A Seat at the Table
Suffering as I do from the procrastination pathology that afflicts so many journalists, it's only now, with three days left to vote, that I'm taking a close look at the candidates for the National Book Critics Circle board of directors. What I see is dismaying, all the more so for being unsurprising.
Of 21 candidates for eight spots, only six are women.
(Sigh sigh sigh sigh sigh.)
Maybe I'm overreacting; it's entirely possible. The NBCC's current 22-person board is 50 percent female, and the organization's president is Jane Ciabattari. That doesn't exactly suggest a male stronghold. And women as a group are hardly known for shying from volunteer labor.
Yet two things immediately come to mind. The first is the National Arts Journalism Program's board election a few years ago, when male alumni of the prestigious program threw their hats into the ring with wild abandon. The women, meanwhile, hung back -- not because they didn't care about the NAJP, or because they were too busy, but because they were unsure of their own abilities in comparison with the men's. A prominent former NAJP fellow, who has since been shortlisted for one of journalism's highest honors, told me she didn't think she could hold her own with a couple of the boldface names among the male candidates (only one of whom made it onto the board anyway). She wasn't alone in her thinking.
The second thing I'm reminded of is novelist Julianna Baggott's recent lament and call to arms in The Washington Post. As exemplified by Publishers Weekly's all-male 2009 top-10 list, Baggott argued, the presumed momentousness of male authors' books eludes their female counterparts:
I could understand Publishers Weekly's phallocratic list if women were writing only a third of the books published or if women didn't float the industry as book buyers or if the list were an anomaly. In fact, Publishers Weekly is in sync with Pulitzer Prize statistics. In the past 30 years, only 11 prizes have gone to women. Amazon recently announced its 100 best books of 2009 -- in the top 10, there are two women. Top 20? Four. Poets & Writers shared a list of 50 of the most inspiring writers in the world this month; women made up only 36 percent.
Just as with authors and readers, it's not as if there's a shortage of female book critics. The NBCC board's current gender split looks about right -- though that didn't quite translate to female authors raking in the National Book Critics Circle Awards last year. (Women won in zero categories.)
Maybe, in practical terms, shifting the board's balance in either direction would be irrelevant. But I can't help believing that having a seat at the table -- having, in fact, enough seats to make a difference -- matters. Boards like the NBCC's have influence, and the literary world is a place where female writers and readers still encounter obstacles to being taken seriously. The battle is lost if female critics don't take their own abilities seriously enough to put themselves forward.