Margaret Carson, who runs the vital Women in Translation Tumblr with Alta L. Price, interviewed WWB’s book review editor M. Bartley Seigel about reviewing practices. We’re very pleased to share the interview, originally published on WiT.
Interviewing the Editors #1:
M. Bartley Seigel, Book Review Editor @ Words Without Borders
It’s hard to think of a better place to get some answers to our questions about the noticeable gender gap in reviews of books in translation than the translator- and woman-friendly Words Without Borders, whose new book review editor, M. Bartley Seigel, kindly agreed a few weeks ago to shed some light on the inner workings of the WWB book review section. We’re grateful to Matt for speaking so candidly about his priorities as an editor and for reflecting on the difficulties of putting together a balanced and distinctive review section. We couldn’t have had a better time while raising awareness! A big shout-out to Matt for this generous and illuminating interview, the first in a series of interviews with editors and bloggers that will look at editing and reviewing practices through the lens of gender.
Women in Translation: As Words Without Borders’ new book review editor, what kinds of ideas shape the way you run both the book review section and “The Watchlist,” a monthly feature you’ve inaugurated?
M. Bartley Seigel: I took over as reviews editor in January of this year, though I didn't have much of a hand in review content until April (just facilitating what had already been settled on prior to my arrival). My “Watchlist” column started in March. I’m allotted three reviews each month: Two 1000-word book reviews that I can pay reviewers to write ($50 each); and one shorter review that I cannot pay a reviewer to write.
I pitched “The Watchlist” as an alternative to that third unpaid review for two reasons. First, I don’t like asking writers to work for free, even if it’s just a pittance. Second, there are so many books published in any given month, I wanted better coverage than just three titles.
Methodology for what I choose to spotlight is, at best, a work in progress, but there are a couple of things I came in interested in trying to complicate. I’m really interested in books from smaller presses; books from underrepresented languages; books from underrepresented authors; books in underrepresented genres; books that offer something unusual or different in content or form. All constrained, I’m finding more and more, by the politics of translation studies, by the economic dominance of major presses, the crush of major colonial languages, and the varying cultural and societal norms of who gets to say what, when, where, and to whom . . .
I’d like, for instance, to focus more attention on sub-Saharan African writers, more indigenous writers, but a lot of what’s coming out is Anglophone and translation is buried behind other cultural exchanges. So long as a Burundian writer whose primary language is Rundi decides to work in French so that French can get translated into English, I can spotlight that book. But if that same Burundian writer makes the mistake of writing in English, meaning it isn’t translated in the way fetishized by contemporary American publishing, I don’t review it. But an American writer working in German and being translated back for an American audience, that book I can review. Not sure that distinction makes sense to anybody else, or anybody else even cares, but it’s one I’m grappling with, and it bugs me immeasurably. Some books are in play, others aren’t, and it isn’t always cut and dry.
WiT: How do books come to you for possible review? Do you see a significant gender gap in the review copies you receive?
MBS: Many many books are sent directly to me from publishers, maybe a dozen per month on average. I also spend a lot of time researching forthcoming titles in an effort to catch books that don’t have that kind of marketing budget behind them. And I try to keep a steady eye on Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, etc., in an effort to track what other people are finding. Again, I don’t have hard numbers for you, but my sense of things anecdotally (and just casually surveying the dozens of books sitting on my desk) is that the majority of the books I receive direct from publishers are written by men, with a significant proportion being translated from Spanish, French, and German.
WiT: To what extent does gender enter into your decision to have a book reviewed or to highlight it on “The Watchlist”? I know it’s difficult to keep all factors in mind, and publishers of translations make gender balance harder for you to achieve because many more books in translation are by men writers—around 70%, in fact.
MBS: Sadly, I have to admit that gender has been, thus far, down the list of my highest order concerns. Some blame is on dictates to offer language diversity in our reviews, combined with dictates that I cover books that are published within a fairly narrow window surrounding the month in which “The Watchlist” and book reviews are published. Added to, as you point out, cultural and industry biases that already limit my available options. However, a very big part of the blame is on my own shoulders, on my own unconscious bias that has led me to be oblivious of the issue, combined with a working pragmatism (time/money/etc.) that often lends itself, unfortunately, to the path of least resistance. I know I’m not really allowed to self-proclaim, but I am woke, as they say, all the same.
WiT: I appreciate your honest take on this question. And you also might find it easier to line up reviewers for books in translation written by men. A follow-up question: What one factor would make it more likely for books in translation by women writers to be reviewed in WWB (or on “The Watchlist,” where the count shows less gender parity)?
MBS: I can’t say, definitively, whether it’s more or less difficult to line up reviewers for books by women, but insofar as I’m allowed to make an educated guess, I don’t doubt that it is. I honestly feel, personally, that the main factor necessary for editors like me to do better is for someone such as yourself, or organizations such as VIDA, to continually publish the numbers and confront people like me to reflect on our practices. If you had just casually asked me a few weeks ago, do I care about gender parity in publishing, I’d have answered with an unequivocal yes. And I would have meant it. But I also would have gone back to my desk largely self-satisfied in my self-righteousness without an enormous amount of meaningful reflection on my actual practice. Maybe that’s just on me, and I can eat that crow if it is, but I suspect I’m not alone by a long shot. At the end of the day, I’m pretty pessimistic about the global cultural and economic forces stacked in favor of men (look at what’s happening in Poland right now regarding abortion rights!!!), but I also believe in the power of statistics and fact combined with small (and large) acts of opposition and correction to move what might otherwise feel intractable.
WiT: Can you talk more about how you solicit and assign reviews and anything else that enters the picture before a review is published in WWB? Do you have “ground rules” for assigning a book to a given reviewer? Does WWB have a reviewer style sheet that is sent to each reviewer when a book is assigned?
MBS: I can offer a reviewer $50 and a free book for the work of writing a 1000-word review –– so there’s a lot of very basic pragmatism at work. Thus far, I’ve been managing a Google Group of past and potential reviewers (I get a new query maybe once a week) to whom I put out calls and people either respond or they don’t. Usually, it’s first come, first served, though occasionally a title has been popular enough with my available reviewers that I have an opportunity to match a reviewer with a title based on expertise, etc. Most of the time, I’m happy if there are one or two bites from writers who can work on deadline for pennies and deliver clean copy. No, there isn’t a specific style sheet. I’m mostly happy to leave much up to the idiosyncrasies of individual reviewers, so long as their writing spotlights the book effectively for the benefit of other potential readers.
WiT: What are you looking for in a review? What makes for a good review, in your opinion?
MBS: Our reviews are very brief and I view their role as curatorial service. There are countless and growing numbers of titles available to a reader at any given time, even in translation, even in the United States, and our reviews are intended to help those readers cut through some of the white noise. It’s a pretty simple review schematic, as far as I’m concerned: This book exists; this book has context; this book has strengths and weaknesses. Beyond those touch points, I’m happy for reviewers to express strong opinions about books so long as they are informed and the writing makes that opinion clear while still allowing space for readers to come to their own conclusions. Personally, I think good reviews function as good fodder for better conversations and not as an end to them.
WiT: When a review comes in, do you go over it in a copy-editing and line-editing way? If the body of a review doesn’t name the translator, do you flag that?
MBS: Editing varies a lot with any given writer. Some of my writers are very experienced. Some of them are just starting out. Sometimes you get A work from new writers. Sometimes you get D work from writers who should know better. But that’s the job, right? While I’m always happy to pass sparkling copy right up the chain to my own editors without having to touch it, I usually work closely with my writers to bring copy toward some kind of coherent, consistent style. Most of the time, that means just light copy-editing. Occasionally, there’s been pretty heavy developmental editing, which could include things like rearrangement, asking a writer for better pull quotes, or to insert more info on the translation/translator, etc. Once a writer has signed off on edits with me, the manuscript goes up the chain to my editors who have an additional go at it, at which point it’s usually just spit shine or to correct for something that I either missed or got wrong.
WiT: If someone is interested in reviewing for WWB, what should they do?
MBS: They should email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org with either a pitch for a title for review or just to have their name added to my database of potential reviewers, or both.