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Hard Times

Hard Times
Article by Sarah Seltzer, appeared in issue Wired; published in 2008; filed under Books; tagged antifeminist women, book reviews, gender equity, highbrow catfight, media, new york times, reviews.
At the <em>New York Times Book Review</em>, all the misogyny is fit to print

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? 


Sarah Seltzer is a freelance writer in New York. She aspires to someday be skewered in the New York Times Book Review.

Comments

22 comments have been made. Commenting is set to read-only for this post.

"But if feminism is as

"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?"

Excellent article.

I would totally pay full

I would totally pay full admission to see a movie called "Jurassic Feminists". It'd be a thriller about some misogynistic scientists who accidentially revive the previously-extinct first-wave feminist when some evil feminist DNA gets stuck in their cloning machine. Of course, these feminists would be fifty feet tall, and they'd stomp around after the scientists, tearing the roofs off of buildings and munching on any innocent civilians that dare to enter their evil feminist jungle.

...I think I should probably get some sleep now.

Sleep

I'd say by the time & content of your post that you're well past the time for getting some sleep.

Superb Article, All Too True

Having read all the reviews you mention in this article -- and knowing several of the belittled book authors personally -- congratulations on a fine job, and thank you! The hatchet jobs by Ana Marie Cox and particularly Michiko Kakutani had me livid. At the very least, Susan Faludi's work deserves respect. Backlash changed the lives of many women, me included.

You may already know this, but the friend Dowd wrote about in her book, who, upon winning a Pulitzer, called up to say 'Now I'll never find a husband,' was Michiko. I don't know either of them, though I've met Dowd. But friends tell me both are quite nice.

With Dowd, her attitude toward gender issues is almost like some retro schtick (sp)-- think of Mary McCarthy's The Group -- that she's been doing for so long, she's stuck with it. Pity, because the features she wrote before she became a columnist were brilliant and practically bursting with life, in contrast to the labored efforts we see now.

Credit where credit's due--

Blogger Echidne of the Snakes has been on this phenomenon (and specific pattern) of institutional sexism at the NYT - and other venerable mainstream publications - for years, now.

~bellatrys
Nothing New Under The Sun

Reason for Living

This is exactly the reason why FR was started two and a half years ago. Because someone needs to engage with feminist texts from a feminist perspective. Some magazines, like Bitch, do that. The problem is that there are only so many pages in a print magazine for reviews, and there are many, many books/albums/films/etc that should be analyzed by feminists.

The NYT has some good

The NYT has some good articles and at least a couple of times a week they publish something that will cause me to read an article on their site.
That being said they do not provide enough value for me to pay them for the "privelege" of reading their newspaper. Even if they were to charge a penny an article the effort of getting through their paywall would outweigh the value they provide.
Plenty of other sources to get the same material.
Clasamente FotbalBonus Pariuri SportivePronosticuri Sportive

Trite Writers

The problem with the New York Times is not so much what the female reviewers say - it is the fact that the Times employs such trite reviewers of both genders in the first place. Their news reporting has also become increasingly shoddy over the last few years. Like so many other people, I cancelled my subscription a couple of years ago.

Excuses, excuses

Great article! I'm glad to see more people taking the Times to task for their misogyny. As far as the numbers in the Times Book Review go, I've wondered the same thing for 20 years. When I asked the current editor, Sam Tanenhaus, the same thing in an open, online forum (http://tinyurl.com/5jbyk8), this is what he said (among other things):

"The truth, at least as far as we can tell, is that there remain areas in which women authors tend to be less well (that is, less numerously) represented than men: science, philosophy, economics, politics, public policy, foreign policy, to name some obvious ones. [my emphasis] And it's not easy to find women reviewers in these areas, either, as I remember very well from my days as an editor on The Times's Op-Ed page."

Oh, please. What a load.

I posted about it (http://leekottner.typepad.com/blogorrhea_ii/2006/12/looking_for_an_.html) and countered with the current list of books from the Women's Review of Books. The truth is, as we all suspected, they don't think women are important enough to pay any attention to, so they throw us a badly reviewed sop now and then. Thanks for calling them on it. I long ago stopped paying any attention to them.

Michiko Kakutani in the UK Guardian today.

The Guardian UK has a short article on Kakutani:

http://books.guardian.co.uk/departments/generalfiction/story/0,,2277006,...

and she seems somewhat enigmatic, feared, if not hated. What was missing in that article was that attacks on her were a bit scary and misogynist. I think I would be a recluse too if Norman Mailer hated me.

https:/about.me/agdesilva

Author responses *are* the commentary of the piece

You're right that there is no overt mention of the attacks being misogynist, but I think the author's feelings are pretty clear with the last line: "Attack Kakutani, and only one person ends up looking stupid: you." Plus, Mailer makes the point himself--calling her a 'twofer Asiatic Feminist' is so nuts it almost doesn't need any extra commentary.

At least Manohla's got it together

Firstly, I applaud this article...and I think that it's gravity is echoed in Manohla Dargis' most recent "rant" for NYT. Literature is most certainly a battle near lost legacy of a boys game, and film is turning out to be more and more it's annoying little brother.

"Some point to the lack of female directors, whose numbers in both the mainstream and independent realms hover at around 6 percent...In 2008, when a white woman and a black man are running for president and attracting unprecedented numbers of voters partly because they are giving a face to the wildly under-represented, you might think that Hollywood would get a clue."

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/04/movies/moviesspecial/04dargi.html?_r=1...

Finally! A brilliant female writer, writing for more women in film! The industry and the movies themselves! As a woman working in the industry Manohla's point hits hard-and cacophonously.

GO PROFESSOR STANGE! -Never

GO PROFESSOR STANGE!

-Never been prouder to be a SkidKid, or more embarrassed to read the NYT Book Review. Consider your article to be persuasive.

Pardon my ignorance for

Pardon my ignorance for missing the "PROFESSOR STANGE" and "SkidKid" references but other than that, ditto here.

Big thanks to article author Sarah for giving attention to this issue. Sadly, I too have revered the NYT Book Review. Thanks again for opening my eyes.

New York Times' sexist book reviewers

Well, gee - if women would just stick to writing about stuff like cooking, cleaning, childbearing/raising and how to get a husband, they wouldn't have these problems with the reviewers.

That's what happens when they bother their pretty little heads with serious subjects.

/snark

Women's names are also too

Women's names are also too scarce in The Guardian. I have been measuring each article in the arts section for seven weeks now to see how much they write about men's art compared to women's art. So far they have written 34,97 meters about men's art and only 9,94 meters about women's art.

womenandart.wordpress.com

A guy weighs in

Folks, when Mary Zeiss Stange (mentioned above, and known to me as Mary Martha Zeiss) was just-14 year old freshman at a Catholic High School, and I was a not-yet-15 sophomore, we were debate partners and we dated. She was my first kiss. I do believe that she sewed her own dress for a Halloween dance, and she mentioned that she could cook, too. When we later went to a dress-up dance, she even had her braces removed. Ooooh! She was my size (not tall, and quite slender. We were both left-handed, very bright, and had similar interests. This was in 1964-1965.

Both of us won the same award in Latin. As a debate team, we were good. But Mary was one of the "right" people there, and I was one of the "wrong" people. We lasted only a few months, then she began to give me the cold shoulder in a very big way, without explanation. I didn't understand what went wrong. It was like I was a dead fish on ice. By the time I graduated, I concluded that she simply wanted a guy with more money and better social connections. I could be wrong. I have not idea how she got into Religious Studies (she wasn't religious) unless it was via her first husband, Mr. Stewart, who was ahead of her at Syracuse University.

For 45 years I gave her no mind, until by chance I located her on the Internet while looking for a a photo of a feminist holding a gun. That intrigued me, so I looked up more about her.

I tell you this because I am now thinking that the cold attitude I got from her, merely months after we kissed, and the glares, and the bad attitude, are characteristic of the kind of person who goes into Women's Studies, particularly the ones that like pagan religion. I am not even sure if that discipline existed when we were kids. But she surely was cut out for it. Likewsie, the guns: Let's face it, unlimited abortions and unlimited guns involve killing innocent things. That's just right for hard-core feminists.

or maybe it's because you're

or maybe it's because you're an asshole who obviously knows nothing about women's studies or women's rights...
maybe she did judge you harshly at 14, but i don't know a single person who didn't make mistakes at 14, especially since it's the time when people are figuring out who they are and what they believe in. but luckily for her it wasn't a mistake, it was a blessing not to remain friends with you!
btw: the people i know in women's studies are some of the most compassionate people i've met.
oh and robert: it's been 45 years, give it up already!

Maybe I am, maybe not

"Anonymous" could be right! Of course, of I do not meet the standards of women who grow up to be bitches, that's fine by me.

I gave no thought to Professor Stange for 45 years. But how many folks do you find who are simultaneously a performing monkey for leftists and the NRA ?

As I was saying, it is important that future bitches express themselves when young. That will help ordinary guys, such as myself, to avoid you. Once you are eliminated from the gene pool, as Darwin would say, everything will be all right. It is happening to Stange, and hopefully it will happen to the chicks who subscribe here.

I really wish I had my $13 back. That's how much I spent on her. She knows my ordinary mail address, and she's visited my web site several times.

Well Put On Point Roasting of N Y Times For Misogyny

This well researched post casts much needed light on the hiring of reviewers, by the N.Y. Times and other major male owned media, female pseudo-feminist anti-women's rights hacks for hire. It's bad enough that the New York Times lets its Best Seller list be skewed by political coalitions buying up their own books wholesale. Putting female mouthpieces for the misogynists in a position to justify the perpetuation of the policies of degrading authors who advocate women's rights, rather than change the sexist leanings of their own companies or the companies they are in bed with, is Orwellian. Unfortunately it is also endemic to the state of large corporate owned media. Congratulations on a well written post. Unfortunately you had a lot of spam comments laden with links and off subject. Hope you get some of them cleaned out, and that more people support Bitch Magazine. We need you.

Interesting

I cancelled too my subscription for The New York Times Book Review because of this. Any chance we could take down the female reviewers? :D

Its a feminist response from

Its a feminist response from Germany. Our company has feminists too ;)
Einen Vergleich machen.
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