Reviewer Interviews: Megan McLennan

 

Megan McLennan is in her third year of undergraduate studies at Western University, pursuing an Honors Specialization Degree in Creative Writing and English Language and Literature. McLennan is known for her Youtube channel called “The Teen Book Addict” that has over 980 subscribers, on which she regularly shares video critiques and reviews of novels.

 

It’s so frustrating to tell someone that . . . it sounds like your kid will like the book, but you’re refusing to buy it because you’re gendering the content.

Ms.McLennan, what drew you to studying literature and dedicating your post-secondary degree to the literary field?

In high-school, I had English classes, but I felt indifferent towards the books we were required to read, they were all focused on male authors-specifically, white male authors. I wanted to study English because I love reading and I wanted to get graded on talking about books from a more diverse spectrum. That’s partially why I started my YouTube Channel, the BookTube community of YouTube was a place where I could freely talk about books that interested me with other readers.

Let’s talk about your YouTube Channel, when did you make the transition from a consumer to producer?

I started my channel in late 2013. Originally, I would come across a book I wanted to read, and then would go and look at book reviews online to see if it was something I would like. This lead to me finding blogs of book reviewers which then lead me to their YouTube channels. I only had one friend in my immediate friend group who liked to read, but she wasn’t interested in the same books as me so I went looking for people who wanted to talk about what I wanted to. Even if I came across a book that had a two-star rating from a famous reviewer, I would look up what other, everyday readers thought of it before and after I read it, to see if we had the same opinions or were critiquing the same things.

As a consumer of the reviews on BookTube, did you notice any correlation regarding gender and genre? Were there more female authors being reviewed in genres typically seen as belonging to a woman’s sphere, such as romance?

Most of the books I was reading when I first started integrating myself into the book reviewer world were Young Adult, fantasy novels. Most of those were written by women, and it’s often female teenagers or young adults reading and reviewing them, so there was a drive for female authors. But I also saw many people looking down on those books because they were “Young Adult.” Many people suggested that because they were written and consumed by girls therefore weren’t “serious” books. However, as I got older and started reading the “Adult” novels, the majority of authors were males, which meant that all the books that were being reviewed were by men. I noticed quite a big shift once I branched out from “Young Adult” to “Adult,” that even if I stuck to Fantasy, male authors had suddenly become dominant across all genres.

You can’t have a white person write a book about what it’s like to be a Black child, you want someone from that community to represent and tell their own story.

With that understanding, when you became a producer of book reviewing content, did you make an effort to recognize the demographics of the authors you were reviewing?

I’ve been trying to do it more, trying to find the genuine voice and be more conscious about the voice and the authenticity of the perspective. I have a responsibility to be more aware of it, especially being an English student where the majority of the works we study are written by white men. I’m trying to stick to books that push for our “own voices,” you can’t have a white person write a book about what it’s like to be a Black child, you want someone from that community to represent and tell their own story. I think that’s something that’s important to think about when reading and reviewing books. On a more general note, there were some books I reviewed that I was genuinely interested in and wanted to read, but there were also a lot where I was like this is new, this is what everyone’s talking about. As a reader you don’t want to have FOMO – the fear of missing out – so because the majority of the BookTube community is reading it, I want to see what the hype is about and form my own opinion.

BookTube seems like a great platform for you to share those opinions on, did you ever interact with your consumers, did you notice any trends in their demographics, specifically with regard to gender?

Booktube is a community, and because it’s such a welcoming one I was definitely able to interact with my viewers and other YouTubers. Most of the people I interacted with were other self-identifying women because most of BookTube is predominantly women. Obviously, there are some male Youtubers, but often it is women and I think that’s something that BookTube in itself addresses, because a large portion of consumers are female, and thus a large portion of the creators are female. There were quite a few other YouTubers that started their channels around the same time as me, from there I would like and comment on their videos, and they would do the same for me. One time I did a “Buddy Read” and a live show, which really helped facilitate BookTube as a reading community rather than me just posting and waiting for people to watch my videos without any feedback or discussion.

Even if you don’t have a personal connection to the producer or the consumer, you’re still connected by this shared love of reading which in itself is personal. Reading is personal.

YouTubers are often criticized for being too capitalistic, would you say BookTube as a community is as well? You mentioned the FOMO of not reviewing the most popular books, do you think then, that the presence of capitalism affects what books are being reviewed?

I think for the most part with more popular YouTubers no matter what it can be capitalistic. If you can make money doing something you love wouldn’t you capitalize on it? But, to be honest, the BookTube community seems to just be about people having someone to talk to about the books they want to talk about. Most people, including myself, don’t have people in their immediate life where they can directly talk about the books they want to as in-depth as they want to. BookTube felt very genuine, no matter what, YouTube videos will have a capitalistic shadow but on BookTube, it feels like people are there more for the books and their love of reading. Even if you don’t have a personal connection to the producer or the consumer, you’re still connected by this shared love of reading which in itself is personal. Reading is personal, reviewing is personal.

Aside from your YouTube Channel, you’ve also worked at a Bookstore for years recommending books to the public. Can you tell me about any notable demographic assessments on the consumers you interacted with?

Yes! I’ve been working at a popular bookstore for four years now, interchanging between two branches. With consumer demographics, usually the consistent customers are women, there were some customers who I knew by name and some who would come in weekly and purchase books. This proves that women are huge consumers of literature but from what I’ve noticed only certain stereotypical books are targeted towards them. My friends that are interested in reading are predominantly women, the customers that come in are predominantly women, and they’re all interested in such a diverse spectrum of genres! It’s so odd to me that publishers are not looking at what women are reading because the majority of women come in looking for mysteries and thrillers but all the marketing is done to point them to romance and fantasy. This is a problem.

At Bookstores, parents are often buying books for their children, have you ever come across cases where gender division exists both explicitly and implicitly with regard to youth?

There is so much gender division, with parents and sometimes even with young readers. Often, I’ll talk to a parent who is looking for a recommendation to try to get a sense of what the child is interested in, then I’ll suggest a book and they’ll right away ask “is it a boy book, or is it a girl book?” If my answer isn’t what they want to hear, often they won’t buy it. It’s so frustrating to tell someone, that from what it sounds like your kid will like the book, but you’re refusing to buy it because you’re gendering the content. The author most likely didn’t write this book for one specific demographic, they just want to reach as many readers as they can. To be honest, this rarely happens when parents are looking for books for their daughters, it’s usually when someone is coming in and looking for a book for their sons. It’s honestly this fragile masculinity, “if I give them this book, what does it mean?” Even if the book just has a picture of the girl on the cover people will dismiss it and consider it as a “girl book.” Not all parents are like this though, but the majority are.

Is there a difference in the books that are being marketed as gendered? Are the books that are being suggested to young girls the same as those that are being suggested to young boys with regard to structure and content?

Something I have noticed is that the books that are marketed for girls are heavy on character development, often including a romance and are emotionally driven and lack a substantial plot. Whereas, the books that are marketed for boys are often heavily plot-driven with cardboard characters. There are people that prefer heavy character development and there are people that prefer heavy plot construction, so why does it need to be gendered because a preference for plot or character is just a preference it has nothing to do with gender, by marketing it as gendered you are socializing that content to be gendered. It’s especially saddening when you see this happening to young children. There are some books – the ones that aren’t marketed as gendered that do extremely well, for example, Harry Potter and the Percy Jackson series. Both series have well-developed characters and strong plots, however, they are the minority as the majority of other books falls into gendered demographics.

We’ve talked about quite a few issues in the literary world that need addressing, but in your opinion what do you think is the largest and most immediate problem, specifically with regard to reviewing?

Right now, I think the biggest problem is regarding the difficulty that people of colour, especially women of colour have with being published and being recognized as getting published and having their work reviewed. Their work is just as good, and often even better than the books that are being published. Like we talked about earlier, there is and needs to be a push for “own voices” so that people from minority communities can take control and share their own stories and perspectives. Hopefully, a push for this will create less whiteness in authorship and more diversity in the literary world. I can only imagine how frustrating it must be to see these people who are profiting off of your experience to make capital, and when you try and tell your story just to tell it, you’re turned down. I can’t imagine how awful that must be. I think there’s starting to be a turnaround, there’s been a contemporary novel called “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas that has been on the New York Times Bestselling list for weeks and has been doing so incredibly well it’s being made into a movie. So I think we’re starting to see a shift because now the demand is being noticed, but there’s still a long way to go for representation, especially at the higher end of who chooses who gets to be published and what books are being reviewed.

A lot of the change making has to do with the ground level. It’s the support of readers; readers continuing to support authors who are part of these marginalized communities by promoting their books and talking about their books.

If the problem then is the lack of women and minority women that are being published, how do we go about getting the attention of publications so that we can make this change?

A lot of the change making has to do with the ground level. It’s the support of readers; readers continuing to support authors who are part of these marginalized communities by promoting their books and talking about their books because if it’s being talked about it forces the publishers to have to hear it. Read books by women, and review them, include them in the conversation. There’s this excuse that “the stories of marginalized people don’t sell” that gets tossed around a lot as an excuse for publishers and reviewers to ignore the work of minority groups. They don’t want to take a chance on it but they’ll take a chance on a white author who is writing about the same thing, or something of lesser quality. By having these books on the New York Times Bestselling list, reviewing them and making them into movies, it forces publishers and other reviewers to see it. For them, I’m sure it’s about capital and money. It’s all systematic, the racism, the sexism and homophobia-it’s all institutionalized. The value of the book has to be shown through money, it’s as if  “Oh, it sold a lot maybe we should make more books like this”. It’s the responsibility of readers to drive the push and also the responsibility of those at the higher publication levels to listen and work with these women and be willing to edit and help them on their stories in order to start making the change.

To keep up to date with Megan and her reviews, check out her social media platforms:

YouTube: [https://www.youtube.com/user/TheTeenBookAddict/featured]

Twitter: [https://twitter.com/TeenBookAddict]

 

Gender and Equity in Publishing

The Just Review team held an inspiring event last night. It was a roundtable of six women discussing their experiences with academic and literary publishing. It was an amazing conversation covering many different perspectives. We had two academics, one editor, one publisher, a novelist and a poet. Here are some of the themes they touched on.

Cultivating Confidence

Putting oneself forward was a theme that kept recurring. Whether it was the confidence to send off your manuscript or speak up at a literary festival or reach out to a mentor, many of the panelists discussed how they consistently had to work against their own inner inhibitions. Based on their success as individuals you would never guess that this is something they wrestled with. But something they strongly emphasized was cultivating the confidence at an early an age as possible to take risks, speak out, and put oneself forward.

Prioritizing Carework and Generosity

Another key theme was about avoiding the myth of scarcity, by which they meant seeing gender and job competition as a competition or zero sum game. Instead, they encouraged all of us to think about how to cultivate the work of others and how, in the words of one participant, “to take up less space.” This might seem in contradiction to the first point about putting oneself out there, but it offers another way to think of literary work. Not only find your place, but do the work to make it possible for others, especially others who may have less privilege than you, to find their place. Generosity and empathy were two states of mind that were strongly emphasized.

Creating Parastructures

Finally, a core theme that kept emerging was the importance of creating peer-networks and “collectives.” Inevitably as a woman you will be subject to some kind of bias or discrimination in your career. These extra-institutional structures can be an important way of finding more rewarding spaces to work and create and find more open feedback loops to help improve your work. Creating these networks takes time. But the participants emphasized just how valuable such spaces have been in their lives and careers, whether it was creating independent presses, writing groups, or women-led gaming communities.

Much more was discussed over the hour and a half event that I can’t cover here. But I think it was a really crucial conversation to have and one that I hope inspired the many students who were present. I know I learned an incredible amount.

The Problem of (Gender) Binaries

In their simplest form, computers work in binary. There are ones, and there are zeros and all the rest is context and combinations building more and more complex functions off of that binary. So it is maybe unsurprising that at .txtLAB, when we are dealing with complex entities like characters in a novel, we want to boil them down into binaries, too. It’s easy to analyze. And while I love the statistical and computational elegance of this sort of reductiveness, I worry about its implications.

The gender binary is perhaps the most common one of these simplifications we fall into in our questions and models. Do women and men write differently? Are gendered pronouns or aliases positioned and patterned differently in literary texts? How do protagonists who are women function differently in their character network than protagonists who are men? These are research questions we can ask to understand how women and men produce, and are produced within, cultural objects. But in doing so, this research falls into two, potentially harmful traps. First, we buy into the gender binary, and second, we assume all bodies that fall within the category of “woman” or “man” experience that categorization in identical ways.

To the former, gender is not binary. Our models that measure gender do not account for trans/non-binary folks. This is a problem of data and representation. In terms of data, we simply do not have enough bodies in our corpus that we could classify as either not a woman or not a man to do rigorous statistical analysis on. It is not because we do not want to ask these difficult questions on our own methods; we want to challenge the binary as much as we’ve challenged the patriarchy (see: JustReview.org), but we do not have enough data to do it. It’s a condition of the larger culture that we are trying to analyze. Why are there so few trans/non-binary authors and characters in our data set? Systemic oppression and invisibility of these bodies is part of this issue. We can not study a facet of a culture object that does not exist en masse. To challenge the binary computationally, we must first support the elevation of these voices, culturally.

To the latter question of individual experiences within the binary, we are faced with another set of reductions. When we measure men and compare them to women, we are not taking into account any of the intersecting identities any individual within a category may carry. Issues like class, race, sexuality, and ability are critical controls that nuance the way gender oppression operates. Upper- and middle-class cis white women, for example, hold immense privileges that other women do not. We know this, and we have, in some of our research, worked to analyze how these multiple identities interact (forthcoming research, “Racial Lines”). But more needs to be done to articulate these intersectional identities. We’re trying to find ways to evolve our tools to get at both the issues within the binaries, and of the binaries, themselves.

In the absence of both representation of non-binary folks in our data set, and of computational methods able to parse out differences within the binaries we use, should we still do this kind of gender research? It’s a question without an easy answer. Because using our current methods, we consistently find troubling patterns of the overrepresentation of men over women, which itself needs dismantling, too. So how do we reconcile the benefits of continuing to use the gender binary to measure these biases, with the cost of normalizing “men” and “women” as unique and uniform categories?

Cultural Advocacy Internship – “Gender Bias in Book Reviews”

We are excited to announce the 2017-2018 Internship in Cultural Advocacy, focusing on gender bias in book reviews. The internship will address how women are both mis-represented and under-represented in the public discourse of book reviewing. Book reviews represent a significant cultural outlet that bestows authority, but as our lab’s new website called “Just Review” shows, there are a variety of ways that women writers are still being framed as though they belong to a Victorian set of values. A team of interns will be responsible for crafting a year-long advocacy plan to address how book reviews represent women, using a combination of computational approaches, social media campaigns, and social advocacy to engage key stakeholders. We are looking for motivated, self-directed students who want to make a positive change in the world. The internship will begin on October 1, 2017, and end on April 30, 2018.

Award: $1,000
Application deadline: Wednesday, September 20, 2017
To apply, send cover letter and resumé to alayne.moody@mcgill.ca

Just Review, a student led project on gender bias in book reviewing

For years, women have been aware that their books are less likely to get reviewed in the popular press and they are also less likely to serve as reviewers of books. Projects like VIDA and CWILA were started to combat this kind of exclusion. Over time they have managed to make some change happen in the industry. Although nowhere near parity, more women are being reviewed in major outlets than they were five or ten years ago.

Just Review was started in response to the belief that things were getting better. Just because you have more female authors being reviewed doesn’t mean those authors aren’t being pigeon-holed or stereotyped into writing about traditionally feminine topics. “Representation” is more than just numbers. It’s also about the topics, themes, and language that circulates around particular identities. In an initial study run out of our lab, we found there was a depressing association between certain kinds of words and the book author’s gender (even when controlling for the reviewer’s gender). Women were strongly associated with all the usual tropes of domesticity and sentimentality, while men were associated with public facing terms related to science, politics and competition. It seemed like we had made little progress from a largely Victorian framework.

To address this, we created an internship in “computational cultural advocacy” in my lab focused on “women in the public sphere.” We recruited five amazing students from a variety of different disciplines and basically said, “Go.”

The team of Just Review set about understanding the problem in greater detail, working together to identify their focus more clearly (including developing the project title Just Review) and reaching out to stakeholders to learn more about the process. By the end, they created a website, advocacy tools to help editors self-assess, recommendations for further reading, and a computational tool that identifies a book’s theme based on labels from Goodreads.com. If you know the author’s gender and the book’s ISBN (or even title), you can create a table that lists the themes of the books reviewed by a website. When we did this for over 10,000 book reviews in the New York Times, we found that there are strong thematic biases at work, even in an outlet prized for its gender equality.

Topics are identified from Goodreads. Topics that show no bias are omitted.

Beyond the important findings that they have uncovered, the really salient point about this project is the way it has been student-led from the beginning. It shows that with mentoring and commitment young women can become cultural advocates. They can take their academic interests and apply them to existing problems in the world and effect change. There has been a meme for awhile in the digital humanities that it is a field alienating to women and feminists. I hope this project shows just how integral a role data and computation can play to promote ideals of gender equality.

We will be creating a second iteration in the fall that will focus on getting the word out and tracking review sites more closely with our new tools. Congratulations to this year’s team who have made a major step in putting this issue on the public’s radar.

 

Academic Prestige and Publishing

Very excited to announce the acceptance of a new article co-authored with Chad Wellmon that will be appearing in Critical Inquiry. The article, “Publication, Power, and Patronage: On Inequality and Academic Publishing,” addresses the unequal concentration of elite institutions within prominent humanities journals. Our goal is to begin to shed light on the academic publication system with a particular emphasis on questions of institutional and intellectual inequality. As other research has shown with respect to academic hiring, there is a strong bias towards a few elite institutions who exercise outsized influence not only on who gets tenure-track jobs but also in who gets published and where.

The article combines both a quantitative analysis of contemporary publishing patterns in the humanities, as well as a conceptual account of the historical relationship of publishing practices to the modern research university. The quantitative study is based on a new, hand-curated data set of 45 years of publishing in four leading humanities journals that encompasses just over 5,500 articles. At the same time, we also try to show how the contemporary norms of academic publication have a long and complex genealogy in the scholarly and institutional practices that make up the history of the university. As academics we need to better understand both the past and present of our publication system and have open conversations about what a more egalitarian and institutionally diverse intellectual system might look like. Data + historical context, we argue, are important tools to help us better imagine alternative futures.

To give you insights into the problem, we present two graphs taken from the piece. The first shows the skew towards a small number of elite institutions, whether it is in terms of PhD training or where authors are employed at the time of publication. Between 84-89% of all publications can be accounted for by less than 25% of the institutions in our data set. Indeed, 50% of all publications can be accounted for by just ten PhD-granting institutions.

 

Lorenz curves showing the fraction of all articles published in four humanities journals as a function of PhD and author institutions. Here we see how 25% of the institutions are producing between 84-89% of all articles.

 

The second figure shows the gender bias in elite publications that still persists to this day. As we show, while PMLA and Representations have made real strides towards gender parity (something we attribute to their process of blind peer review) two of our four journals have not shown a single year when female authors outnumbered male authors since their inception. In a larger sample of twenty humanities journals taken over the past five years, we found that 3/4 of them had average rates of female authors well below parity. Patronage and patrimony remain strongly linked in humanities publishing.

Percentage of female authors published per year in the four journals in our data set. In 1991, Representations became the first journal to surpass the 50% mark.

The pre-print of the article can be found here and the code and data used for the project here.

Why are Jane Austen’s novels so popular? Her characters are introverts.

As part of the work on characterization in the novel that we’ve been doing recently in the lab, I’ve come across an interesting aspect of the classic nineteenth-century novel. It turns out that female main characters are far more cogitative and perceptive than their male counterparts. However, this appears only to be true for female novelists. When men write about women, their female heroines are no more cogitative than their male ones. But when women write about women, these characters look significantly more introverted than social. Given this, we can say that one of the unique contributions that women writers make in the novel’s rise in the nineteenth century is the development of uniquely introverted characters.

And perhaps not surprisingly for the Jane-ites out there, it turns out that Jane Austen is one of the strongest and most consistent examples of this trend (see the graph below). If we plot Austen’s novels along with other women novelists from the nineteenth century on a sliding scale of sociability v. interiority, we see not only how women tend to cluster more towards the lower-left introverts’ quadrant, but also how almost all of Austen’s novels comfortably occupy this position. What this means is that her protagonists tend to spend considerably more time thinking or observing than talking or interacting with others.

What’s interesting about this finding is the way it opens up some new questions. Is the more cogitative bias of female main characters in female novels a sign of something positive — a greater sense of inner-depth — or is it a sign of the ways women were cut-off from a variety of social actions in real life that women writers wanted to capture? As Matthew Jockers has shown, women tend to be associated with more passive-seeming verbs in the nineteenth century overall. But could this passivity in fact be a virtue, a way of imagining new modes of being in novels? It will take more work of looking into these novels to figure that out. I’m sure Austen experts and amateurs alike would have some interesting insights here.

This plot represents the introversion of female main characters in novels written by women in the nineteenth century. Overall female protagonists tend to be more cogitatively and perceptually oriented and Jane Austen's novels in particular are very strong indicators of this trend.
This plot represents the introversion of female main characters in novels written by women in the nineteenth century. Overall female protagonists tend to be more cogitatively and perceptually oriented and Jane Austen’s novels in particular are very strong indicators of this trend.

How are we modelling our ideas? There are a few steps that I’ll walk you through. First, we run David Bamman’s bookNLP to identify characters and their aliases throughout our collection of roughly 600 novels. This captures proper names and pronouns and tries to link them together around unique individuals. We then run the Stanford dependency parser to identify words associated with these characters. Focusing on just the main characters in novels, we then look at 27 different features that capture a variety of aspects about character’s roles (how homogenous they are with other characters, how central they are relative to other characters, the types of behaviour they most often engage in, how much agency they have, etc). For this particular study we looked at just 4, which are defined in the following way:

  1. Sociability = The percentage of times the main character appears in the same sentence as another character.
  2. Communicativeness = The percentage of words associated with the main character that have to do with dialogue (said, replied, etc).
  3. Cogitation = Vocabulary associated with thinking, drawn from LIWC.
  4. Perception = Vocabulary associated with sense perception that we put together in our lab.

In order to plot the graph, I normalized the values of these four features across all of the novels in our collection according to their standard deviation from the feature’s mean. I then subtracted the associated features from one another (so sociability – cogitation and communicativeness – perception). The resulting value represent’s the character’s orientation towards interacting with others versus thinking and perceiving. The further in the lower left you are the more you tend to think and feel, while up and right means you talk and do things with/to others. This is how I’m defining introversion and extraversion here.