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I read over 100 books a year. Here are my thoughts on the best (and worst).

Friday, February 18, 2011

Where are all the female reviewers?

Benedicte Page has written a very interesting blog on the subject of gender in book reviews on the Guardian website. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/feb/04/research-male-writers-dominate-books-world?commentpage=last#end-of-comments) The figures are hard to refute: a survey analysing the LRB, TLS, NYRB and newspaper books pages found startling imbalances. In some cases, 75% of the books reviewed in a publication were written by men, with a preponderance of male reviewers also.

It's not a new observation: Mslexia magazine regularly analyses the British press and comes to the same sorry conclusion. So what's going on? Literary editors loftily dismiss the notion that they could possibly have a prejudice in favour of men, though Sir Peter Stothard's comment, 'The TLS is only interested in getting the best reviews of the most important books,' rather begs the question. Having commissioned a lot of book reviews myself, I have a few thoughts.

I don't think literary editors, when commissioning, ever really consider the author's gender when deciding to review a book or not. We're interested, or we're not, in the specific book; it's suitable, or not, for our readership. When putting together the pages I would often find that there was only one book by a woman being reviewed that week (and, as often as not, on the fiction pages). I'd then either hunt around for another review of a woman's book, or more likely, promise to do better next week. But it never happened the other way around. 'Gosh - not enough men this week! Must try harder...'

Occasionally your own editor will notice and comment that your pages are a bit too male; but that's often because the rest of the magazine or supplement is already weighted towards men and the books pages are expected to lean the other way. (Incidentally, only once in my career, after about three weeks of lead novels by women reviewed by women, was I ever told the pages were getting a bit too female.)

On to the question of male vs female reviewers: I used to have a ledger in which I recorded all the books sent out, and to whom. I could fit roughly 12 entries to the page. It would have been so easy to let this settle to a 9-3 ratio in favour of male reviewers - and frequently it did. But if I noticed that the first six books had gone to men I would then bestir myself to find female reviewers for the next five or six. It seemed to take an extra effort - why?

Can it be unconscious prejudice? Do we secretly think that men are more weighty, more serious? That men are Mankind, speaking to everyone, and women are just women, talking to their own sort? There's another interesting Guardian blog contrasting the review coverage of writers Allegra Goodman and Jonathan Franzen in America: she's great, while he is... Great. There is probably something in this, although the trouble with unconscious prejudice is that by definition you wouldn't be aware of it if you had it.

There may be a tiny clue in a recent experience I had trying to find writers to nominate a book of the year - the ubiquitous Christmas/New Year exercise in filling up books pages for free. You'd think it would be a pretty easy ask: a nomination for a (not the) book of the year. Yet in the first fortnight, not one female author approached said yes, while virtually all the men did. They had no trouble believing their views were worth having. I have no way of knowing why the female writers declined; but the gender split was absolute.

Turning to reviewers, one argument is that female critics are just more diffident than men about offering their services. From my own experience this is broadly true. Women tend to be more bashful, more modest about their skills. Of course there are exceptions; but the broad trend is there, and is probably the reason why it's such an effort to achieve gender parity in the books pages.

This leaves commissioning editors with a problem. I'd be loath to recommend women to get pushy. There are enough self-assertive male critics out there and  no one wants to have yet more phone calls and emails. I am very thankful that the headmistressy female academic who, on being told the fee for a proposed piece, crisply said 'Oh come on! You can do better than that,' is in the minority. (This is a terrible way to get work, incidentally. When her piece came in, I immediately felt like ringing up and saying: 'Oh come on! You can do better than that.')

Women generally do seem to have self-esteem issues. I recently had a exchange of emails with a funny, brilliant, successful and delightful novelist who so clearly felt unequal and unworthy to perform the literary task I was asking that it was painful to observe. I doubt Peter Carey, Hanif Kureishi or Salman Rushdie would have had the same problem.

Many reviewers are authors themselves, and here I have one cautious observation to make. Again, it must be stressed that this is a generalisation, but overall women novelists seem more likely to vanish into the world of their imagination, peering over their battlements only reluctantly - to be, in short, a little bit precious. Perhaps it's time for them to consider, when approached by newspapers for their views, getting out there and taking one for the Sisterhood?


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Linda Grant comments:

    "Novels by male authors are reviewed by men and novels by female authors are reviewed by [women]. I have very rarely been reviewed by men, despite my last novel having a male lead character. I don't know if Howard Jacobson was reviewed by a single female reviewer.

    And of course male reviewers are considered 'weightier'.

    Wouldn't it be interesting to reverse it for a bit and see what happens?"

    Thanks, Linda.

  3. Suzi, an excellent piece - and may I remind you that I haven't reviewed for you on the FT if pushiness is required? Also, that I always ASK for male writers - if I think they're good.
    However, women don't only have self esteem issues. Often, we have multitasking issues. I fit my extra (ie adult) reviewing in around my lunch-break, reading late at night or in snatched moments of time (just like everyone else with a job). The difference is, I have two jobs and am still essentially the sole carer of my children. I bet lots of women critics are in the same situation.

  4. Interesting blog. Are women also more worried about reviewing books negatively than men? I've turned down reviews when I really haven't liked the book, on the theory that it takes too long to do it properly and I don't want either to promote or to waste newspaper space on a book I don't like. Nor do I want to end up at a literary festival at the back of beyond with a person whose book I once slagged off. But then....I'm a writer not a professional reviewer. And I do suspect that men have a better line in 'I think this and that makes it true' than women do. Which is hard to regret, really. Given that they're so often wrong....

  5. So how does one go about becoming a reviewer? I would love to..

  6. I think the issue is spare time - as a single parent I've also had to work teaching creative writing to support the family and all my spare time has been fenced off just to write. So I've never actively sought work as a reviewer. Now I have a little more time I'd be happy to review, but have only been asked twice by the 'biggies'. Do they only ask people who live in London?

  7. Amanda and Meg - excellent points! I'm rather ashamed that I didn't factor multi-tasking into my argument.

    Keren and Kathleen - your comments have given me the idea for another blog. I'll write more on how to become a reviewer and address these issues. Thanks!

  8. I review for the Guardian - YA and occasionally adult. I have never thought till this moment about the male-female balance in rewiewers.

    And I'm a feminist too!

    So thanks for this
    (and if you want another reviewer ....)

    Mary Hoffman

  9. When I commissioned reviews, I had to work much harder to persuade women to write for me than men. Sometimes this was due to lack of confidence in having views worth sharing, which as Meg points out is something which rarely troubles men. Mainly these women, many of whom had big jobs in education and were already multi-tasking like mad, would say they were too busy. The men would make time by being a bit less conscientious about their day job. The offer of a byline seemed to appeal to male vanity more. On a similar note, I once spent a day at a student teachers' fair trying to find new writers. I asked four males and four females to contribute to a series of personal columns. All the men said, "Yes, I'll have a go at that" and all the women said, "Ooh, I don't know, maybe you should ask my friend to do it". They weren't professional writers but the men had more chance of becoming professional writers than the women.

    Geraldine Brennan

  10. Interesting post Suzi!

    I have done a phD on gender imbalances in creative sectors. In my research I found that how we talk about gender is crucial in reinforcing gender inequality.

    Even the concept of the 'female reviewer' is one which reinforces the female v male binary (what about transgender writers?)

    I also think ideas like women having low esteem and heavy childcare duties, whilst they can always be backed up by anecdotal evidence, are actually part of an 'essentialist' view of men and women that contributes to gender inequality.

    The idea that men can be Great writers and women only great ones is very interesting. I think this goes deep in our psyches where we create narratives of the Great Man in history and literature (and our sexuality/psychologies).

  11. Fascinating post, it's intriguing to see it from a commissioning editor's side and find out the backstory that leads to the bias I notice as a reader.

    I definitely agree that it would be helpful if more women authors, critics and publishers took one for the sisterhood - I attended Wednesday's Novel Women talk at the ICA for For Books' Sake and even there, on a panel full of women and in front of a primarily female audience - it was noted that they'd approach numerous other women to participate who hadn't been willing to do so.

    I'm sure they have their individual reasons but it can be frustrating at times!

  12. I sometimes wonder Jane if all-women events just exacerbate the problem! It is part of the essentialism I mentioned.

    I am not interested in 'women writers' I am interested in writers.

  13. Hmm.

    @ Elly,

    The idea that men can be Great writers and women only great ones is very interesting. I think this goes deep in our psyches where we create narratives of the Great Man in history and literature (and our sexuality/psychologies).

    Terribly sorry to point this out, but I think this taking the relevant paragraph a little far. It's quite plain that there are many Great women writers, though perhaps it would be interesting if it turns out that there are fewer modern women Great writers when compared to past generations, when it is utterly reasonable that women in past ages were considerably disadvantaged in relation to now.

    The same obtains with regards the Great Men in History issue. It is quite simple, really - in the early modern period, for example, it was the men who did most everything (in the grand, political sense), apart from those grand exceptions. It may have been iniquitous, but it's the way it was. Grand, sweeping narratives - the kind available to the non-specialist - are invariably dominated by men.

    Ultimately, however, Elly is right - it's the writing that counts, not the writer.

    It would be lovely if we didn't judge a book by its author photo.

  14. Hello Pete
    why do so many people begin a comment addressed to me with that ominous utterance, 'hmm...'?

    I am pretty sure that gender and literary history is not 'quite simple' at all or else we wouldn't be arguing about it in 2011.

    Please don't apologise for pointing out lacuna in my knowledge of Great Women Writers.

    But I still don't think women writers are presented as 'Great' in the same way that e.g. Shakespeare, Dickens and Joyce are. Even today.

    I studied literature in the late 1980s at A level. There was not one woman writer on my course.

  15. Thanks for drawing more attention to the issue. I review poetry for three magazines; for two the gender balance of reviewers is more or less equal for one I'm the female reviewer. I also write, have a 'day job' and do most of the childcare (my husband's chronically ill so he helps as much as he can but can't do 50%).

    I've found in addition to the multitasking problem, the 'women reviewers don't put themselves forward' problem there's the 'some male reviewers don't/won't review books by women' problem and 'women's books always get sent to women' problem. It also becomes a vicious circle as women don't see other women reviewing so don't put themselves forward so fewer women review...

  16. Here is an article on gender and editing in magazines in America. I haven't read it carefully yet:


    You know, in the field of pornography/erotica, women writers completely dominate the market- in book publishing, journals, blogs and e-publications.

    That is just an example of another aspect of this debate!

  17. Hi Elly,

    Well, that's a mystery ... though it may be partly due to my understanding that I enter a thread utterly dominated by women.

    I don't think that the 'Great Men in History' issue is either a gender or even a literary historical issue. It is what it is. It is simple. But only if you look at it in context, rather than through the eyes of the 21st century. Getting caught up in gender issues merely muddies the waters. I would say that, of course, being a man ...

    Hmm ... and you know why. (oh, and in the spirit in which it was intended, lacunae is the plural)

    For the record, I also studied A level English in the 80s, and Jane Austen, George Eliot and Emily Bronte figured, great writers? Definitely two out of three (and that ain't bad).

    As for Shakespeare, no writer can claim equal footing, male or female. Dickens and Joyce are slightly different kettles. Eliot, Austen, Woolf ...

    It is, naturally, intriguing that as you rightfully point out, women dominate the areas of pornography/erotica ... and also, in my experience, fill the vast majority of student places on literature courses, and dominate several university literature departments and publishing houses.

    It will be interesting to see where the power lies in 20 years ...

  18. I used to do a lot of reviewing but the work gradually faded away. After that I moved to Spain. If any editors and publishers feel inclined to send books to Spain I would be very happy to continue...
    Fiona Pitt-Kethley

  19. Fiona Pitt-Kethley I love your poetry!

  20. Elly, we had the same thing: in my final year of high school, with a retired Marine for a teacher, not one woman did we read in our "advanced placement" English course. I wrote my final paper on the theme of androgyny in Orlando. I think he gave me a B-.

  21. Baroqueinhackney I love Orlando. I think it is 'androgynous' in more ways than just the theme.

    I strongly disagree with Pete. I don't think that we have dropped the idea of the 'Great Man' in literature or our imaginations. Look at even the news it is full of 'Great Men' whether heroes or villains. Obama, Mubarak, Assange. I can't think of a woman who is currently in the news who has such status, such weight.

    My interest is in challenging this whole idea of 'Greatness' altogether. And just looking for Great women writers, or setting up women novelist events, I don't think does that.

    Pete says 'grand sweeping narratives are invariably dominated by men'. I agree. So let's get rid of grand, sweeping narratives!

  22. Well, I gathered that you strongly disagreed, Elly.

    In some sense I agree with you, but is the fact that the modern world is full of Great Men down to our imagination or is it simply that it is men who are most influential in the upper echelons - ignoring what the reasons for that might be?

    There are fewer women who wield or have wielded such weight, it's true ... but I don't think it's down to our imaginations. Whether it's down to discrimination or a patriarchal society or something more mundane is another thing entirely, but they do exist/have existed ...

    The Great Author is another matter. It's utterly reasonable that the past Greats are predominantly male (because society made that inevitable) whereas for this to be so now is another matter entirely.

    I agree that the idea of Greatness is flawed, but it will endure. Perhaps we need only note that Greatness is in the eye of the beholder, and few who are termed Great in their lifetime hold onto that accolade for long.

    I'm glad we agree on grand sweeping narratives, but there is a problem here. When we teach, we must, at some point, present GSN to our children, if only to give them a sense of place. How to replace this?

    Oh, and we are utterly in agreement on women novelist events etc. They are patronising, belittling and utterly pointless.

    Let the writing speak.

    The (a, my) truth is, Elly, we're really not so far apart on this.

  23. LOL.

    I like that. The (a, my) truth is...

    I might start using it!

    I agree Pete we probably share more perspectives than 'traditional' feminists on gender and literature.

    Though with some key differences too. I will see if I can find any articles that back up what I am trying to say.

    Incidentally I have just read 'Where the stress falls' by Susan Sontag, an amazing collection of her literary and film/photography criticism.

    She does not feature and barely mentions one woman writer/artist in the whole book.

  24. You are welcome, Elly ... (though do make sure you cite me ...).

    Key differences are good. They are what makes it all worthwhile. I do, however, suspect that some of these apparent differences would fall away were we able to converse at greater length ... probably orally, as for all our pretensions, sometimes the written word is insufficient.

    With regards Susan Sontag, that is interesting ... I wonder how much of this is purposeful.

  25. According to her criticism, Sontag just chooses work to write about that inspires her and that she connects with. She championed a lot of little-known writers. But they all happened to be men. I don't know what the reason is.

    But I still think there is this sense of 'the masculine' in literature and literary criticism that is powerful.

    I'd love to hear Suzi's views as the conversation here has departed a bit from her original post!

  26. Thanks for all your comments!

    It's interesting that we talk about 'women writers' when we wouldn't talk about 'men writers' as a category - as though women remain a subsection. I strongly agree that 'it's the writing that counts, not the writer.'

    I just wanted to make the point that when making these commissioning decisions, you are rarely if ever aware of your own bias. Commissioning editors I've spoken to all hate the idea of positive discrimination. If you really want, say, a top TV academic to review a book for you, you're unlikely to say, hang on, he's a man - I'll find a female historian instead. Although the TV don may have achieved his prominence and his TV series because of notions that a male has more 'authority' and so on. Then it just becomes a vicious circle.

    Anyway, a very stimulating debate.

  27. Happy Int'l Women's Day, everyone! Elly, I don't think it's possible to get rid of grand sweeping narratives, and nor should we. People need them and love them, and life can get pretty big sometimes. We need ambition and sweep and bigness.

    We just don't ALWAYS need it, because life can be pretty small sometimes.

    But the thing that really worries me is that even now, in 2011, we're STILL talking about women as writing more "domestic" books, books about relationships and daily life, small books, books with less "sweep."

    But, if women like sweep too - and we do, because we choose male winners on the Booker Prize etc - why don't we just go out there and write it? Why do we stay in?

    The answer to this question is going to have to be at least partly qualititative: the numbers are a diagnosis of a problem, but the solution isn't going to be through numbers.

  28. Hi Ms Baroque-

    I think women do write some grand sweeping narratives. I mainly meant though in terms of our 'grand narrative' of history and literary history. Not necessarily novels that contain epic themes.

    I would still rather get rid of this grand narrative approach. e.g. the concept of 'The Literary Novel' or 'The Historical Novel' or 'The Victorian Period' or even 'The Critic'...

    The internet is changing everything.
    As Sontag ruminated wistfully, 'The Tiger is in The Library'...

    I am one of the 'gender avenging' tigers. And I am not writing about Literature with a capital 'L'...

  29. I'm a woman reviewer and just wanted to note that reviewing in America has pretty much dried up along with newspapers, who foolishly cut back their cultural coverage to pursue nonreaders. Book editors across the country got canned, because book-pages got dropped.

    The only major venues left are the Washington Post, LA Times, and NY Times, and really, expecting to review for them without a book of your own is a fantasy.

    No matter how good a critic you are, or how many reviews you've written, it's a Big Box vs. smalltime world, just like America generally. I can review for no money online or for litmags, but to make enough to justify the thought and scrutiny that goes into a review is simply impossible, even though reviewing was never particularly well paid.

    In addition, the quality of writing generally, and of fiction particularly, is not especially high (which means even less readership). The Emperor has no clothes on when it comes to craft, or the Empress, either—I very rarely read reviews that talk about how well or badly a book under consideration was written. Active, meaningful sentences, and books made out of them, seem sort of scarce at the moment, especially in literary fiction.