The Irrelevant Bias Of The New York Times

I know a lot of you have been asking me to give details of my last trip to Vegas with the man I’m going to refer to as R.  I will say Vegas was everything R. promised and more.  But that’s all I’m going to say.  It has come to my attention that R.’s last true love may be reading my blog and I know from personal experience that even when a relationship needs to end, even when we’re the ones who take steps that ensure things actually WILL end, it is still painful when it is truly over.  I’m not interested in making anything harder for anyone and in that spirit I’m going to at least temporarily refrain from detailing my current dating life in a public forum.

So instead I’m going to address the other thing people keep asking me about, Jennifer Weiner’s and Jodi Picoult’s recent condemnations of the literary critics fawning over male authors while completely dismissing women authors, particularly those who have the audacity to write women’s fiction.  To demonstrate their point they have been drawing the public’s attention to the copious reviews of Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Freedom.  Franzen writes about relationships and families but as Weiner pointed out to NPR, when he writes about these issues the reviewers say he’s writing the “American Story” while when women write about the same issues their books are dismissed as chick lit.  Picoult’s criticisms are pretty much the same.  Their main beef is with the New York Times who they say will only review books written by women when they think the subject matter of the book will appeal to white men and even then male authors are given some level of preference.

The New York Times insists that there is no bias employed in regards to which books they choose to review. One New York Times defender even went on to list the three female critics whose reviews are frequently featured in their periodical. Of course that’s sort of the I’m-not-racist-some-of-my-best-friends-are-black response to the issue and it doesn’t ring true.  Particularly not when you look at a recent study conducted by FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting) that showed that between February 2009 and January 2010 95% of the politically themed books reviewed by the Times were written by white authors.  87% of them were written by men.  Now I don’t doubt that there are more politically themed books written (or at least published) by white men than by ethnic women but 95% is a suspiciously high number and I don’t know that you can explain it without admitting to at least some unintentional bias.  And really, can someone please tell me the last time a female minority novelist who WASN’T writing about civil rights and/or racial inequality in one form or another was reviewed by the Times?  

The very idea that having women or minorities on the New York Times staff is going to help the situation is just silly.  Any first year sociology student will tell you that minorities (and for the purposes of this post I’m including women as being their own minority group) will turn against their own in order to gain acceptance within a corporate culture or judgmental work environment.  My ex-boyfriend, a lawyer who frequently represented police officers, would often point out to me all the times in which black police officers would purposely engage in racial discrimination against black suspects just so they could gain the approval of their white peers.  I’m not saying that this is the norm but it would be naive to say it doesn’t happen a lot. And the few people I know who used to work at the New York Times freely admit that they were always under a lot of pressure to appear to be as intellectual as possible. If you need to be an “intellectual” and you are given the very clear signal that enjoying a certain kind of book is unintellectual then you’re not going to review the supposedly unintellectual book no matter what your sex or race might be.  It won’t even matter if you secretly believe that the book you feel you must dismiss might be addressing important issues of our time.  Unless the Times purposely directs their reviewers to represent more diversity in genres they will continue to overlook quality women’s fiction.  

But then again, who cares? A few years ago an independent study was done showing that a book review in the New York Times spikes sales for the book that was reviewed for just about twenty-four hours and then the sales drop right back down to where they were before. That’s true regardless of whether it was a good or bad review.  I’ve had my work featured in the New York Times before. Once they dedicated an entire paragraph to me in a trend story dealing with “Chick-lit murder mysteries” and yes, the reviewer made sure readers knew that she didn’t entirely approve of the genre .  My book was also mentioned in Maureen Dowd’s column when she went on a humorous tirade condemning all books with pink covers.  I responded to that column here.  
As far as I can tell my sales weren’t affected one way or another by the attention.  

But when I got into Cosmopolitan magazine , that was a different story…

My first review in Cosmo was exactly two sentences long.  They said that Sex, Murder And A Double Latte was a “red-hot-read” and packed “more jolt than a Venti Frappucino at Starbucks.” That’s it. Two sentences next to a tiny picture of my book.  Shorter than the paragraph the Times gave me.

On the day that Cosmo issue was released my sales rank on both Barnes & Noble and Amazon went from somewhere in the 5000 range to being the 18th bestselling book on their site/stores.  Within days I was officially on Barnes & Noble’s Mystery Bestseller list and it wasn’t long before regional talk shows and radio shows were requesting interviews.  When Cosmo actually printed a two page excerpt of my sex scene from  Passion, Betrayal And Killer Highlights in their June issue a year later it got enough attention to piss off the religious right who said in an article circulated on the Christian Wire News Service that the excerpt was leading America’s youth into temptation.  I was less surprised by the criticism than I was by the fact that the religious right was reading Cosmo because I’m pretty sure they’re not reading the New York Times.

But then again, of course they’re reading Cosmo because they know that Cosmo’s readers respect that magazine’s opinion enough to actually buy the books they tell them to buy just as Cosmo respects its readers’ tastes enough to review books that they might want to read.  The Times doesn’t seem to care about what many of their readers want from a book.  In their effort to only  review books that they think are deep and influential they themselves have ceased to be influential at all.  So at this point I’m happy to let them review exclusively white male authors or female authors who write for that specific demographic. It simply doesn’t make much of a difference.

Their lose, not mine.  

Kyra Davis

Bestselling Author of:

The Sophie Katz Mystery Series
and
So Much For My Happy Ending
Order Vows, Vendettas & A Little Black Dress today! Vows, Vendettas and a Little  Black Dress

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3 Comments

  1. Melanie

    August 31, 2010

    well put! i’d been thinking something similar myself. all the hype going on about how much attention Franzen is getting is only getting him more attention. i read what i like – i write what i like.

  2. Leslie

    September 1, 2010

    Ha–nice post! I especially like your last paragraph, though I do think the NYT has a responsibility to fairly cover books that are of different genres and by various authors.

    I don’t read the NYT for book recommendations or reviews (at all) and have done quite well. That said, it’s pitiful that its editors are biased. And your point about what minorities–I usually hate that word but it works here–will do to fit in is interesting. And quite sad.

  3. kyradavis

    September 1, 2010

    It is sad, but it’s been proven true again and again. I think human beings are naturally programed to do what we need to do in order to fit into whatever group we’re a part of. It’s a survival technique. Unfortunately it’s a survival technique that too often requires us to toss our core principles out the window.

    And you’re right, the NYT does have a responsibility to its readers but if they don’t live up to their responsibility they will LOSE readers until eventually there won’t BE a New York Times. So this bias may be problematic to authors but the only one who really stands to lose here is the New York Times itself.

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