I Did the Math: Towards a More Diverse NYT Notable Book List

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.

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.

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Molly McArdle About Molly McArdle

Molly McArdle (mmcardle@mediasourceinc.com, @mollitudo on Twitter) is Assistant Editor, Library Journal Book Review. She also manages the Library Journal tumblr.


  1. Troy Johnson says:

    Here is an excerpt from a TED Talk by Elif Shafak, a Turkish woman.

    Yet as much as I love stories, recently, I’ve also begun to think that they lose their magic if and when a story is seen as more than a story. And this is a subject that I would love to think about together. When my first novel written in English came out in America, I heard an interesting remark from a literary critic. “I liked your book,” he said, “but I wish you had written it differently.” (Laughter) I asked him what he meant by that. He said, “Well, look at it. There’s so many Spanish, American, Hispanic characters in it, but there’s only one Turkish character and it’s a man.” Now the novel took place on a university campus in Boston, so to me, it was normal that there be more international characters in it than Turkish characters, but I understood what my critic was looking for. And I also understood that I would keep disappointing him. He wanted to see the manifestation of my identity. He was looking for a Turkish woman in the book because I happened to be one.

    We often talk about how stories change the world, but we should also see how the world of identity politics affects the way stories are being circulated, read and reviewed. Many authors feel this pressure, but non-Western authors feel it more heavily. If you’re a woman writer from the Muslim world, like me, then you are expected to write the stories of Muslim women and, preferably, the unhappy stories of unhappy Muslim women. You’re expected to write informative, poignant and characteristic stories and leave the experimental and avant-garde to your Western colleagues. What I experienced as a child in that school in Madrid is happening in the literary world today. Writers are not seen as creative individuals on their own, but as the representatives of their respective cultures: a few authors from China, a few from Turkey, a few from Nigeria. We’re all thought to have something very distinctive, if not peculiar.

    Ms. Shafak is questioning why writers with a certain background cannot write about other backgrounds. I think this is a slightly different question from what this post critiquing the NYT list is getting at but I think it asks a parallel question that is very important. Why can’t a Turkish woman write a book about a white midwestern male convenience store manager?

    If the Turkish woman author should not be put in a labeled box why should the white male author be put in a box? Why should the white male author’s book be passed over because of their background? Why can’t a book stand on its own and not be shackled to the gender and background of the author?

    • Matt says:

      I agree with Elif. Books should be chosen on the merits of the story not the background or gender of the person writing them.

  2. Molly McArdle Molly McArdle says:

    Troy and Matt, I think you are right that quality of writing and story should be paramount. My issue isn’t necessarily with the final selection process, but with the introductory period of reading that all lists like this one begin with. When you read more widely, your choices are apt to correspondingly diverse. The results of the NYT’s 100 Notable Books list (which because of its size is more representative of the editors’ reading habits) make it look like they didn’t try very hard. With a sample size that large, the relatively low number of women and especially writers of color can be no accident.

  3. Troy Johnson says:

    >>With a sample size that large, the relatively low number of women and especially writers of color can be no accident.

    Yes it can be an accident. Plus there are things that are more important than the sex, race, and gender of the author and that is the subject and content of the book.

    The book “Barack Obama: The Story” is about an African American President. Book is about a minority. The author of the book is a white male. Is the subject of the book more important or the color of the author’s skin?

    The book “BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity” is about slums in India. It was written by a white woman. Is the subject of the book more important or the color of the author’s skin?

    The book “ODDLY NORMAL: One Family’s Struggle to Help Their Teenage Son Come to Terms With His Sexuality” is written by a white male. Is the subject of the book more important or the color of the author’s skin?

    The book “ON A FARTHER SHORE: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson” is about a female environmentalist. The author of the book is a white male. Is it more important to read about a female environmentalist or to be concerned about the skin color and gender of the author of the book?

    The book “SHORT NIGHTS OF THE SHADOW CATCHER: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis” is about photographing Native Americans in late 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. The author is a white male. Is it more important to read about Native Americans or more important to be concerned about the gender and race of the author?

    Now for a slightly different tact.

    The book “THE SOCIAL CONQUEST OF EARTH” is by Edward Wilson a white male. But he is also a minority. He is an evolutionary biologist. What percentage of the population is made up of evolutionary biologist? Is he minority status as an evolutionary biologist more important or is his skin color, race, and gender more important?

    A final point. So you argue that there should be some broader base of books that the NYT editors should be reading from. How about you list a couple of the books that you think they missed?

  4. Molly McArdle Molly McArdle says:

    I would have loved to see one of the two volumes from Henry Louis Gates’s excellent series “The Image of the Black in Western Art” that were released this year. Or Ayana Mathis’s THE TWELVE TRIBES OF HATTIE. I think about Lucille Clifton’s volume of collected poetry that came out this year. Or Eduardo Corral’s SLOW LIGHTNING. These are just off the top of my head—there are many many more! I think this piece (and subsequent list) by Roxane Gay is a great introduction to fantastic writers of color: http://therumpus.net/2012/08/we-are-many-we-are-everywhere/.

  5. Some additional statistics says:

    Number of articles on Library Journal concerning diversity of NYT Notable Book List (2012): 1
    Number of articles on Library Journal concerning diversity of NYT Notable Book List (2012) by authors of color: 0
    Number of times the words “of color” appear on this webpage as of 3:22 PM Sunday, Dec 9: 19

  6. Elaine Rogers says:

    This is a foolish article. These books are supposed to be chosen based on merits other than what color or gender the author is. Are we now supposed to take these into account? Should we give authors of color, or women authors additional weight towards an award because of those facts alone? Affirmative Action for Book Awards? Utterly stupid.

    Your “math” is also not here. Do you even know the total proportion of authors in terms of race and gender? If for every 10 “white males”, there are 1 non-white or male author, then your whole argument goes out the window because then the awards are proportionate to the layout of submissions. Without these numbers, you can’t prove anything except that you’re looking for boogeymen where there are none.

    • AJ says:

      So I guess it’s inconceivable that perhaps one of a number of reasons women and people of color are underrepresented in the “population of authors” (if indeed they are so) is that the overwhelming majority of the books hailed by mainstream publications as “good” or “the best” are by white men? And that this choice is presumed to be objective and in no way biased toward writers of a particular gender or racial background?