Sam Sifton, food editor at The New York Times, published an email newsletter late last week featuring suggested weekend recipes including Thai-style spare ribs, and appended his summer reading list. Out of the nine books he read, only one was written by a woman.
At the end of his article, Sifton acknowledged the lack of female authors and asked readers to send him suggestions. The New York Times later tweeted out Sifton’s call from its main Twitter account.
Here's @SamSifton's summer reading list. He's looking for more books by women authors. Tell him your suggestions: https://t.co/QLQSDaIjNa pic.twitter.com/sOYd1Q3O6i
— The New York Times (@nytimes) August 25, 2017
The message attracted a collective groan of disgust from Twitter: The idea of a New York Times editor having to crowdsource books by women struck many, me included, as absurd. Did he consult with his colleagues who write about books? (Apparently not, we found out later.) Did he miss the Times reviews of Hunger and The Leavers and Life in Code? Stop by a bookstore? Ask a friend? Conduct a quick Google search?
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The tweet “left the impression we were crowdsourcing women writers or novels from women,” acknowledges Sifton in an interview with CJR. The problem, he says, is he writes his daily newsletters as “a kind of intimate exchange…offering cultural tidbits and discussion.” The newsletter typically ends with a personal paragraph or list of recommendations (movies, novels, poems, etc.) to tie cooking and food into the cultural conversation, he says. In this instance he was aiming not for a “prescriptive list” but a “documentary one” of his own vacation reading.
The tweet lacked context, Sifton says, so it “didn’t play well.” As I was reporting for this piece, the Times apologized and called it a “bad tweet.”
The internet can be an excellent resource for learning more about a topic, but the tweet showed surprising tone-deafness for an institution with as many resources as The New York Times. It also underscored one of the risks of repurposing content aimed at a narrow audience for a larger one, without thoughtful consideration of the clout that an institutional social media account carries.
My suggestion is that the Times hire more editors who read and value women's work. https://t.co/knr4zm98wt
— Jennifer Weiner (@jenniferweiner) August 25, 2017
The idea that it requires LOOKING to find books by women authors is offensive. Reading widely is a personal and ethical duty. It is a gift. https://t.co/Ow0kuUKvJp
— melanie conklin (@MLConklin) August 27, 2017
Sigh. Honestly. https://t.co/qs78ltuJ2f
— roxane gay (@rgay) August 25, 2017
in a day of completely unfathomable news I am somehow still fixated on how very sad this tweet is https://t.co/c0OaFOMkcC
— Doree Shafrir (@doree) August 26, 2017
maybe the public shouldn't be the ones to have to find women worth reading https://t.co/bz4STMoDqL
— #rachelsyme (@rachsyme) August 25, 2017
The core complaint: Asking women to invest time, energy, and links is no substitute for doing your own work. It is not that people aren’t willing to help; it’s that journalists should demonstrate they’ve done at least some work on their own before outsourcing to people who’ve been made weary by the same asks over and over again.
Good books by women are not in short supply. The online community Electric Literature compiled a list of 34 books by women of color to read in 2017, and the New York Public Library shared 365 books by women for International Women’s Day. The @Read_Women Twitter account has more than 22,000 followers and retweets author recommendations and books by women daily. Publications including Cosmopolitan, Elle, BuzzFeed, PBS, Teen Vogue, and The Guardian have all compiled their own lists of female writers to read.
Defenders of the Times on social media often posed the same questions: Isn’t it a good thing for someone to realize his own biases and then seek to correct them? Isn’t the best way to just be honest and ask for help? What’s the harm in asking for some book recommendations if it encourages people to read more diversely?
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Asking for book recommendations may seem like a minor issue, but making the mistake that acknowledging one’s biases is sufficient often extends to other discussions. Jamelle Bouie, Gene Demby, Aisha Harris, and Tressie McMillan Cottom have discussed at length the expectation to “answer questions from random white people who haven’t bothered to do their homework first” on race and politics. On Another Round, Roxane Gay has talked about the unpaid emotional labor of teaching people how to treat her and her body.
So the question posed by The New York Times should not have been “What books by women should we be reading and promoting?” The question should’ve been, “Why are the only books we read or can think to add to reading lists written by (mostly white) men?” The underlying examination should be focused on who and what influences the decisions we make to read certain books. Where do you get your news? Who do you talk to? What other types of media (podcasts, newsletters, television, film) do you consume? How much time do you put into diversifying those aspects of your life? This is “the work.”
The mishap has accomplished some good: Several people who work in publishing and authors (including Jen Agg, the only woman mentioned in Sifton’s book list) have shared my tweetstorm, encouraging people to #ReadWomen and to interrogate their own reading habits:
— Jodi Picoult (@jodipicoult) August 26, 2017
GREAT thread. I don't think he AT ALL gets why this was so offensive an ask AND IM ON THE "LIST"
— Jen Agg (@TheBlackHoof) August 27, 2017
This thread #ReadWomen https://t.co/BLusfP4nqG
— Louise O' Neill (@oneilllo) August 27, 2017
Yeah, if you work in publishing in 2017 & haven't yet figured interrogated your own reading habits, I'm looking at you like pic.twitter.com/Qs81pRaImM
— Amy Jo Cousins (@_AJCousins) August 27, 2017
Hi, @SamSifton. Your friendly neighborhood librarians @NYPL have some ideas! #WomenAuthors 1/16 https://t.co/YGCXILKyiP
— NYPL Recommends (@NYPLRecommends) August 29, 2017
Sifton said The New York Times’s original tweet “makes conversations like the one we’re having right now possible, and that’s probably good for the culture.” I suggest publishing, hiring, promoting, following, listening to, and reading women and women of color. Ultimately, it is not just about investing time and money on books by women. It’s about investing in women and their work.
RELATED: Nate Silver unloads on The New York TimesNicole Zhu is an engineer on the publishing team at Vox Media. She is also the co-host of Sweet and Sour, a podcast that explores the common threads and nuances of the Asian American experience. Follow her at @nicolelzhu.