An open letter to the editors of Bookforum

Jun 29, 2012 by

Below is a letter I sent today to the editors of Bookforum: senior editors Michael Miller, Albert Mobilio, and Chris Lehmann and managing editor David O’Neill.

I hate to single Bookforum out: it’s one of the most thoughtful book review journals in America. It makes an effort to cover books that are often ignored by the Times and other more mainstream press, which results in a more diverse and (not incidentally) more interesting mix. I’m proud to be a contributor.

But after the dispiriting news of the spring—another depressing VIDA count, the lack of women represented in the NMA nominations—I decided that, as a member of the literary community, I had to take action. I initially considered refusing to write for magazines that don’t have sufficient female representation on their editorial staff, meaning at least one woman among the top editorial positions (editor-in-chief, executive editor, senior editor, managing editor). But I realized quickly that this would be self-defeating.

So I’ve decided to continue as I am, but to make the publications I write for aware that I believe the lack of female voices on their staff detracts from the overall quality of their publications. I will register a similar complaint with publications that display a sharp imbalance in male/female bylines (that is to say, according to the VIDA count, virtually all of them). Fellow writers, I encourage you to do the same. Feel free to borrow the text of my letter below or to alter it as you see fit.

One final word: I’m aware that the lack of racial diversity in these publications is even starker, as Roxane Gay and others have recently pointed out. For practical reasons, I’ve chosen to focus on women’s issues, but I realize that lack of diversity in this arena is not limited to gender.

* * *

Dear Michael, Albert, Chris, and David:

I am pleased to have accepted a new assignment for Bookforum. Though I have decided to continue to contribute, I wanted to tell you that I have lately had second thoughts about writing for the magazine because of the lack of female editors on your masthead.

Over the past year or so, the question of women’s representation in book reviewing has been raised multiple times: by the annual VIDA count showing the breakdown in male and female bylines, in terms of both reviewers and books reviewed; by Meg Wolitzer’s article in the New York Times Book Review; and most recently by the National Magazine Awards, where not a single woman was nominated for an award in the prestigious long-form categories. I’ve written about these issues multiple times. But I wonder what concrete steps can be taken to improve the situation for women writers.

I have considered opting out of writing for magazines at which women are not represented among the top editors, such as Bookforum. But such a policy would naturally be counter to my stated intent. So I’ve resolved to continue writing, but at the same time to openly register my discomfort with the current state of affairs.

I don’t believe Bookforum is a sexist publication. I’m glad to see a moderate number female bylines in the magazine—about one-third of the latest issue, which in the current climate is not at all bad. A smaller proportion of books by women are reviewed. I do notice a number of women’s names on the business and production side, as well as among your interns.

I’m glad to have the opportunity to write for you, and I’ve had nothing but pleasant and respectful treatment from every editor with whom I’ve worked. Still, I feel it is my obligation to call attention to the gender imbalance that continues to be problematic in our industry, significantly narrowing the scope of conversation and impoverishing the literary dialogue.

All best,

Ruth Franklin


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