At the beginning of 2013, I promised myself that I would try to review an equal number of books written by men and women. This didn't start with a public proclamation. It was just something I decided to aim for because it seemed fair, and it was about time. Without even counting, I knew I hadn't come anywhere near gender parity in years past. How hard could it really be?
Now, as 2013 closes, I've counted all my book reviews in the print edition of The Stranger this year, and not only did I fail at gender parity, I failed spectacularly. I reviewed 25 books by men and 17 by women.
I shouldn't have had such a hard time with this goal. Women seem to make up more of the publishing industry than many other fields. Statistics are hard to come by, but anecdotally, it's not uncommon at industry gatherings to see as many or more female than male publishers, writers, booksellers, and librarians.
Yet there's still a huge disparity in what actually gets published. Many more books by men come into my inbox every day. Just grabbing a publisher catalog from off my desk at random—Basic Books' spring 2014 list—yields an embarrassing total of two female-authored books out of 29 titles. Local reading events, to which I try to tailor my coverage, are male-dominated, too. Again at random, I tallied the readings at Town Hall Seattle in September of this year. Of all the (non-panel) reading events, 17 of the headlining authors were men, and 9 were women. As I write this, 12 of the 44 titles on the nonfiction new-arrivals table at Elliott Bay Book Company are by women. Fiction fares much better, with 31 of 67 new novels and short-story collections written by women.
But it's more than just a numbers game. My decisions about what to cover aren't made on a spreadsheet. I consider what deserves coverage on a case-by-case basis every week. Should I have passed over great small-press books by local authors like Maged Zaher, Matthew Simmons, and Richard Chiem? Should I have skipped Going Clear and Salt Sugar Fat, two of the best book-length works of journalism published this year? Do I not direct readers to events by Icelandic fabulist Sjón, or Peter Bagge, or Sam Lipsyte? The obvious answer to that is no, not any more than I'd willfully ignore new work by local authors that I did review like Rebecca Hoogs, Jaimee Garbacik, Shin Yu Pai, Eroyn Franklin, or Karen Finneyfrock, or any more than I'd ignore books like Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland or Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche's Americanah, which were two novels that moved me more than just about anything else I read this year.
But still: Why couldn't I have read Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch? (At the time, my answer was that every other outlet was already covering the book.) Why didn't I review local author Nicola Griffith's novel Hild, which is beloved by just about everyone? (I tried, oh God I tried, but historical novels set in the Middle Ages put me to sleep, though I could appreciate Griffith's obvious skill in the few chapters I pushed myself through.) Why did I not write about I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai? (I have no idea. I am not proud.) I wouldn't have excluded any of the authors I wrote about this year for the sake of another. The real answer to all my hand-wringing is that I should just work harder to make sure that everyone is included. I regret not doing better.
Still, regretting isn't enough. Things aren't going to get better for women until they're equally represented in the media, until their voices are as loud and as clear as the voices of men. The male/female ratio is closer in publishing than it is in, say, film, but "closer" isn't good enough. True equality isn't going to be reached until people in every step of the publishing process—including book reviewers—agree to try to make it happen. I don't want to write this same story again next year; I'm tired of failing. And the fact is, if you were to take the race of the authors I reviewed into consideration, my books section would even less resemble the realities of the United States today. It's a charge that I take seriously, but it's also a charge I fail at, year after year. I want to try harder. I want you to help me try harder, and I want to help you find great books by women, because that's my duty. This is too important a problem to throw down an endless well of regret at the end of every year.