Why 88% of books reviewed by The New York Times are written by white authors

Last week, The Rumpus published a piece by Roxane Gay titled “Where Things Stand,” in which Gay reported that nearly 90 percent of books reviewed in The New York Times are written by whites. Gay researched the racial background of every author critiqued by the paper in 2011. She yielded predictably striking results: 31 black authors, 655 white ones. Eighty-one reviewed books in all by writers of color. “I don’t know how to solve this problem or what to do with this information,” wrote Gay, who is black. Still. “I like knowing where things stand.”

Two days after Gay’s count hit, a writer at Poynter called me, looking to commission a piece on the subject. We are both white. We first worked together several years ago, at a newspaper edited by a white man, then again at a website edited by the same white man. When we left, we both recommended each other to different white female editors, who would later hire us in newsrooms staffed with mostly white writers and editors. This is the grim reality of the mainstream journalism network. But as I navigated a series of publications helmed by white men stacked all the way to the top, the success of a white female writer like me seemed like some kind of demographic victory.

Roxane Gay: “It’s an easy out—oh, it’s way too hard to figure out the race thing.”

Gay’s count comes on the heels of widespread media concern over the lack of representation of women in literary journalism. VIDA, an organization for women in the literary arts, has assessed the gender breakdown of major literary publications for two years running. In March, GOOD Magazine, where I worked until recently, published my own gender count of the bylines at publications targeting young readers. When white author Jonathan Franzen published his novel “Freedom” to fawning reviews in 2010, white author Jodi Picoult questioned the media’s outsized veneration of male writers. On NPR, white author Jennifer Weiner debated the issue with The New York Times Book Review’s white editor Sam Tanenhaus.

A similar conversation has not emerged over literary journalism’s extreme whiteness. “Race often gets lost in the gender conversation as if it’s an issue we’ll get to later,” Gay wrote in her post. (And in fact I never got around to executing a byline count by race at GOOD.)

This is partly a matter of logistics. Most bylines can be instantly sifted by gender, but race is more difficult to parse. The 50-50 gender ratio is easy to quantify, but the racial breakdown of the U.S. population is complex. It took Gay, an assistant professor of English at Eastern Illinois University, 14 weeks to complete her research, employing a student for 16 hours a week to mine authors’ ethnic backgrounds. They couldn’t confirm the race of six authors. Gay plans to execute a similar count for the bylines of The Times’ book reviewers, when she gets the time. And that’s just one publication.

Gay’s numbers are more difficult to process in a much larger sense. 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.

The whiteness of The New York Times Book Review represents the structural inequality of elite journalism stacked on the structural inequality of elite publishing stacked on the structural inequality of income and education in this country. But for women, the system is breaking down at an advanced stage of the game. When female graduates don’t end up in newsrooms, female MFA program stars don’t get book deals, or female editors are not promoted up the chain, publications can be held accountable for that problem. When writers of color are disenfranchised at every stage of the process, everyone is to blame, so no one is.

“It’s an easy out — oh, it’s way too hard to figure out the race thing,” Gay told me over the phone. “People will always say, ‘It’s not a situational problem, it’s a historical problem.’ ” Yes, journalism’s race problem is the product of historical injustice. But it’s also the product of a busy editor’s mental pathway, which must flip quickly through its virtual Rolodex to find the first acceptable writer to turn a piece around by deadline. When that Rolodex is stocked with whites — and most of the time, it is — the byline count perpetuates itself.

White editors grow comfortable in their relationships with white writers. They read books written by white people. Writers of color look elsewhere. “I’ve heard of writers of color who do stop pitching certain organizations,” Gay says. “You start to think, ‘Why should I bother?’ ”

Gay says that her own “Benetton-like” network was formed over “a series of small steps that’s taken years.” Last year, Stephen Elliott, The Rumpus’ white editor, reached out to Gay to commission a piece on white author Blake Butler. Gay turned around and pitched an essay critiquing the way The New York Times covered the sexual assault of a young girl. She’s since written 20 more pieces for the publication. “[T]he topics [Gay] covers are ones in which The Rumpus has vast room for improvement,” an editor’s note appended to Gay’s piece last week reads. “We strive to better ourselves every day.”

Correction: This post originally said the victim of a sexual assault was black; while a New York Times report identified her as someone “whose parents are immigrants from Mexico” it offered no identification of her race.

Related: Why women don’t contribute to opinion pages as often as men & what we can do about it | National Magazine Awards to honor men this year

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  • Anonymous

     Pardon me, but I think you’ve got your stats wrong.  Blacks constitute 12% of out population, non-Hispanic whites about 64%, Hispanics close to 17%.  The ratio books reviewed written by whites to those written by blacks at 655/31 is a ratio of 21.45 to 1, not 24:5.  The ratio of whites to blacks in the U.S. is a little more than 5 to 1.  So, books by whites are being reviewed (comparably) at a rate four times greater than the population stats would indicate they should be.

    By the way, a book review is by no means always positive.  I don’t know the stats of positive to negative reviews in the NYT, but the question of whether a book is good or not is contained within a review, not the determinant of whether or not it gets reviewed at all.

  • Anonymous

    What astonishes me about these statistics is that my (white) family has read so many great works by non-white authors over the past several years.  Why do the NYT book reviewers have such a difficult time finding works worthy of their attention?

  • http://bingol.myopenid.com/ Bingo

    What happens if you factor in Jews?

  • Anonymous

    I think income and education should be factored in. I note that in the past century few writers were poor and unconnected…they all knew each other and went to each other’s schools. 

  • Clayton Burns

    I am surprised that The New York Times Book Review’s editor has not responded here.

    The weaknesses at the BR reflect other limitations of the paper, in particular the quite unimaginative education section, in particular the blog The Choice.

    Just as I cannot understand why the Washington Post would want to have anything to do with Kaplan, I fail to grasp why The NYT, through The Choice, should have some strange desire to facilitate the rottenness of US college admissions practices, such as the SAT.

    The proof is in the pudding. Perhaps someone has said that before? If the BR is somewhat lazy, somewhat programmed, then it is the end product of uninspired teaching in the schools and colleges of America.

    For example, in the UK there has been a fierce six-month debate over how and what to teach, a debate that America has mostly ignored in its fixation on American trash culture. If the trailers for this summer’s

    films are any indication, perhaps all of America, including the President, should be heading back to kindergarten.

    If you just can’t orient to text, then you can’t stop yourself from falling into sleepwalking patterns, as Sam has.

    For weeks, I have been politely asking Scholastic and The New York Times to explain the error in the official movie companion in the depiction of tense texture of “The Hunger Games.” (As I explained in my previous post here).

    After some shuffling from city to city, I was told by Scholastic in Toronto that Suzanne Collins’s “American editor” would respond. There was no such response, and when I reminded Scholastic, I was told that circumstances had changed. Now I am informed that there is too much email, so Collin’s American editor is not going to say anything. Sure. They must think that I am some rube from “The Dictator.”

    This is classic NYT inattention as well.

    Why can’t we just orient to text and take responsibility for what we say? Why do we have to be so slippery and evasive?

    Sam, you definitely do not meet my standards. There is a Focus study in Vancouver where you can take a pill to improve memory and concentration. Perhaps some of the NYT BR editors would make good subjects.

    America, you sure know how to sleep.

  • http://twitter.com/aoscruggs Afi Scruggs

    To Anthony Ashley and the others, the numbers are quite clear. The racism might not be willful, but it’s apparent.  I was also bemused by the posters who broke the percentages down to blacks and whites. In fact, the problem is  shared by writers of color.

    But the posters below miss an important point about book reviews: they’re not representative.

    The editors Choose what they want to review and they Choose who they want to write the reviews. (If I could bold the word choose, I would) The book publishing world is extremely networked, so the inequity isn’t caused because editors are merely picking from a sampling of books published. Editors decide which books are Worthy (again, I’d bold this if I could) of attention.

    The solution is simple: expand the network. Given the closeness of the publishing world, it’s not that difficult.  Here are some suggestions

    1) Editors can diversify the pool of book reviewers by interacting with organizations that promote and advance writers of color. They can be extremely revolutionary and assign non-race related articles to those writers.

     2) They can go beyond their comfort zones and  reach out to writing programs and retreats that they might normally ignore.

    3)They can talk to editors and agents that handle authors of color – the publishing world is small enough so that everyone knows who they are -  and put out they word: they want submissions for consideration. Again, it would be nice if they solicited books that go beyond race, ethnicity. There are good ones. Bernice McFadden’s latest comes to mind.

     A few phone calls, some emails, a post on Galleycat, or Mediabistro, a note to agents and publicists to start pitching more books to the publication, and the monochromatic pool of books would finally get some color.

    BTW, I write this as an author, journalist and feminist. I hope the White editor who assigned this piece to Ms. Hess, will consider these points next time s/he has an assignment.

  • http://twitter.com/aoscruggs Afi Scruggs

    To Anthony Ashley and the others, the numbers are quite clear. The racism might not be willful, but it’s apparent.  I was also bemused by the posters who broke the percentages down to blacks and whites. In fact, the problem is  shared by writers of color.

    But the posters below miss an important point about book reviews: they’re not representative.

    The editors Choose what they want to review and they Choose who they want to write the reviews. (If I could bold the word choose, I would) The book publishing world is extremely networked, so the inequity isn’t caused because editors are merely picking from a sampling of books published. Editors decide which books are Worthy (again, I’d bold this if I could) of attention.

    The solution is simple: expand the network. Given the closeness of the publishing world, it’s not that difficult.  Here are some suggestions

    1) Editors can diversify the pool of book reviewers by interacting with organizations that promote and advance writers of color. They can be extremely revolutionary and assign non-race related articles to those writers.

     2) They can go beyond their comfort zones and  reach out to writing programs and retreats that they might normally ignore.

    3)They can talk to editors and agents that handle authors of color – the publishing world is small enough so that everyone knows who they are -  and put out they word: they want submissions for consideration. Again, it would be nice if they solicited books that go beyond race, ethnicity. There are good ones. Bernice McFadden’s latest comes to mind.

     A few phone calls, some emails, a post on Galleycat, or Mediabistro, a note to agents and publicists to start pitching more books to the publication, and the monochromatic pool of books would finally get some color.

    BTW, I write this as an author, journalist and feminist. I hope the White editor who assigned this piece to Ms. Hess, will consider these points next time s/he has an assignment.

  • http://twitter.com/anthonyashley Anthony Ashley

    It would be great to see a prequel article that establishes why this 88% number is a problem. It seems that in a country in which there is roughly a 5:1 ratio of whites to blacks that there would naturally be fewer black writers and therefore fewer reviews of black writers by the NYT. The 655W:31B number you show comes out to a 5 : .24 ratio which is not drastically different than the ratio of whites to black in the USA.

    What ratio would the author and Ms. Gay like to see reviewed at the NYT?
    Is there any actual proof of racial prejudice at the NYT?
    To convince you need more than a description of of all the white people you interacted with while writing your article and the use of the phrase “grim reality”.

    It doesn’t matter what the number of black to white authors is. What matters is whether people are being discriminated against and whether the books being reviews are any good. The number alone does not prove discrimination.

  • Anonymous

    Amanda, Perhaps you have not heard about the special, adjusted motto for The New York Times’s Book Review: “All The White Bourgeois News That Is Fit To Print.”

    The BR has been having problems for years. Despite some sensitive reading by Gregory Cowles, who likes Orwell and “Gilead,” the NYT Book Review is mostly a reflex marketing tool.

    Under the current leadership, there can be no genuine change.

    The BR is essentially opaque and (even) semi-literate.

    Perhaps the portrayal of race and gender in “The Hunger Games” is somewhat advanced by contrast.

    My current grudge against The NYT BR is due to its lack of response to this fascinating issue:

    –Suzanne Collins on “The Hunger Games:” “When I sat down to write this series, I assumed it would be like ‘The Underland Chronicles,’ ” Collins told the ‘New York Times’ later. “Written in the third person

    and the past tense. I began writing, and the words came out not only in the first person, in the present tense, in Katniss’s voice. It was almost as if the character was insisting on telling the story herself”

    (“The Hunger Games: The Official Illustrated Movie Companion,” 10).

    –Now, obviously, despite the massive interest in these novels, nobody has been primed to analyze the tenses of even the first one. If we read “The Hunger Games” with attention, we will note the tense texture, much historical present, passages of exquisite past, as in the pages beginning at 109 on Gale, and superior texture overall with past perfects, counterfactuals, nonfinites, and future tenses.

    The NYT does not respond to e-mail on this, naturally. Even though its own interview is cited.

    The NYT could pay attention to its pervasive whiteness issue in the BR, but when there is not much going on in your brain, you can’t. The purpose of literature is to be a refined, sharpened pencil. The purpose of The NYT’s BR is to peddle some stuff.

  • http://twitter.com/donw Don Whiteside™

    I’m sympathetic to the “so what” aspect there, being a Damned Dirty Blogger myself, but we can’t pretend that the experiences of a self-published individual are parallel to that of someone who is reviewed in the NYT. There’s plenty of self-directed success to be had, but on the one hand I can rattle off the names of Eggers, Franzen, King, Hitchens, and more. On the other I have Amanda Hocking and… well, huh.

    PoC and others who are being left out by the mainstream should absolutely leverage other paths to exposure and success. But that’s an “and” not an “instead.”

  • Anonymous

    Hmmm. I start thinking about sports, and this is why: First, consider baseball. Predominantly white for a long time, then a lot of blacks entered the game after someone took the cajones to field one. Their population of pro rosters grew, and has now declined. Then I think of hockey, albeit, not as popular as baseball, and their history shows a still by and large white population. Is it lack of skill or interest on the part of blacks? Perhaps. Not knowing the numbers, I would have to ask what percentage of journalists have been African American over the years, if that population is growing, and ask the same of lit writers. If the overall population among those communities is the same as the book reviews, then I don’t see an issue. If their populations are lower, than they get fair representation. Obviously then, if their numbers are larger, they aren’t fairly represented. So despite the elite nature of the system, those factors need consideration in this article, which seems to place all the blame on that eliteness. As recent reports have stated, white babies are now a minority. It’s only a matter of time before that white elite position is overcome by nature.

    We have had in the emergency responder community this same issue. What determined that in part was that if no women or other races than white apply, then by default the community will be represented by a white department regardless of the make-up of the community they serve. Lack of response drives the application process, not skill. We teach the skills to those that pass the basic requirements. When I, as a volunteer,  tried to join a paid major metropolitan department after years of experience, I was pulled aside and told forthrightly that though they appreciated my experience, I was the “wrong” gender and the “wrong” color, and because of my age, still within but at the edge of the envelope, I would be at the end of a long list. So the cost of training and development would be higher because the city, and I fully accept the desire to have representation of the community,  wanted races other than white and a mix of genders. In the last recruitment of volunteers in my first department in a city of 15,000, the city told the department they wanted more races and gender mix. We didn’t control the advertising, and as it turned out, only white males applied.

    All in all, I think the article mentioned the problem  but failed to address a solution. The problem is the elite nature of the system to favor whites, which nature is taking care of, albeit slowly. On the other hand, it pointed at a statistical problem without clarifying it. So the 7th paragraph really needed to be exploded into detail and meaningful statistics, including looking ahead as to where whites will be in half a century. Because if no one is to blame, then let’s look at the real problem and offer solutions to fix it. We’ll all be better off in the end.

  • Anonymous

    A couple of points:

    1) Does Gay’s research compare the number of non-white authors reviewed to the number of non-white authors published? That would go a long way toward putting this disparity into context.

    2) Authors* of all ethnicities and genders need to recognize a shift in the publishing paradigm. For the majority of publishing history, an author had to gain the approval of professors, publishers, book reviewers. Now, authors have the ability to publish to the web and distribute their work as electronic books.

    An author no longer needs the golden imprimatur of the literary guard. If the New York Times doesn’t review your work, so what. Simply write, publish online, and let your audience grant the ultimate seal of approval. 

    *feel free to substitute “creatives” for “authors” – I think this applies broadly to people who create art.