In recent years there has been greater public awareness in regards to the underrepresentation of women in the literary arts, thanks to the advocacy efforts of groups like VIDA and CWILA. These organizations have highlighted this issue of bias primarily through quantitative measurement: how many female authors are reviewed in a given year? How many reviewers are female? VIDA and CWILA conduct annual counts to answer these questions, demonstrating the gender disparity in the world of book reviewing. A 2016 study conducted by .txtLAB took this research one step further by looking at the language in book reviews of male and female authors. Looking at over ten thousand book reviews published in The New York Times Sunday Book Review over the last fifteen years, the study revealed a new dimension of the issue of gender bias in book reviews. It found that reviews of female authors were more likely to contain words that were more sentimental and domestic, such as “marriage,” “mother,” “beauty,” or “sex,” while words associated with male-written books were more likely to focus on “public-facing” words like “leader,” “argument” or “theory.” These biases suggested a potentially troubling trend where specific topics were being associated with men and women. Our team decided to tackle this issue by focusing on the problem of “topic bias” in book review culture. Which books are selected for review, and how? Are certain topics being chosen, whether consciously or not, based on the author’s gender? Just Review pushes readers to think about the narratives that the book reviewing community promotes through this selection process. Which texts are book reviewers putting forth for our consideration? How are these texts being positioned? Which texts are being omitted from this conversation? In making these decisions, book reviewers wield an important source of cultural power, helping shape who is seen as an expert on topics of public concern. For this reason, it’s important that editors adopt more equitable ways of reviewing. By getting reviewers and editors to start thinking about topics in the works that they review, we hope to challenge the cultural assumptions that are made in regards to topic and gender. In an ideal world, different genders would be able to write about anything and not be associated with certain topics or genres based on historical stereotypes. The goal of our project is to impact the way books are reviewed to create a more open review culture.
Our project recognizes the publishing industry and more specifically book reviewing to be spaces where gender bias is present. We believe that tackling this issue of gender bias in book review culture will not only create a more diverse and equitable publishing landscape, but that it will challenge gendered cultural assumptions held more broadly within society. To understand the larger issue of gender bias, it is important to understand that gender is socially constructed and performed. Many theories seek to challenge the idea that gender is biologically determined. These theories suggest that the differences between gendered identities are in fact created by the production of social standards of gender. These social standards create categories of men and women that are categorized into a rigid, false binary. One’s performance of gender is kept in check partially by the culture that surrounds them. Individuals are socialized to understand, perform and evaluate gender from childhood—which creates unconscious assumptions, expectations and bias. People are rewarded for performing their gender in accordance to social norms, whereas those who diverge from the expectations can be ostracized and isolated. Cultural products such as book reviews are instrumental in enforcing this binary and maintaining the power imbalance between men and women. That book review topics are divided along a gendered line is one such example of this. We seek to create a book reviewing culture where the stereotypes between and the expectations for genders are diminished, thus allowing individuals of any gender to write however they choose and be met with equitable acceptance. By challenging these biases in book reviews we are contributing to work that aims to undo gender bias more broadly.
Intersectionality emphasizes the multifaceted reality of identity. An individual’s experiences are affected by each of the different forms of their identity such as race, ethnicity, sexuality, class and ability. When understanding someone’s experience of discrimination and oppression in society, we have to understand how these different forms of identity intersect to create different experiences. It’s important not to homogenize one identity group. For example, while all women experience sexism, they experience it differently depending on their race, class, ability, etc. .The work that VIDA has been doing takes into account the importance of acknowledging this interconnection: their 2015 count was called the “The Year of Intersectional Thinking,” and produced data that allows us to reflect on the complex and nuanced issues of representation of identity in the literary community.

Our team aimed to follow in VIDA’s suit, as we strongly believe in the importance of equitable and diverse representation of identities in book reviews. Intersectionality is a necessary lens through which to approach research and create effective social change. Going forward, this project aims to address how topic bias affects authors of different races, classes, abilities and sexualities. While carrying out our research we encountered difficulty when it came to categorizing these other aspects of identity and so were forced to take an approach that would be easier in terms of gathering data. We think it invaluable that any further work done on this project should use an intersectional approach.

Check out some Further Reading on intersectional studies and on gender bias in literary culture.