This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

July 29, 2002 — Perhaps it's that the New Yorker has always been bourgeois, and that the bourgeois is just so much uglier than it used to be. Maybe this was just another one of those sudden sinking moments of realizing the extent of that. Whatever — one thing I wouldn't have laid on the so–called "new" New Yorker was sexism.

Of course, maybe I should have — one reason I'd let my decades long subscription run out (beyond the endless excerpts from forthcoming books that have turned the magazine into little more than so many advertisements) was an issue containing a clutch of Helmut Newton's juvenile crotch shots.

Still, I never really formulated the logical conclusion from that. Dealing with the New Yorker of the nineties was like that old television commercial where the beautiful model said "Don't hate me because I'm beautiful," to which one can only say, "Okay. There are plenty of other reasons to hate you."

Plus, it's just not a logical conclusion to jump to — my guess is that the New Yorker's subscriber base is overwhelmingly female. (Indeed, I see plenty of people on the New York subway reading the magazine every day, but none of them are ever men.) And certainly one would think that the hip, educated, well–off readership the magazine seems so desperate to snare would be, well, too hip and educated to tolerate that.

But then one day one of my readers, a senior executive at one of New York's very biggest publishing houses, wrote me a note: Did you ever take a look at the male to female ratio in the New Yorker's table of contents? he asked. He said it was usually 12 to 0 or 13 to 1.

Even without all the above reasonings that sounded incredible — numbers like that are just too stark to go unobserved, especially by editors who are supposed to be the best in the business.

But this was a source I trusted. Even receiving a critical observation of the New Yorker from someone in that position was notable in itself, particularly as he no doubt hoped that the powerful glossy would both review and excerpt his books.

So, the next time I passed a newsstand, I looked.

That particular week the New Yorker's table of contents featured 12 men and one woman. A few days later I spotted the previous week's issue at a friend's house — 10 to 2.

So I went to the New York Public Library, walked up between Patience and Fortitude and into the periodicals room and asked to see the entire stack of this year's New Yorkers.

It was pretty amazing. Going from one table of contents to the next, I found women never contributed so much as fifty percent of an issue. Not even close. There were issues where the only contribution from a woman was a solitary poem. There was even an issue — the January 21 issue — that included no women at all.

In the end, nearly eighty percent of the writing that had appeared in the magazine so far this year was written by men.

And that wasn't the whole story. The overwhelming majority of writing contributed by women was written by staffers and appeared in the magazine's back pages. There wasn't much in the way of poetry or fiction, either, and when there was it was almost always by a star (in other words, a no–brainer to publish) or a staffer (the woman who has had the most poetry published in the magazine so far this year is Dana Goodyear, editor–in–chief David Remnick's twenty–five–year–old assistant). In short, it was a rare thing indeed for a woman to get a star turn in the magazine's glamorous front section.

And making it worse, of course, was the fact that it was all so very obvious. I mean, it's one thing for a lapsed reader not to have articulated it, but are we to believe that editor David Remnick didn't notice it when his table of contents on January 21 didn't have a single woman in it? How do you not notice something like that?

His female readers certainly hadn't missed it. I started hearing from them about an hour after I posted the results of my survey on my website. Many who wrote in were professional writers and editors, and many wanted their names kept off–the–record (sad evidence of the regard given the magazine's power, and how the New Yorker is seen as wielding that power). And the most remarkable thing about their letters was that almost every one said exactly the same thing: in the words of one, "Each week I count as well. And each week I am dismayed."

The response from men, meanwhile, was not as prompt, nor as voluminous . . . but with one or two notable exceptions it was just as strikingly uniform: almost every one of my male correspondents felt the need to point out that other magazines were just as bad. One correspondent, for example, sent me a careful breakdown of the table of contents of the literary journal The American Scholar — which in an amazing coincidence just happens to be one of the extremely few major literary publications run by a woman.

I started hearing from even more journalists when my survey was mentioned a few days later on Jim Romenesko's MediaNews website, a newslog of media–related stories that for many journalists is a must–read every day. One of my favorite things on the site is the letters page, where lots of famous and not–so–famous journalists love to gossip about issues raised by the top stories. The New Yorker survey seemed like exactly the sort of thing Romenesko's correspondents usually loved to go to town on, so I figured he might get the interesting commentary that the professionals writing to me were only saying off–the–record.

Meanwhile, as I continued to hear from all these journalists and while I was also receiving numerous tips from publishing insiders telling me that my survey was the talk of the industry, very few other places picked up the story: Jan Herman mentioned it in his column and added the observation that of the cartoons in the most recent issue, 17 came from men and 1 from a woman; and Russ Smith, in his "Mugger" column for the New York Press, called Remnick a "worm boy" for not immediately issuing a statement that "he wouldn't be held hostage to affirmative action" — an interesting bit of media analysis whereby Smith seems to have missed entirely that, as the survey shows, not being "held hostage to affirmative action" was precisely what Remnick had been doing all along.

In any event, only one reporter — Peter Johnson of USA Today — called David Remnick to ask him what he thought of the survey. In Johnson's MediaMix column, Remnick gave a two sentence response: "We are publishing a lot of women, some of the best journalists and fiction writers around, but it's clearly not enough. It will change."

Terse, but promising enough — at least Remnick admitted there were "not enough" female contributors and this was a situation that needed to be changed.

But by the next day, it seems the New Yorker was getting so many complaints that it had to issue a more detailed response — and things took a creepy turn.

The response took the form of a form reply not from David Remnick, but from a woman — someone named Brenda Phipps, who gave no title.

Phipps began first by citing a long list of the women who have written for the New Yorker over the years . . . each and every one of whom had been hired by either the magazine's founding editor Harold Ross, or his successor William Shawn, who was fired thirteen years ago.

Then Phipps cited a shorter list of women whose writing "continues to figure prominently in our pages" . . . a list that includes two contributors whose work "figured prominently" only once so far this year (Daphne Merkin, Lillian Ross) and two more who are not writers but cartoonists.

Most notable of all was the way Phipps' letter seemed to backtrack from Remnick's brief statement of responsibility — it was as if Phipps was saying there was no problem at all. In fact, the only part of her letter that referred directly to the complaint was a comment that "We don't look at the contents week to week and analyze the ratio of men to women" . . . which came a line before she analyzed the number of women in the editorial staff, which she said was high.

So I suppose it was their fault.

Meanwhile, back on Romenesko, the silence on the letters page about the New Yorker piece was deafening. No one commented at all. Then, a day or two later, one woman wrote in to say Harper's magazine was worse. This was followed, over the next few days, by voluminous letters contradicting a column by a film critic who had said Harrison Ford was a miserable interview. Journalist after journalist wrote in to defend Mr. Ford.

Letters about the New Yorker are still coming in to my site, though. Women continue to write in and thank me for commenting on something they've been noticing for years, often pointing out that it's worse than I've indicated — one observed how in the "The Talk of the Town" section, the bylines for which are not given on the table of contents, the male–female ratio is usually 3 to 1 or 4 to 0; another correspondent suggests I take a look at the "Shouts and Murmurs" column, which, she says, hasn't had more than 3 or 4 entries from women in the last 3 years.

The men are still writing in, too, to remind me that hey, the Atlantic is just as bad! Harper's is just as bad! True enough, and so we consider why other media may not be entering the discussion on this one — could it be that it's because no one wants to draw scrutiny to their own table of contents?

But there's a point where the other issues sound less like a reasonable response and more like a little kid caught in the act whining that some other little brat did the same thing.

And as the other classic defenses rear their heads again — usually, variations on blaming the victim — we get further and further from simply seeing what's right in front of us . . .

Wouldn't all those women who are editors at the New Yorker indicate there's no problem, asks Brenda Phipps? ("Sadly, it's no surprise that female editors can be among the worst offenders," one of my letter writers countered, "we all know what the publishing industry is like, and what it seems to take to have a 'successful' career there.") And shouldn't it just come down to the best writing, regardless of who writes it, as several more of my male correspondents asked? (As if it makes sense that, in a profession where well over half the practitioners are women, men are so intellectually superior that they nonetheless write 80 percent of what's best.)

Meanwhile, there are these drastic numbers staring us in the face. It's hard to believe we're living in 2002 and still dealing with such nonsense.

The proof, I suppose, will be in the pudding: my bet is the New Yorker will rush out an issue jam–packed with women, and the case will be deemed closed . . . by them, at least.

And in the meantime, as I wrap this up for deadline, the July 29 issue just came out. It features 10 bylines in the table of contents, 2 of which belong to women — one for a feature about modernizing kitchens, and one for another poem by Dana Goodyear. It also features a headline for the lead story emblazoned across the cover flap: "Hormones for men."

I'm telling you: it's worse than you think.

Last Week’s Column: THE DISAPPEARING AUTHOR SYNDROME Lots of Barnes & Noble stores keep certain authors off the shelf and behind the counter. Why?


Write to Moby
Letters policy: All letters must be signed. Also, please say where you’re writing from — either an affiliation or hometown.
All material not otherwise attributed ©2002 Dennis Loy Johnson.