I did the math.
Of the New York Times‘s 100 Notable Books of 2012, there are 39 women, 16 authors of color, and only seven women of color.¹ Of their 10 Best Books, there are three women and one writer of color, who is also the list’s only woman of color. The numbers are striking.
There is so much that can be said about the good a book can do to expose readers to new places, new ways of life. (For instance, the glimpse Katherine Boo gave to American readers of Mumbai life in Behind the Beautiful Forevers.) There’s even more to be said about what a book can do for readers who have never found their own lives on the page before. (How many books tell the kind of story Jessamyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones does?) It’s the job of book review editors—as guides to the overwhelming volume of titles published every year—to draw readers’ attention to the kind of books that can broaden their world, that tell the kind of stories that have never been told in print before. These books are out there, we just need to do a better job of finding and recognizing them.
So what happened? The disparity is less ugly when looking at the New York Times Notable Books list’s fiction and poetry titles. Of those 54 titles, 23 were by women, 12 by writers of color, including six women of color. But the remainder of the list—made up of 46 nonfiction titles—looks that much more dismal: four by writers of color, 16 by women, and one by a woman of color.
As a nonfiction book review editor, the relative dearth of titles I receive by women and especially by writers of color is familiar. Nonfiction is overwhelmingly the domain of white men and while the reasons for that are knotty and widespread, change is needed—both in terms of what books are published, and in what books are selected for review and (eventually) for laurels like these.
I turned my attention (and spreadsheet skills) to Library Journal‘s 10 Best Books of 2011 and 2012 (the latter of which will be released on December 20th). Last year, our top-ten list featured three writers of color, four women, and two women of color: a better showing. This year, our 10 Best list features work by six women but only one writer of color—the list’s only woman of color as well. When I first did the math, just after the votes were tabulated and the ten books finalized over a month ago, I was disappointed by the lack of writers of color. But I was a part of the problem: the writers of all three of my nominees (all nonfiction titles) are white. This realization has shaped one of my professional goals for 2013: to seek out new nonfiction (and especially women) writers of color.
In the meantime, I imagine what New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2012 look like if it better reflected the makeup of this country. For one, white men wouldn’t take up nearly half of the list—they’d be just under a third of it: from 48 to around 31 writers. White women, who had 32 books on the list, would stay at that number. There would be 36 books by writers of color—20 more than the current list has—18 of them by women. Women, overall, would get a boost of about 12 more writers.
A New York Times 100 Notable Books list that looked like this would be stronger, broader, and more relevant. It’d also be the kind of list I’m most interested in reading, one we all should be more invested in making.
1: My methodology was admittedly not scientific: I used Google. In general, I erred on the side of increasing the Times‘s count.