Sunday, December 5, 2021

On Toni Morrison, Reviewers, and Other Sad Tales


By Carolyn Howard-Johnson, multi award-winning writer of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry
 
(This is a reprint from a column I once wrote for a review website which is no longer living on the web, in part because of Covid. When I ran across it, I was reminiscing through the list of my columns. I took a minute to read it again because Toni Morrison is in the news…again! She is a target of another book-banning effort apparently because she tells the truth about slavery. This column isn’t about being “woke”—the word didn’t exist in its newer form back then. But generally speaking it is about bias and telling the truth and, in some sense, about how writers are keepers of truths. I thought it time to let its little light shine. The BEA breakfast was probably about 2004-ish. Maybe it’s time to read from Morrison’s trove of wisdom once again. And maybe to pass whatever book—or books—you choose along to anyone who is unfortunate enough to have never read one of her books which is now being attacked for being too “woke!”)
 
 
Right after Toni Morrison's book, Love, was published, I heard her speak at Book Expo America (BEA). I paid $25 for the privilege of hearing her and other book luminaries speak before a packed house of booksellers, librarians, reviewers, and publishers who certainly weren’t there for the very light breakfast. I remember—and this may not be an exact quote—she said that her new book Love is a great book. Bravo! She is unashamed to acknowledge her own art just as she has taught her students to do over the decades.
 
Later that year, I was stunned to read Lev Grossman’s review of Love in Time magazine. He indirectly accuses it of not being much “fun,” as if that is the direction all novels should take. He makes a couple of snide comments about how difficult it is to read and accuses her of being drawn to ugly people. I know he that he knows literature, that he knows great characters (and characterizations) are not necessarily pretty. And, get this! He says she gave way to some embarrassingly maudlin emotions. I asked myself, like what? Love?
 
That was when I started asking myself why Mr. Grossman had turned from reviewer extraordinaire into The Shredder. The answer did not come to me until yesterday. My fellow author, Leora G. Krygier, author of a newly minted memoir, sent me a clip from the alternative newspaper, Village Voice. It spotlighted a Brown University study that surveyed The New York Times Book Review. The inquiry found:
 
•      72% of all the books reviewed by the New York Times Book Review were by men.
•      66 percent of the reviews were written by men.
 
The editor of The NY Times Book Review, Chip McGrath, showed less contrition than Pete Rose. He said, “we don’t have any plans at the moment for changing how we review books,” and “I’m not convinced that we are guilty of a male bias—either consciously or un-.”  He went on to explain that the reviews staff has more women than men. So why more reviews by men? Could it be that when he used the word “staff” the term included support personnel rather than anyone allowed to write reviews?
 
McGrath also said that The Times has been trying to use their women reviewers on more publicity-prone books. Really why would that be?
 
And here’s the trigger: He says, “more books are written by men than women.”
 
I’d like to know where he came up with that zinger. Is he including all those romances and erotica (probably mostly written by women unless names like Kristie Leigh Maguire are pseudonyms for more masculine types)? Does he actually have a count of all those books that are subsidy- and self-published lying around in his slush pile? It’s highly unlikely. If there is any such study that is reliable, I’d like to know just where they (and he) got that information?
 
Naturally, that got me to wondering what Time magazine’s review of Morrison’s book would have been like if they had assigned a female reviewer.
 
After my award-winning novel This is the Place (now out of print) was published, a review of it was posted on Amazon.com. This reviewer strenuously objected to what another reviewer had said, that my book was as surely part of the cultural past of Utah as Gone with the Wind was of the South. His objection was prompted by his belief that subtle discrimination and prejudices don’t count for much; they’re only important if they balloon to the dimensions of slavery or the holocausts. “Insensitive man,” I thought, practicing a little prejudice of my own. Two days later another reviewer, one of Amazon’s top reviewers—took him to task for his insensitivity, praised my book and lambasted Gone With the Wind. He, too, was a man.
 
Which brings me full circle to how the possible, even probable, imbalance between feminine and masculine perspectives at the New York Times Book Review affects their coverage. Do I believe that disparity exists? Yep.(Do I believe it still exists? Yep!) Do I think it is warranted because it reflects the existing inequality in the publishing world? No. Do I think there really are more men writing than women? I’m not so sure. It may be.


And therein lies the saddest tale of all.
 
PS from 2021: I also believe that in many ways discrimination of many kinds is worse today than it was when I wrote this column. Or maybe it’s simply that these days we aren’t trying quite as hard to avoid it.
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 Carolyn Howard-Johnson is a multi award-winning author of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Her HowToDoItFrugally series of books has helped writers and retailers worldwide. Her newest book of poetry, Imperfect Echoes, (Bit.ly/ImperfectEchoes) was honored by Writer’s Digest. Learn more at https://howtodoitfrugally.com.






3 comments:

Karen Cioffi said...

Carolyn, very interesting post and a topic that should be brought to light. That's some discrepancy between male and female reviewers for the NY Times. And I would have thought that there would be more women authors.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

@karencv, Yess! That was my thought, too! !

lastpg said...

Carolyn, this is a very interesting post. Thank you for pointing out these discrepancies!

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