In the ongoing debate over the byline gender gap, the July 29 issue of the New York Times Book Review* has attracted some attention. This was the "How To" issue, featuring articles from Colson Whitehead, Roger Rosenblatt, Augusten Burroughs, and Kate Christensen, among other notable writers, on things a person might need or want to do: "How to Write," "How to Write Great," "How to Write How-To"; and, from Christensen, "How to Cook a Clam." Elsewhere in the issue, "Glamour magazine expands a manifesto for women" and Judith Warner reviews a book on how to raise children, while Henry Alford writes about "modern manhood" and Garry Wills reviews political tips allegedly from the younger Cicero.
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Some readers of the issue, like Molly Templeton, a freelance writer and fulltime bookseller at WORD, saw a slant reflected in the topics and distribution of bylines. As she wrote in an email to friends and writing industry colleagues, "That cover made me feel like I was in a time warp. There is nothing wrong with cooking and raising children; there are lots of things right and wonderful with these pursuits. They are also, as I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, traditionally female tasks, and when you take into consideration the VIDA stats, the history of gender imbalance in literature and journalism and the world at large, you might find yourself a little frustrated by the fact that it’s 20goddamn12 and we are still too often relegated to writing about deeply gendered topics."
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This is an issue we've written about previously, and as Jessica Grose pointed out with the recent issue of Rolling Stone, it's an issue that still very much exists. Templeton didn't just count the numbers, though (as she wrote in an email that she sent out to various writers, "of the 18 bylined reviews and essays in the issue, five are by women")—she also decided to do something about it. In her email, she asked people to contribute to a "How-to" Tumblr, saying, "I’m sure there are things your many brilliant friends know how to do, or something you could write about that has to do with doing a thing (most of the NYTBR pieces were, of course, book reviews). I would like to read the essays, reviews, comics, lists and more we, and they, could write in this vein—irreverent, funny, heartbreaking, ironic, wry, snarky, sweet, clever, brilliant, silly, and everything else. I would like to create our own how-to issue."
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It's been a little more than a week and Templeton's How-To Tumblr is in full swing, including writing from Mary Anne Mohanraj, Roxane Gay, Claire Zulkey, and Siân Evans, among others. Topics are wide-ranging, from serious to practical to nostalgic to goofy: "How to Have a Career"; "How to Love a Dog (Without Losing Your Heart)"; "How to Drive Cross-Country By Yourself"; "How to Open a Bottle of Wine, Tableside"; and "How to Live Tweet," for instance. I spoke to Templeton about the inspiration for her project and what she hopes it might accomplish.
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You said the "How to" issue of the New York Times Book Review made you feel like you were in a time warp. Can you tell me a bit about your thought process upon seeing it? Molly Templeton: I actually heard about the issue before I saw it. My colleagues and I were talking about it last Saturday morning, and the idea came out of that conversation. We were tossing around names of female authors we would have liked to see write for the issue, and it occurred to me that we could make our own version of it. I wrote a to-do list on a Post-it and went about my workday.
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On Sunday, I went to get the paper, and when I saw the cover, it was a little bit of a shock. We'd talked about the topics and the content, but I hadn't realized the cover presented the pieces the way it did. It looked like something from decades ago. But I read the whole issue before I posted the Tumblr; I wanted to be sure I had all the information, and that I still felt like this project was relevant once I'd seen the whole thing. Eventually, after a little bit of doubt—was this the right battle to pick? Would people care? Would people want to write for a stranger on the Internet?—I decided it was better to try and possibly fail than not try at all. I wrote a draft of the call for submissions, had a few writer friends look it over, and then sent it out to a bunch of friends and posted it on Tumblr.
Have any of the issue's writers or editors responded to the project? No one connected to the NYTBR has gotten in touch with me, but I wouldn't really expect them to! I don't say that in any sort of negative way; I just assume they have a lot to do, and this is probably barely a blip on their radar, if that. And it's not really about them. The issue was the catalyst, but the topic I wanted to address with the project—the larger issue of gender imbalance in media, and sexism in general—is so much bigger than one NYTBR issue (or one Tumblr project!).
I have no way of knowing if the topics were pitched or assigned, and I think it both does and doesn't matter. It does matter in that I like to think, or hope, that women writing on these topics are choosing to do so, not being assigned to cover them. It doesn't matter because the editors still made the decision to sell the issue the way they did, in terms of the cover, and made the choices they did as to which writers' pitches to accept. Even if all the pitches the editors got for the issue from women writers were on traditional topics, they still made the choice not to look harder, or approach women to write about politics or writing.
[Gregory Cowles of the NYTBR responded to The Atlantic Wire's request for comment, saying, "I've been reading Molly Templeton's Tumblr with pleasure, but I'm afraid we make it a rule not to discuss our decision-making process or the reasoning behind any specific assignments."]
How many submissions have you gotten thus far and what sorts of responses? I've gotten at least 75 submissions, but I haven't done an exact count. The response has been amazing and heartening. When I sent out the email, I hoped to have 12-15 pieces to be able to post on the 5th, which was my initial deadline. By Tuesday—after the project appeared on Jezebel—I had more than that, and they're still coming in. People have been really enthusiastic, and a lot of the emails come in with notes thanking me for starting the project, or expressing frustration with sexism in the media. I really wanted to create something new out of my (and others') frustration, not just made a clever Twitter hashtag or write one more blog post about how a media outlet had gotten it wrong. And I say that not to belittle that sort of effort; I'm a fan of those things, and think they can do a lot of good. I just felt like I couldn't have one more banging-my-head-against-the- wall conversation, online or off, about this topic unless I did something new with my frustration.
Who has contributed? The first piece I got from someone I don't know was from the poet and novelist Leigh Stein, which was wonderful. Roxane Gay's post about how to be friends with other women made my day; she was one of the people on my initial mental wishlist of contributors, and her piece was perfect. I loved Caryn Rose's piece about driving cross-country alone, and I have a comic from Portland Mercury reporter Sarah Mirk about how to be a reporter that I can't wait to post. I also have submissions from people whose names I've never heard before, which makes me really happy. I wanted this to be egalitarian and fun and thoughtful all at once, and that's what it's turning out to be, which makes me so grateful. This wouldn't work without all the people who've chosen to participate.
Given the response, will you keep the Tumblr alive for the foreseeable future, and expand this beyond the initial call for submissions? I plan to keep it going as long as I have things to post. I'm trying to post three or four pieces on weekdays, and one or two on weekends.
What are your thoughts on gender equality in media? Are we moving in the right direction, or do you think we're hopelessly stuck and flawed? I think we're moving in the right direction because we're having this conversation. It's bigger than bylines and awards, and it's bigger than gender—race and class must be part of the conversation—but all of those pieces are vital parts of the whole. The bigger issue, I think, is the dominance of "white male" as the default setting; everyone else is different. It's a matter of privilege, which is a word that often makes people go all prickly, but it's not usually a matter of blame. I don't think there are cabals of white men working to keep the ladies and people of color down, but I do think that people default to what they know, and when what you know is a culture dominated by the white male norm, it's work to change the way you behave within that culture.
What can we do about it? The answer isn't as simple as counting bylines, but what VIDA does is really important for context and awareness: it's not just one place or the other; it's a pattern. What does that pattern reflect? What causes these numbers? Do women submit fewer pieces to magazines, and if so, why? Is it changing? I recognize in myself a tendency to wait to be asked for things, to not want to throw myself on editors' mercy; where does that come from, and how do I change it?
I used to work in children's publishing, and I pay a lot of attention to conversations about boys and girls and reading, and discussions about whether girls will read books with male protagonists but boys won't read books about girls. Is that true? Is it changing, with the success of things like The Hunger Games? What is a strong female character, and how often do we equate "strong female character" with "tough girl who scoffs at girly things"? Why do so many Game of Thrones fans seem to hate Sansa, who's as steely, in her own way, as her little sister?
I don't know how we fix it, but I think it's incredibly important to keep asking questions, and keep talking about it, and to become aware of our own habits and foibles.
Are you only accepting writing from women on the Tumblr? What about men who want to write about topics that might be traditionally considered "for women"? I'm not opening the Tumblr to men because I feel that this isn't just about content; it's about representation. The cover of the NYTBR reflected one problem, and the bylines reflected another, so the Tumblr is a response to both. Stereotypes of masculinity are harmful as well, but I think that's something to challenge in a different project.
I am changing the language of the call for entries a little bit, though, in response to an email I got early last week from a writer who asked if the project was open to gender-nonconforming people. I do want it to be open to genderqueer writers, and I wish I'd thought to phrase it that way in the first place. One thing that I may not have made clear in the initial call for submissions is that I'm as interested in pieces about babies and food as in pieces about other topics! I don't want to disparage or devalue those things; I just want to make the world women write in a little bigger, in whatever way I can.
*Disclosure: I have written for The New York Times Book Review.