I started reviewing fiction in 2008. As is often the case with freelancers, I began by pitching reviews to editors, sending emails off into the ether—any interest in something on the new Peter Carey? How about the latest Colson Whitehead?—hoping for a response but knowing that I probably wouldn’t get one. Within a few years, though, I had enough clips to my name that my editors, particularly those at the handful of newspapers I wrote for, queried me as much as I queried them.
One day in 2012, I decided to count up the number of reviews I’d published. I was in grad school, working on my dissertation—which is to say, I was looking for anything to distract me from my dissertation, and this seemed as good a time-suck as any. Looking at my clips, I noticed something startling: in the more than two dozen reviews I’d written, I had never been asked to consider anything by a female writer. I don’t mean rarely asked; I don’t mean almost never asked; I mean never, ever asked. I’d written on female authors, to be sure, but these had all been the result of my own pitches. No editor had ever taken a look at a Margaret Atwood advance review copy and said, “This seems like something Tony might be into. I’ll send it his way.”
From this point on, the male-only streak became an obsession for me. Later in 2012, I got asked to write on, among others, Laurent Binet and Pascal Mercier—but still no women. In 2013, editors approached me about Benjamin Percy and Matt Bell—but still no women. In 2014, I received requests to consider Jamie Clarke and Tom McCarthy—but still no women. Indeed, the streak didn’t end until May of 2015, when an editor at Commonweal asked if I’d be interested in writing on Anne Enright’s The Green Road. (I was; the novel was fantastic.) It took seven years of reviewing, usually around a piece a month, before an editor asked me to take a look at a female writer.
Lest this sound like I’m only blaming others, allow me to blame myself, too. When I first did that general accounting in 2012, I noted that my male-to-female pitch ratio was something like three to one: for every three Franzens I was interested in reviewing, I was interested in one Morrison. I didn’t think I was participating in the casual misogyny of literary culture. Don’t blame me, I thought, some of my favorite writers are women! But there was the evidence, clear as anything.
Seeing these facts written out, my primary feeling is of embarrassment. I’ve tried to rectify things in subsequent years, pitching more female than male writers, but I still have to be conscious about it. I’m proud of the work I’ve done as a critic over the past ten years; I regret the homogeneity of the authors I’ve written on.
But besides embarrassment, I also feel curiosity. What could explain the strange fact that it took seven years for an editor to assign me a female writer? I’m a liberal critic writing for liberal publications. How did this go on for so long?
I suspect there are at least two possible explanations here. First, there’s the unspoken assumption that, as a male writer, I’ll be most interested in writing about other male writers. In our culture, assuming that gender determines readerly interest starts young. When I first began reading chapter books, I was encouraged to read Matt Christopher novels like Catcher with a Glass Arm and Touchdown for Tommy: novels written by a man about the most traditionally male-gendered of subjects, sports. (To be clear, I loved, and still love, these books.) By contrast, my sisters were urged to read Judy Blume and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Things didn’t change that much as I got older. In high school, my teachers recommended Ralph Ellison, not Jane Austen (I didn’t read her until college); William Faulkner, not Djuna Barnes (I didn’t read her until grad school).
This readerly sorting-by-gender isn’t specific to my suburban Massachusetts upbringing; it’s a fact of American culture. When reading suggestions do cross gender lines, it’s almost always in one direction: it’s far more common that a young, bookish girl will have Charles Dickens suggested to her than that a young, bookish boy will have George Eliot suggested to him. Why wouldn’t my editors, consciously or unconsciously, think I’d be more interested in Junot Díaz than Joy Williams when they’re told this, explicitly and implicitly, all of the time? Again, I’m hardly blameless here: if my editors based my assignments on what I’d previously expressed interest in, they’d have been right to think I wanted to write on male authors.
I think we can all agree that this assumption when stated directly—male reviewers will only or primarily be interested in male writers—is bunk. (Or, to put a slight twist on it, let me say that if a male critic is only interested in male writers, then he’s not a good critic.) But what about a second possible explanation for my seven-year streak: that I’m actually more equipped to write on male writers—or, to put it negatively, that I’m not particularly equipped to write on female writers?
Recently, there has been a spate of superb novels written about the competing demands of being an artist and being a woman: Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, etc. Surely these novels succeeded in part because their authors had firsthand experience of such twin demands. And so, if to fully inhabit and make aesthetically convincing a particular identity requires experience of that particular identity, then might the same be true for criticism? Do you have to be female in order to have a sense for how, in Virginia Woolf’s phrase, the “female sentence” works?
I don’t fully buy this argument, either. Yes, Offill and others use biographical experience in writing their novels. Michael Cunningham didn’t when writing about Virginia Woolf in The Hours, though, nor did Rumaan Alam in his excellent new novel about motherhood, That Kind of Mother. Sharing an identity with one’s protagonist might make things easier for the novelist, but it’s certainly not necessary. (And, of course, sharing an identity doesn’t guarantee success: just because you’re a mother doesn’t mean you can write a great novel about motherhood, just as not all Catholics can write great Catholic novels.)
The novelist C. E. Morgan, when asked why she, a white writer, would choose to write about black experience, had this to say:
[Such a question] establishes race as such a special category of difference that the writer needs to approach it apologetically, even deferentially, without the real agency, power, and passion that define mature artistry. That approach is servile, cowardly, anti-artistic. It’s also anti-novelistic, because the project of the novel is founded on the inhabitation and depiction of the Other. And the Other is everywhere and every thing, including the so-called self.
That’s the project of criticism, too—to fully inhabit the perspective of the Other who is the author, to treat this perspective first with sympathy and then with analytical distance. The best critics are those who engage with such difference imaginatively and daringly. I want to read Zadie Smith on Edward St. Aubyn because she has a wonderful critical mind that isn’t short-circuited by gender difference; because this difference is something she can work with and through.
To be sure, the anxieties surrounding artistic representation and difference arise from a genuine concern. Every year, the Vida Count offers an inventory of literary journalism, tracking the percentage of male and female critics published, as well as the percentage of male and female authors reviewed. Almost every year, about two-thirds of both the reviewers and the reviewed are male. At many prestigious venues, the numbers are even worse: in 2016, for example, 18 percent of the reviewers and 26 percent of the authors reviewed at the London Review of Books were female.
Representation is never just about statistics; it’s about equity and justice. Perhaps some of my editors were wary of assigning me the new Allegra Goodman because that would have taken away a slot from a female reviewer. After all, review assignments, especially in the shrinking world of print, are a zero-sum game: every review of a female author that I publish is a review not published by a female critic. But the solution to this unjust system has to be both to encourage more female critics and to assign more female authors to both male and female critics. Give reviewers like me fewer assignments, and make more of those assigned writers female.
It’s absurd that it took so long for an editor to think that I might be interested in writing on a female novelist; it’s just as absurd that it took me so long to notice it. To repurpose C. E. Morgan, this is an anti-critical stance to take towards criticism. More boys need to read female authors; more male critics need to write on female authors; more female critics need to be asked to write, period. When it comes to literary criticism, thinking beyond our gender blinders requires us first acknowledging their existence.