Sunday, February 13, 2011

Do the men have it all?

* EDITED IN: This post originally attributed a comment to Observer literary editor William Skidelsky which was in fact made by TLS Peter Stothart (as reported in the linked Guardian article). The post has been altered accordingly, and my sincere apologies to William Skidelsky.

People are much exercised by the shocking statistics in a survey conducted by the American women's literary network Vida, showing male bias in numbers of literary reviewers and of the authors of books reviewed. The Guardian defends itself as being better than most and books editor Claire Armitstead points out that fewer women than men offer themselves as reviewers. Ruth Franklin, books editor of The New Republic confesses to being shocked at her own statistics and sets out to conduct her own survey proving that lit editors are only reflecting the situation created by publishers: publishers publish more books by male authors than by women. Bookslut's Jessica Crispin, who is equally shocked, along with her co-editor Michael Schaub, at their own record, will have no truck with such blame-shifting and the two co-editors are conducting a conversation about the implications for their own biases in choices of books for review and reviewers. Some comments on these posts are enlightening, many pleading that they read more books by men than by women because they simply like them better, discounting the question raised by Ruth Franklin of societally-induced unconscious bias - a concept which it looks as though thinkers of the 80s may as well not have bothered to flog to death. And notwithstanding our healthy and mainly female literary reading-group culture, TLS editor Peter Stothard raises hackles by opining that while women read more than men, they mainly read the kinds of books that are not worthy of review in his publication.

12 comments:

Sheenagh Pugh said...

"books editor Claire Armitstead points out that fewer women than men offer themselves as reviewers."

As folk on the Magma poetry blog have pointed out, many may not be aware that it's possible to get into reviewing that way. I did reviews when younger, because various editors asked me to. It never occurred to me to approach them; in fact that isn't how poetry reviewiing generally works. I don't know if reviewing for the Grauniad is any different but it strikes me that Armitstead could try asking some women herself and see if that helps....

Elizabeth Baines said...

Sheenagh, Claire Armistead does add 'so we have to go out and find them', and so presumably they do. And she shows an awareness of the problems, saying: 'My own feeling is that there is an issue of confidence among women writers.'

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Maybe William Skidelsky's terminology is unnecessarily inflammatory.

Neezes said...

Interesting stuff, I wouldn't have expected it.

Yes, that last comment is inflammatory. As a man, my experience is that women tend to be quicker and more eclectic readers, which is not to say that men don't like books, but often they don't like fiction all that much, and when they do it's a particular brand of fiction.

Sue Guiney said...

As per Neezes' comment: I have known many men in my life (stop giggling) and very, very few of them read fiction. And if they do, it's political intrigue stuff. Except one of my sons. He reads literary fiction as well, but I take partial credit for that. But I do believe that men who see reviewing books as part of their career think it all has to be very very serious and that puts blinders on them. Some of the most "serious" books ever written were written around the kitchen table while the kids were waiting for dinner.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

A peek at The Bookseller Top 20 bestselling books this week shows female authors on 12, men on 8. I think women with agendas ought to stop whinging and get on with writing... they'll be getting us all a bad name -

http://www.thebookseller.com/

Elizabeth Baines said...

I think the point, V, is that they ARE getting on with the writing but these stats show they're not getting reviewed so much. Sales don't necessarily equate with reviews - an interesting point in itself!

Vanessa Gebbie said...

So whats the problem?? It all sounds like a playground spat -'I want to stand on THAT bit of tarmac. Don't as me why, I just DO so get OFF.'

Its sales that matter in the end. if you google top 100 book sales in recent years - the top 20 sales are dominated by female writers. Mostly called J K Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, and similar...but
I havent heard men whinging about that.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Well, I guess the problem is if you want recognition on a literary level from lit mags and pages etc, and don't think sales are all that matter. (And I suppose if you think that reviews and sales ARE linked - I think that's debated.)

Not sure what I think about it all personally, since the lit pages are now so contracted anyway.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

A propos - and to do with William Skidelsky's comment, probably - I saw this today - a review quote from The Times, for 'Jubilate', a novel by Michael Arditti.

"Anyone who is afraid that the English novel is sliding into a backwater of domestic anecdote should find their anxieties assuaged by the writing of Michael Arditti’ - The Times.


There's your answer. To whatever the question was.

Emma Lee said...

Commercial success shouldn't excuse a lack of reviews. And if women don't get reviewed, how do they find a wider audience? After all women can only buy so many books a year.

Part of the problem is that women don't put themselves forward because they don't see other women reviewing so think commissioning editors don't want women reviewing so they don't put themselves forward... In poetry circles there are some male reviewers who won't review books by women so female reviewers find themselves reviewing far more books by women and women writers find they only get reviewed by women.

There are no easy answers but saying "women should put themselves forward" is only a partial solution. Fiona Sampson at Poetry Review appears to have dropped two female reviewers (see Magma Poetry's blog) and still commissions more reviews of poetry books by men than women.

Elizabeth Baines said...

To those who have commented here on the view I attributed to William Skidelsky, I should tell you that this was an error on my part. The view was in fact that of TLS editor Peter Stothard, as is clear if you read the linked Guardian article. My error, and my sincere apologies to William Skidelsky.