have similar or worse gender imbalances in their book sections.
The point isn't that feminist authors should be immune from criticism; it's that the playing field should be level. Why not hire someone like Barbara Ehrenreich or Linda Hirshman—women who have written for years on feminism—to grapple seriously with these books? Why not look for an angle that goes deeper than "These crusty old feminists just aren't with it"? If the Times wants to remain the paper of record, it should stop seeking out hostile reviewers whose main critical thrust is one of self-aggrandizement ("Don't worry, boys—I'm not strident like her!") and intergenerational antagonism.
Sadly, because the New York Times Book Review section is still revered by readers, publishers, and booksellers, its prevailing boys'-club treatment of women's work goes largely unremarked upon. But if feminism is as "tacky" and irrelevant as its editors seem to think, why make such a uniform effort to stifle its prominent voices?