Mama Ph.D. has a suggestive post today about book reviews and the sex of the authors whose books are under review:
One of my clients has written a book that is about to be published. It is an excellent book — beautifully written, with intertwined themes that reverberate long after the narrative ends. The book was recently reviewed in a distinguished publication with an online presence, and my client sent me a link to the review. It was outstandingly positive, the sort of review that makes you want to run out and buy the book, and I congratulated her heartily.
“I don’t want to seem ungrateful,” she responded, “but look at this.” She showed me another review from the same publication, of a male colleague’s book. While my client’s book had been described enthusiastically as an engaging, fast-moving read (which it is), her colleague’s was discussed in respectful terms, lauded for its profundity and depth — descriptors which also apply to my client’s book.
“It’s because he’s male,” she said. And a perusal of other positive reviews seemed to support that.
I haven’t read all of those other books, of course, but unless women are writing only fun fluff and men are writing only deeply profound and important works, something is fishy here — possibly the same phenomenon MJ Rose points to in her continuing tally of male vs. female representation in Oprah’s Book Club (current tally: of the 19 book club titles Oprah has chosen since 2003, 17 are by men).
Does this sound familiar to any of you? I have to admit that I don’t read that many book reviews–and that when I do, I tend to scour them for information as to whether or not I can use the book in a course or in my research, and so don’t pay attention to a lot of the nuances (such as, for example, the sex of the author!)
I think it’s plausible, because in my brief years post-tenure, I’ve noticed a clearly gendered difference when outside reviewers are reviewing records of publications for tenure and promotion candidates. And, guess what? It’s women candidates whose records are viewed with more skepticism and doubt than the men’s records, and I should note for the record, both women and men outside reviewers are guilty of this. (The difference is not the sex of the reviewer, it’s the sex of the tenure candidate.) Outside reviewers for tenure candidates more often than not heap lavish, even extravagant praise on men’s scholarly record and achievements, they frequently feel a compunction to pick nits or quarrel with women’s articles and books, even if in the main they find them well-researched and worthy contributions to the scholarship. It’s as if acknowledging that a woman candidate is an expert in her own field somehow has to be qualified or challenged by the reviewer who is making that claim–as though female expertise must necessarily be qualified or hedged.
To be sure, I’ve read nasty and dismissive letters from outside reviewers–more for women’s scholarship than for men’s, natch, but I’m talking here about letters that offer largely if not overwhelmingly positive evaluations of candidates for tenure and promotion. This probably won’t be surprising to anyone who has seen the differences between student evaluations of women versus men faculty–but I’m curious to hear about your experiences, from those of you who are in a position to have read several years’ worth of this peculiar genre of academic writing, and from those of you who read more book reviews. Are women’s books (and other academic writing) subject to more scrutiny or different sorts of praise and criticism than books written by men?
(This piqued my interest today perhaps because in my women’s history class, we’re talking about enslaved women and the problems of finding enough evidence to write about their lives before 1800, and some of our readings discussed Sally Hemings. I recall nearly twenty years ago in graduate school hearing a professor dismiss the very idea that Thomas Jefferson might have had a sexual relationship with Hemings, and state that the evidence for this was the figment of the imagination of a “Harlequin Romance”-like biographer who went by the very Harlequin romantic name of “Fawn Brodie.” Imagine my surprise a few years later, when I looked up her bibliography and discovered that Fawn McKay Brodie (1915-1981) was in fact a very hard-nosed military historian and (along with her husband) and expert in American foreign policy as well as a highly successful biographer of famous men like Joseph Smith, Sir Richard Burton, Richard Nixon, and Thaddeus Stevens, and one of the first women tenured in the UCLA History department! Funny how my professor left all that out when he trashed her and her book in a graduate class.)
NOTE: The title of this post is an homage to Francine Prose’s excellent 1998 article in Harper’s on the differences in the ways that male and female authors are read and reviewed, where they’re published, the number of awards and honors they win, and whether or not they’re slotted as “genre fiction” authors. We discussed this here in a post last spring, “And speaking of sausage parties…”