June 12, 2012

90% of books reviewed in the New York Times are by white authors


After the much-discussed VIDA results, which illustrated just how little women are reviewed or published by the major literary press, Roxane Gay writing in The Rumpus was left wondering whether as a question of race, such publications would fare any better.

She decided to find the answer by determining the race and gender of each author reviewed by the New York Times in 2011. The results may not suprise you.

“We looked at 742 books reviewed, across all genres. Of those 742, 655 were written by Caucasian authors (1 transgender writer, 437 men, and 217 women). Thirty-one were written by Africans or African Americans (21 men, 10 women), 9 were written by Hispanic authors (8 men, 1 woman), 33 by Asian, Asian-American or South Asian writers (19 men, 14 women), 8 by Middle Eastern writers (5 men, 3 women) and 6 were books written by writers whose racial background we were simply unable to identify.”

In short, 90% of the books reviewed by the New York Times are by white authors. Gay interpreted this data bluntly and correctly,

“That is not even remotely reflective of the racial makeup of this country, where 72% of the population, according to the 2010 census, is white. We know that far more than 81 books were published by writers of color in 2011. You don’t really need other datasets to see this rather glaring imbalance.”

Amanda Hess at Poynter further contends with this issue, asking why the significant coverage of the lack of women in the media (nicely summarized by Andrew Beaujon‘s headline earlier this year — “National Magazine Awards to honor men this year“) has not extended to the issue of race. Perhaps it is because, as Hess says, the issue of race is harder to quantify. For one thing, its “a matter of logistics. Most bylines can be instantly sifted by gender, but race is more difficult to parse.” Further,

“While racial inequality in the United States runs deep throughout a writer’s development, from preschooler to New York Times book editor, the same can not be said for women, who make up 73 percent of journalism and mass communication graduates and likely a healthy proportion of MFA holders, too.”

I would be interested to know if the racial make-up of online media reviews is similarly skewed. Online journalism was meant to be the great equalizer, able to be all things to all people.

Janine Jackson has considered this issue — although examining reporting rather than book coverage — at the Indypendent, calling it “New Media—but Familiar Lack of Diversity”.

“As with gender, there’s little by way of in-depth research on issues of story choice, but one yearlong look at the home pages of popular sites Huffington Post, the Daily Beast, Slate and Salon…described a dispiritingly familiar world in which African-Americans are usually celebrities or athletes, Latinos appear primarily in sporadic immigration stories, and Native Americans and Asian-Americans go missing.”

Clearly, this picture is incomplete, and it would be necessary to look at the output of publishers as well. Melville House publishes white men, to be sure, but also this year, Banana Yoshimoto’s The Lake, Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s The Colonel and a revival of Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s Ambiguous Adventure.  We’ll keep publishing them, and I hope they get the attention they deserve.

Ariel Bogle is a former publicist at Melville House.