Why We Don’t Need the New York Times Book Review

Ten years ago, I was convinced I was destined to be

the editor-in-chief of the New York Times Book Review.

I can’t claim I was modest, or, for that matter, rational. My favorite publication at the time, the New York Times Book Review (NYTBR) was a weekly gift that arrived every Saturday. I would wake up at six and wait for the telltale smack of the paper on the lawn, the sound breaking up the chatter of birds in the dark hours of the early morning. Then I’d venture outside in my pajamas, come rain, snow, or a soupy, thick humidity. Back inside, I’d shimmy the thick weekend paper out of its thin, electric blue plastic sleeve, watch it uncoil into a thick, inky platter on my dew-sprinkled lap, and pour myself another mug of black coffee, settling in for hours of reading. Everything else could wait since for all intents and purposes, time stopped. It was my gospel.

At this time I also wrote a column called “World Literature Vestibule” for my high school’s newspaper. I was engaged in a fierce–and largely invented–battle against declining standards of excellence and trivial fiction. In other words, I was insecure, trying to befriend a group of intellectual guys whom I secretly feared knew that I was an imposter, and desperately trying to impress everyone around me. In my polluted mind, genre fiction was the enemy, writing that was “for women” (and often by women) was weaker, and everything that was not mentioned by our Julian-Morrow-esque-Philosophy teacher would have to take a ticket and get in line.

God, I was obnoxious.

As usual, no one says it better than Gordon Ramsay
As usual, Chef Ramsay knows the proper way to dress down arrogance

So when we drove our car up the NJ Turnpike en route to my freshman year at Barnard in August 2006, Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” playing on my iPod (I really was that much of a cliche), I was envisioning a chain of events that would lead to eventually assuming my throne at the NYTBR headquarters…

Yeah, it didn’t happen.

The delusional grandiosity started to crack with spider-web-thin fractures of reality that gradually begin to limit my warped vision of my future until finally the weight of one-too-heavy an ambition forever shattered the glasses I used to see the world.

Today, I’d try to tell the 17-year-old me that the New York Times Book Review doesn’t matter anymore anyway, that in 10 years you’re reading a ton of genre fiction, plenty but not enough of it diverse, and most of it by women. But I know that bitch wouldn’t listen. So instead I compromise and read the Book Review twice a year without fail, for summer reading and the best-of-the-year issues.

The New York Times Book Review’s “D” Problem

Look, nobody who has been paying attention can be shocked that the NYTBR has big, gaping holes in its coverage of literature by women and minorities. Unfortunately, this isn’t new. The VIDA Women in Literary Arts watchdogs keep track of coverage of women writers in literary reviews, both whether their work is being reviewed and whether they are writing reviews, and release figures annually. And if you take a look at the NYTBR figures for 2014, they actually surpassed previous years coverage of female writers, with 358 female authors reviewed vs. 504 male authors reviews, and the Times actually employed more female reviewers (434) than male reviewers (405) (and 2 gender queer reviewers). It’s actually heartening to see the Times making some progress, especially when the boys’ club at the New York Review of Books reviewed 164 female writers vs. 354 male writers–and that’s a five-year high!

So, hurrah, I give the Times credit for making progress. But another more glaring issue is its lack of coverage of minority and non-white authors. Back in 2012, writer and professor Roxane Gay noted at The Rumpus that almost 90% of books reviewed in the Times were written by white writers. Just a few weeks ago, on May 21st the Times reviewed its Summer Reading book list of 17 titles, all of which were written by white authors. Roxane Gay weighed in at NPR on the continued travesty that is the New York Times Book Review‘s vanilla-white reading lists comparing writing the NPR post akin to the worst kind of Groundhog Day, when she has to continue to fight to prove her and other minorities’ literary clout or validation for sitting at the table.

“As a writer and critic, I am not just bored with this conversation. I am sick of it. I have written these sentences before. I will write them again. Discussing diversity in publishing is the worst kind of Groundhog Day,” writes Gay.

If there’s any consolation at all to be found, Gay finds it in sites like the Root, which publishes Summer Reading lists that give ample representations to books by people of color. Likewise, Jezebel highlights female authors in book coverage.

I believe there’s some more consolation to be found. I believe the New York Times Book Review is now irrelevant, at least it is for me, would-be editor of the publication. Before the clamor came out about the Times’ Summer Reading List, I had not visited the Books section of the NYT website for some time. Why?

Because I stopped legitimizing what they had to say.

And I hope you’ll join me…

“I’m not going to stop the wheel; I’m going to break the wheel.”

The extensive research I did for my final paper about Goodreads left me feeling pretty pumped up about the state of book-related content on the web. Book bloggers and other digital venues where readers can find information and content about books–such as Book Riot and The Millions, not to mention Electric Literature, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Rumpus, and I could keep going–offer a diverse array of articles, reading lists, reviews, author interviews, and feature writing related to books. Book blogs, on the other hand, elevate readers once thought of as mere hobbyist-bookworms into full-fledged literary critics, books feature writers, and reviewers who offer in-depth analysis. That’s not to mention the super-reviewers at Goodreads. When I want to take the temperature of how a book is being received and whether or not it’s worth my time, I consult with Goodreads first. Because I trust these people, especially the familiar faces (well, avatars) of top reviewers I recognize and follow. Their infectious honesty, enthusiasm, and unpretentious confidence in their literary analysis commands attention and puts a new face to “authority.”

The distinguishing line between a Times critic and bloggers is rapidly disintegrating. What the Times has is brand recognition and literary clout. What the book blogger has is complete control over her content and the ability to echo the clamor of what people actually want to read. She can address the issues that the Times isn’t talking about. Thus, book bloggers, reviewers, and feature writers are in a position of immense influence and power to shape literary dialogue.

In a conversation with Tyrion Lannister in Season 5 Episode 8 of Game of Thrones, Daenerys Targaryen told Tyrion how she didn’t intend to play the game of thrones. Using a wheel as a metaphor, Daenerys and Tyrion sparred metaphors until Dany corrected Tyrion in a goosebump-worthy speech.

Yes!
Yes!

I’m not normally a fan of Dany’s, but that speech gave me the chills and lingered in my mind for a long time after watching the episode. I see a direct parallel between Dany’s speech and the kind of empowerment I hope book bloggers and web book reviewers and journalists feel:

The new literary critic sets her eyes on toppling the status quo and redefining what literary criticism is today in the 21st century. She not only rattles the papers of paper publications: she banishes them to the archives. 

So what am I getting at here? Because web literary critics and bloggers aren’t limited by whatever alliances and allegiances traditional outlets like the Times and the New York Review of Books they can set their own editorial agenda. And that brings me to the opportunity we have to expand our coverage of diverse writers. We can fill the gaps in the Times’ coverage by celebrating and promoting diversity. We are empowered by our platforms and committed to showcasing diverse writers and diverse books.

Are your fingertips tingling with the electric buzz of power yet?

My Commitment to Featuring Diverse Writing

Join me on a journey of diversity
Join me on a journey of diversity

I absolutely cannot claim that I am where I need to be with featuring diverse books and authors. But I want to improve. Because I believe everyone should be able to look at a site that covers literature and writing and see themselves there. Because I believe topics unique to a diverse experience ask you to go outside your comfort zone and consider what life might be like for someone else. Because I believe in the power of stories to provoke thought, inspire inclusiveness, and spark action. Also, simply because I think kick-ass writing is thrilling no matter if you count as a diverse writer or not, and I love featuring writers and novels that are outstanding. 

If you’re interested in taking the Broke By Books Diversity 50 Challenge, commit to these milestones:

The Diversity 50 Challenge

  • The First 5 Days… “By the end of the first 5 days, I will have featured one piece of content related to diversity.”

Example: one book review; one listicle featuring substantial representation of diverse authors and themes; one post about your relationship to diversity and diverse literature.

  • The First 50 Days…“By the end of the first 50 days, I will have featured five pieces of content related to diversity.”

Example: read-a-likes for classic or conventional literature but featuring diverse books and authors; Top Ten Tuesdays, Middle Grade Mondays, some other book blog series, etc.; book reviews for diverse books; and so on.

  • The First 5 Months..“By the end of the first 5 months, 20% of my content will be devoted to diversity in books.”
  • In 500 Days..“50% or more of my content will be devoted to diverse books.”

Interpret this how you will. For example, if you’re at the 5-month mark, 20% of your content could mean two out of every 10 posts are devoted strictly to diverse books content. Or, you could take another approach and say in a list of 20 books, 4 books or 20% of them qualify as diverse books. Really, it’s up to you, and creative interpretation of these numbers is welcome and encouraged.

By the way, I am using the folks over at We Need Diverse Books initiative’s definition of diversity: “We recognize all diverse experiences, including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities*, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.”

I’m sure some have objections to the pace of this challenge, thinking it is too slow perhaps or maybe even not radical enough. I agree with you. But I also think defining, exploring, and featuring diversity isn’t something that happens overnight. Learning to think intentionally about including diverse book content requires practice, research, and perhaps altering your routines, a new kind of mindfulness. To that end, it is my hope that a gradual ramp-up of diverse literature content allows for mistakes to be made and self-realization to grow. It’s a personal journey.

Join me, fellow book bloggers and literary tastemakers. Engage in the dialogue with the hashtag #diversity50. Own your influence and break the wheel. 

I welcome your comments and suggestions in this open dialogue.  Together let’s make web book content a celebration of diverse voices. The New York Times Book Review? Let it fade into irrelevance in the new era of literary criticism. Let it be eclipsed by those with a fresh editorial vision not dictated by more than a century’s worth of convention and baggage.  Let’s stop talking about the Book Review and start featuring diverse writers and literature ourselves. Let’s rewrite the wheel. Right here. Right now

Greetings Fellow Reader!

Welcome to Broke By Books, a blog by Sarah S. Davis, where the guiding mission is to spread a contagious love for reading through helpful, thought provoking, and enjoyable writing about books. Please join me in growing an inspired, engaged, and fearless reading life.

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