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.
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?