The New York Times Notable Books, 1998-2014; The emergence of gender equality

What works

The above graphic represents the absolute volume of authors who have been mentioned in The New York Times year-end list of notable books. Since 2004 the newspaper has capped the list at 100 books, but prior to that the total number of listed books varied significantly from year to year. Therefore, displaying the absolute number of books considered notable is more illustrative of patterns within the organization than showing only the relative percentage of authors by gender.

One of the interesting things that this visualization implies is that capping the list at 100 at first drastically reduced the absolute number of authors who were mentioned in the list, but that this burden hit women hardest. During the first year after the cap was introduced only five women who wrote works of non-fiction in the previous year were mentioned. Fourteen women novelists and poets were listed. That’s only 19% of the hundred authors considered notable that year. In fact, I would argue that the most notable quality of the list that year was its dismal gender parity. It is possible some in the organization were able to confront the gender disparity because it started to move closer to 50/50, jumping to 39/61 the next year. But then…the best intentions may have faltered as the proportions slipped little by little back towards the one-third women, two-thirds men scenario that was more or less the pattern in the pre-2004 years.

Then in 2012 numbers once again jumped to 40/60. And in 2013 and 2014 the numbers held steady at an even split overall AND there was gender parity within the fiction and non-fiction verticals. In my head, I imagine some firm voice at a meeting demanding a quota, dammit, because all past efforts to agree to do the right thing with respect to gender parity had resulted in a lukewarm 40/60 that couldn’t hold up for more than a year at a time. This same voice probably also pointed out that it was not going to work to disproportionately recognize women novelists and poets and continue to leave women non-fiction writers under-appreciated. The quota covered the overall balance of the 100 notables and it applied within the fiction/poetry and non-fiction verticals. OK. That took a while.

Gender isn’t the only category of interest in these top book lists. Back in 2011 I looked at the number of academic authors who had made the list to better understand the backgrounds of our public intellectuals. Unsurprisingly, the NYTimes turned out to be partly populist, partly academic aristocracy.

What needs work

As with so many depictions of gender, this one is locked into a gender binary. There were some trans authors mentioned. For example, Deirdre McCloskey’s Crossing: A memoir made the list in 1999. In her case, since she currently identifies as a woman, I counted her as a woman even though her book was about the experience of transitioning from one gender to another. It is an exemplary instance of why it might be more accurate to have a gender spectrum instead of a gender binary. Alas, I didn’t visualize that here. I’m not yet up to that challenge. I also failed to deal with publications released by committees or coalitions. Since they were impossible to categorize with respect to gender I left them out. The best example of a left out publication is the 9/11 report.

Another problem with this graphic is that it is static, not interactive. It would be more interesting if it had hover-over capabilities that could pop up the absolute numbers to which the area of the shapes are representing.

The gender disparity in the highest reaches of the literary scene is well known and widespread. Keep reading for some history on the gender parity problem in the literary profession that demonstrates both how well known and widespread it is. Choosing to represent only a single reviewing organization – The New York Times notable books list – is faulty in a couple ways. First, it implies that this particular organization is somehow at fault for a pattern that has been shown to be endemic in the field. Second, The New York Times has taken what appear to be successful steps towards ensuring an equal number of women and men get accolades for their work, regardless of whether they write fiction or non-fiction. This is a great success with respect to gender equity within that particular list, but it is lazy to assume other literary review organizations have been as successful. In fact, VIDA reports that most other organizations are still struggling to get to gender parity in terms of the authors whose books are reviewed and in terms of which types of people are publishing the reviews.

The history of gender equity in literary publishing

There is an entire organization set up to investigate the gender parity problem in literary circles called VIDA. Their mission is to “to increase critical attention to contemporary women’s writing as well as further transparency around gender equality issues in contemporary literary culture” using a “research driven” methodology. Since 2010 they have been putting together pie charts that show the gender parity within a whole range of literary field publications, including The New York Times book review, The New York Review of Books, n+1, The New Yorker, and many others. Also, they look at the gender of the people writing the reviews in addition to the gender of the people whose books are being reviewed.

These pie charts are all from The New York Times book review because that is where the data for the chart above was published. VIDA has many more pie charts available. Part of what I was trying to do with the chart above is improve on the pie chart visualization technique.

VIDA-New-York-Times-Authors-2010

VIDA-New-York-Times-Authors-2011

VIDA-New-York-Times-Authors-2012

VIDA-New-York-Times-Authors-2013

VIDA uses a team of interns to gather the publication history of all the newspapers and magazines they consider part of the literary scene. Mostly, these interns are unpaid. That is amazing. For the chart above, I grabbed all the data and did not rely on what they had done.

What else could work: A Datathon

Most savvy computational sociologists would recommend using a web scraper to generate a database with publication information and take a first pass at assigning a gender to the authors and reviewers. Some authors and reviewers will use initials (e.g. J. K. Rowling), have gender-ambiguous names (e.g. Pat, Parker, Taylor), or have otherwise difficult to gender-ize names. These would still need to be investigated by humans equipped with a search engine, but the workload would be dramatically reduced.

Does anyone feel like getting together at a datathon and scraping all the web-based publishers in a single weekend? Reply in comments.

References

100 Notable Books of 2014 The New York Times Published 2 December 2014.

100 Notable Books of 2013 The New York Times Published 27 November 2013.

100 Notable Books of 2012 The New York Times Published 27 November 2012.

100 Notable Books of 2011 The New York Times Published 21 November 2011.

100 Notable Books of 2010 The New York Times Published 24 November 2010.

100 Notable Books of 2009 The New York Times Published 6 December 2009.

100 Notable Books of 2008 The New York Times Published 26 November 2008.

100 Notable Books of 2007 The New York Times Published 2 December 2007.

100 Notable Books of 2006 The New York Times Published 3 December 2006.

“100: Fiction and Poetry Notable Books of the Year.” New York Times (1923-Current file): 3. Dec 04 2005. ProQuest. Web. 27 Jan. 2015. [Note: This file also included non-fiction titles though that would not be implied from the document’s title. For inexplicable reasons, the 2005 Notable Books list was not available through The New York Times search function at nytimes.com and had to be downloaded through the ProQuest database which is a proprietary service that I accessed through the New York University library.]

100 Notable Books of 2004 The New York Times Published 5 December 2004.

Notable Books of 2003 The New York Times Published on 7 December 2003.

Notable Books of 2002 The New York Times Published 8 December 2002.

Notable Books of 2001 The New York Times Published 2 December 2001.

Notable Books of 2000 The New York Times Published 3 December 2000.

Notable Books of 1999 The New York Times Published 5 December 1999.

Notable Books of 1998 The New York Times Published 6 December 1998.

VIDA Count of books reviewed by the New York Times book review in 2010 VIDA Published 16 May 2011.

VIDA Count of books reviewed by the New York Times book review in 2011 VIDA Published 28 January 2012.

VIDA Count of books reviewed by the New York Times book review in 2012 VIDA Published 28 January 2013.

VIDA Count of books reviewed by the New York Times book review in 2013 VIDA Published 24 February 2014.

Sex Scenes of Male Novelists:  A Generational Comparison
Sex Scenes of Male Novelists: A Generational Comparison | Paula Scher
Male Authors and Sex-Differing Generational Attitudes and Attributes
Male Authors and Sex-Differing Generational Attitudes and Attributes | Paula Scher

Katie Roiphe wrote an excellent article – “The Naked and the Conflicted” – in the New York Times that tracks the treatment of sex by male novelists from writers like Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, and John Updike through to contemporary writers like Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon, and Benjamin Kunkel. The upshot is that newer male novelists do not include the exuberant, even extreme, sex that got previous male novelists in trouble, but at least made them interesting. The younger writers’ sex scenes involve a lot more cuddling if they have any sex scenes at all. It’s a good article, I recommend that you read it.

What works

I really like that an article about novels and plots – not something that easily lends itself to information graphics – includes not one, but two different visualizations. I also happen to like that they are magenta. It’s a story about sex – magenta is a good way to scream for attention.

What needs work

I don’t know about you, but these are probably only good as jokes. And joking with information graphics is just fine by me. I encourage it.

If one were to try to interpret these as graphics, though, I have a few recommendations. First, I would have ordered the authors in the same way on both visualizations. Right now they are mirror images and it makes it harder to follow the patterns. I think the graphic could have been funnier and more helpful if there had been an axis labeled with what constitutes sex, more sex, outrageous behavior. If you read the article, some of this becomes clear, but the graphic doesn’t stand on its own without the article. And the snake-y graphic just doesn’t do much at all. There is no reason for all the snakiness – just makes it hard to read which obscures the point. It might have even been funnier if each of the adjectives had been in its own bubble where the size of the bubble increased the more authors that could be described with that adjective.

References

Roiphe, Katie. (December 2009) The Naked and the Conflicted in The New York Times Sunday Book Review with graphics by Paula Scher.