A ‘Larry Summers Moment’

Amy Hoffman, editor-in-chief of the Women’s Review of Books, recently reported that she attended a lecture at the Radcliffe Institute by Barry Gewen, an editor at the New York Times Book Review. In what even he described as a “Larry Summers moment” he explained that the reason so few women reviewers appear in the NYTBR is that they just can’t write for a general audience about such topics as military history. He explained that NYTBR editors find reviewers by talking to colleagues and reading publications such as The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and The New Republic, insisting that he and his colleagues are not overtly prejudiced people but admitted they might have subconscious prejudices.
In the Harvard Crimson‘s account, Gewen acknowledged his staff wasn’t “doing the outreach they shouldâ€? in order to recruit more women and minorities.

“Looking for reviewers of a certain ethnicity simply because of an ethnicity makes me a little squeamish,� Gewen, a 17-year veteran of the Book Review, said.

During the Q&A session, Hoffman suggested that it wasn’t necessary for the editors to psychoanalyze themselves to find the source of the problem — all they had to do was look at their process for finding reviewers, which guarantees that they’ll find the same old guys to say the same old thing.
(Cross-posted at TAPPED.)

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18 Comments

  1. EG
    Posted February 22, 2007 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    Right. And of course “military history” is a gender-neutral topic of general interest to all audiences. No gender bias there, no sir.

  2. Posted February 22, 2007 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

    The NYT BR has seriously jumped the shark, and this is one of the reasons why. It’s full of ponderous, overly “intellectualized” essays about obscure historical topics. I’m all for history, but the BR used to have a wonderful, readable tone of a conversation back and forth between intelligent people. Now it’s totally uninteresting… and the sexist/racist crap Hoffman is spewing explains a lot. Maybe it needs to get over its collective obsession with boring dead white men and adapt to the changing world.

  3. Kattyben
    Posted February 22, 2007 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

    Meh. I’m not upset about this, at least on its face. It depends what he actually said about why there are very few women book reviewers writing about military history. He is characterized here as saying that women “just can’t” write about it. Is he asserting that women are biologically hard-wired to be incapable of this? That would really be Summers-esque.
    If what he’s actually saying is that the NYT BR has an editorial standard which requires that its non-fiction book reviewers be experts in the field about which the book is written, that’s another thing.
    First, this is a defensible editorial requirement, even where book reviews are written for a general audience. It provides a sort of peer-review-within-book-review. Frankly, that’s an admirably rigorous approach to journalism. If more publications had taken that approach to their reviews of, say “The Bell Curve” or some of the works of pseudo-evolutionary-biology that malign women (again, a la Summers), then maybe so many readers wouldn’t have read them so credulously.
    Moreover, publishing houses, faced with increasing costs, are doing less and less fact-checking of the works of “non-fiction” they publish. So it’s not surprising that publications like the NYT BR feel an ethical obligation to sort this out on the back end.
    Given those considerations, it’s not surprising to me if they can’t find very many women reviewers who fit the bill: for whatever reason (I can easily think of several, none of which have to do with anyone’s “innate abilities”), far fewer women than men are scholars of military history.
    So what’s the solution? Well, I would say, put an enterprising woman reviewer on the job anyway. One with a background in some kind of history, hence familiarity with modes of historical research and prevailing schools of thought, shouldn’t be too hard to find. I’m assuming reviewers are paid by the word or by the review, so though it might take such a person a little longer to get up to speed and read “around” the reviewed book a bit, there’s no economic disincentive for the NYT. Then, have the review vetted by a scholar of military history, male or female. I guess that would cost a little money, but I’m pretty sure scholars of military history aren’t highly paid. Voila: a woman has learned something about military history and has gotten paid and acknowledged for her skills as a book reviewer (and, potentially, has added a feminist critical perspective to her review); considerations of accuracy and rigor are satisfied; the NYT has taken a more laudable, equal-opportunity approach; and perhaps women readers, noticing the byline on the review, will be encouraged to take up the study of a traditionally male subject themselves.

  4. EG
    Posted February 22, 2007 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

    “If what he’s actually saying is that the NYT BR has an editorial standard which requires that its non-fiction book reviewers be experts in the field about which the book is written, that’s another thing.”
    Well, yes, but that’s avoiding a significant issue: why would the NYT be reviewing more masculine-identified texts then feminine-identifed ones in the first place? Is military history automatically more serious and worthy of review than social history? If you start out with the idea that you want to review male-dominated fields, then, indeed, most of your reviewers will turn out to be men.
    But is that even true? Are there no female military historians or grad students who could use the extra income? I’m not sure I’m willing to accept that they’ve tried and just, hey, luck of the draw, they keep getting men.
    The comments remind me of the claim a few years back that op-ed pages were so clogged with men because women simply lacked the combative spirit–people who claimed that were simply overlooking the oodles of combative female opinion-piece writers out there.

  5. Kattyben
    Posted February 23, 2007 at 12:34 am | Permalink

    EG, I didn’t read the post to imply that the NYT BR *is* reviewing more books about masculine-identified subjects than feminine-identified ones. I don’t know whether it’s the case or not; I’m not a NYT BR reader.
    I did not suggest (nor, I believe, did Gewen) that there are “no” female military historians or grad students who could use the extra income; that would be absurd.
    I would think there ought to be at least a few at universities in NY, and it wouldn’t be all that hard to recruit them; just post handbills or contact profs to recommend students, etc. I think you’re right; this would be at least as a good solution as the one I suggested.
    But the question is, who is the object of the critique offered here, the NYT or Gewen? Gewen acknowledged that the NYT BR wasn’t doing adequate outreach. My point is simply to agree that yes, outreach would indeed be required to recruit women reviewers of masculine-oriented books.
    And whatever my comments may “remind” you of, I would not align myself with the claim about op-eds that you cite, so quit trying to demonize me.

  6. Kattyben
    Posted February 23, 2007 at 12:37 am | Permalink

    EG, I didn’t read the post to imply that the NYT BR *is* reviewing more books about masculine-identified subjects than feminine-identified ones. I don’t know whether it’s the case or not; I’m not a NYT BR reader.
    I did not suggest (nor, I believe, did Gewen) that there are “no” female military historians or grad students who could use the extra income; that would be absurd.
    I would think there ought to be at least a few at universities in NY, and it wouldn’t be all that hard to recruit them; just post handbills or contact profs to recommend students, etc. I think you’re right; this would be at least as a good solution as the one I suggested.
    But the question is, who is the object of the critique offered here, the NYT or Gewen? Gewen acknowledged that the NYT BR wasn’t doing adequate outreach. My point is simply to agree that yes, outreach would indeed be required to recruit women reviewers of masculine-oriented books.
    And whatever my comments may “remind” you of, I would not align myself with the claim about op-eds that you cite, so quit trying to demonize me. It’s one thing to make an observation about the market consequences of an empirically observable phenomenon (i.e., that some fields of scholarship are dominated by one gender), and quite another to make generalizations about people’s “spirits.”

  7. EG
    Posted February 23, 2007 at 12:43 am | Permalink

    Relax. If I were trying to demonize you, I’d be a lot more vicious. The comments I was referring to that last sentence were Gewen’s, who did indeed indicate that he was uncomfortable doing that kind of outreach.

  8. Posted February 23, 2007 at 3:10 am | Permalink

    This is hilarious.
    Someone better tell the Society for Military History so they can fire their PRESIDENT, who happens to be a woman, Dr. Carol Reardon.
    Oh, and thanks to one of my best friends being a military historian, I could go on and on…

  9. Zvebab Ghobar
    Posted February 23, 2007 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    Is military history automatically more serious and worthy of review than social history?
    Yes.

  10. EG
    Posted February 23, 2007 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    Ah. Well, the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz has spoken.
    Glad to have that settled.

  11. Zvebab Ghobar
    Posted February 23, 2007 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    Don’t go asking questions if you feel you won’t like the answers.

  12. sojourner
    Posted February 23, 2007 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    “Is military history automatically more serious and worthy of review than social history?
    Yes.�
    Oh, Wizard of Oz, can you please qualify your “yes�? Not all of us are as smart as you and might need some sort of explanation.

  13. ponies and rainbows
    Posted February 23, 2007 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    But haven’t you all heard? By “general audience,” we mean white men. Who cares if they only make up between 10 to 15 percent of the world population?
    Oh, and Zvebab Ghobar, I know you think your pseudo-cryptic answers will impress us, but even Magic 8 Balls give more detailed answers. (And they probably have more complex social theories…)

  14. Zvebab Ghobar
    Posted February 23, 2007 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

    Oh, Wizard of Oz, can you please qualify your “yes�?
    Certainly. Military history is one of the few social science fields still interested in serious academic work and research. Most others are, sadly, overrun with pseudo-intellectuals/activist types who seem to be more interested in pushing some particular political agenda than engaging in legitimate scholarship.
    So, given a choice between a tract on military history and some other social science, ceteris paribus, the work on military history will likely be more serious and worthy of review.

  15. donna darko
    Posted February 23, 2007 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

    Has everyone noticed your average Barnes and Noble has 9-12 shelves of Military History (they even have special shelves for Vietnam, WWII, etc.) and zero shelves for Peace Studies?

  16. donna darko
    Posted February 23, 2007 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

    I’ve noticed Borders have even more. Up to 16 shelves of Military History in its various categories.
    MACHO, MACHO MAN!

  17. EG
    Posted February 24, 2007 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    “Military history is one of the few social science fields still interested in serious academic work and research. Most others are, sadly, overrun with pseudo-intellectuals/activist types who seem to be more interested in pushing some particular political agenda than engaging in legitimate scholarship.”
    Oh, yawn, that old chestnut.
    It’s absurd, really. I read urban history, sociology, and lit crit, and all three of these fields involve serious research and scholarship. But never mind, if a scholarly text does not implicitly underline its own authority, and actually acknowledges that genuine people with genuine points of view write it, then it’s “pursuing an agenda.” Right. Because weighty tomes focusing on What Men Do without ever reflecting on their on standpoint are obviously unbiased.

  18. donna darko
    Posted February 24, 2007 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    Privilege is about not thinking about how your actions and opinions don’t give non-privileged people equal weight to those of privileged groups. (h/t to The Shrub Blog)

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