Yesterday afternoon at the Center for Fiction in midtown, NBCC board member Walton Muyumba led a conversation about racial and gender representation in book reviewing.
Panelists included Hawa Allan, contributing editor at Tricyle magazine; Alexander Chee, fiction writer and book reviewer; Miriam Markowitz, deputy literary editor of The Nation; and Parul Sehgal, an editor at The New York Times Book Review.
Muyumba began with the question, "Does any of this matter?"
"It matters enormously," said Chee. "Especially with the decline of book criticism sections and the rise of book blogging, believing it doesn't matter is part of the problem."
Sehgal agreed: "When you have book review sections that are all the same, it sends out the message, ‘Who can speak?'"
Allan argued that "with all the blogs, there no longer is a need for blue-chip publications to tell [readers] what to read. These publications are going to have to expand to cater to the public." She cited a Pew research report that stated that black, college-educated women is the fastest-growing demographic of book buyers.
Muyumba asked how established publications can change to include more diversity in reviews of books. Sehgal gave the example of deciding who to approach to review Steven Millhauser's book of short stories, Voices in the Night.
"It could have easily gone to a white male but instead went to Indian American novelist Tania James," Sehgal said. "She's so good, and she writes about myths all around the world. She can write about magic."
Markowitz agreed: "We have to see what kinds of books we are assigning women [to review]."
In the end, however, many of the panelists agreed with Markowitz when she said that "the masters of the universe are not book reviewers, but publishers." Ultimately, the kinds of books reviewed is determined by the types of books published.