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The lack of women reviewers

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Posted on: 26 October 2011


Last night I went to the Authors' Club in Frith St, Soho to debate the lack of women reviewers with the Independent on Sunday's Literary Editor, Katy Guest. Ms Guest and I had not met before, though she had impressed me by commissioning me to review Alan Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child after I pointed out, in a Facebook debate, how certain men were never reviewed by women. I was indeed the only woman to review that novel (and probably the only one trying to write my review while being interrupted every five minutes by children having hysterics over their exams - think of having a pneumatic drill going off at irregular but repeated intervals.)

There are many disquieting features about the reviewing culture in the UK, but the most striking remains the way that half of the human race is so persisitently under-represented. Although the Guardian and the Daily Mail come the closest at achieving an equal number of men and women reviewers in their books pages, the vast majority seem to think it fine to keep reviews by women, and books by women to about 10-20%. Needless to say, the number of women reviewing books by men is even smaller: in the last month, only Jeffrey Eugenidies's latest novel seemed to merit female attention. It's title is The Marriage Plot. Go figure, as Americans say.

Yet women buy almost twice as many books of all kinds, according to such research as is available. (I am indebted to research by Mslexia magazine, and by Bookmarketing's survey, supported by the Arts Council for this information.) We are just as interested in the new Julian Barnes or Ian McEwan as men,and much more likely to buy it. Yet if a woman wants to review a novel by either of these, she is likely to be disappointed. I should know - for although I used to review McEwan before he won the Booker, after it I was simply not allowed to. I asked many papers, many times, and believe that there could be no reason for my rejection but sexism. 

As a result, not a single voice was heard objecting to the risible scene in McEwan's Saturday in which the hero's naked daughter deflects a would-be rapist and stalker by reciting Dover Beach. While women up and down the country were howling with laughter at this improbable scene, male critics swallowed it without a murmur - until John Banville, a rival on the Booker short-list that year, pointed it out in an American publication, several months later. The spectacle of men closing ranks in this way does a deep disservice to readers, and indeed to authors. No serious writer, and McEwan is probably the best we have, wishes to be addressing only one half of humanity.

Some of the best literary critics are or were women. Virginia Woolf, Queenie Leavis, Janet Malcom, Alison Lurie, Michiko Kakutani, Elizabeth Hardwick, Elaine Showalter, Zadie Smith, Marina Warner, Natasha Walter, Jane Shilling, AS Byatt - need I say more? So why is it still such a struggle?

Katy's information as to how she commissions reviews was interesting in this, and many other respects. After she had written a column asking where all the women reviewers were, several critics, both new and established, reminded her of their existence. She commissioned them, and in so doing discovered what every responsible Literary Editor should, a number of talented new women reviewers.

Her view on why men outnumber women in Books Pages came down to men's perisistence and organisation. The former email her once a month with a handful of titles they would like to cover, and an explanation of why they are interested in each. Women are more likely to wait to be asked. In my own experience, this isn't the case - after 21 years of writing fiction and reviewing in many national newspapers, I still ask, and still get turned down, or sometimes don't even get a reply. Sometimes, the replies I have had (not least from women literary editors) have been pretty brusque. There is an attitude of suspicion as to why I might be interested in reviewing when I am a novelist - something I'm sure neither Philip Hensher nor DJ Taylor ever encounter. The notion that you might be just as deeply interested in literary culture as a man, just as knowledgeable and articulate is apparently not conceivable if you are female. (The rudest, I may add, was the LRB which to this day has something like one woman critic in twenty - and which is edited by a woman.) 

Why does it matter? Well, it matters for a number of reasons. If you take the conventional view of female interests, women do not see the domestic as less interesting as the battlefield; indeed, it is another kind of battlefield. An outstanding novel that achieved belated recognition through the Orange Prize, and now through film, is Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin; I was one of the very few critics to review it (in the New Statesman) before it appeared on the Orange long-list, and called it 'Desperate Housewives as rewritten by Euripides'. True, it was published by a small independent publisher, Serepnt's Tail, but it's exactly the kind of thing that a male-dominated literary establishment overlooks despite its relevance to all kinds of contemporary preoccupations.

But women are also interested in a huge range of other subjects, if my visits to book groups are anything to go by. Biography, history, science, film, politics all interest us quite as much as fiction - so why are the Books pages of, say, the Sunday Times still publishing virtually the same critics they did twenty years ago? If books are worth noticing at all, they should not be sunk in a moribund culture.

What I would like to see is a conscious moving towards parity between the sexes - between books by women, and books covered by women - in all national newspapers and magazines. I would like to see literature by men reviewed by women, and vice versa, as a matter of policy. There is no shortage of able women capable of covering serious books in all subjects - given the preponderance of low-paid, highly-qualified women in academia, it should be painfully easy to find ones to whom the standard £150 fee is welcome. There is simply a shortage of will and energy.

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At 05:08:16 on 26 October 2011,  rebecca wrote:

I am absolutely with you on this. I read LRB fortnightly and although there are women writers and reviewers, time and again it is the same old people (one is a particular bugbear but I won't say who) writing criticism that rarely addresses the kinds of awareness and concerns I suspect a woman might bring to the matter. Don't get me wrong, I love LRB's reviews. And the Guardian. And many others. But more women would be hugely welcome. New perspectives, new voices. And as for McEwan: maybe Solar wouldn't have been quite so popular if it had been reviewed by women. If it had been written by a woman, with a female tubby academic protagonist who regularly strayed from her marriage, I think it would not even have been published. Oh, and I'd happily review anything for £150 right now.

At 14:00:51 on 26 October 2011,  Amanda wrote:

Thanks for all your comments, please keep them coming - they are moderated so not posted up instantly - and please do Share and Retweet. The only way this culture is going to change is if more of us make a fuss.

I''m interested that SF also shares some of this bias, though to be honest it sounds better than many (I know the Times has Lisa Tuttle as its SF reviewer which I hope is good news.) Also that an independent bookseller like Hampstead Lane Bookshop notices this. More support from booksellers would help - when WH Smith backed up objections to chick lit ghettoisation, it was a staging post.

It''s not that I am accusing men of conspiracy. I admire many male reviewers (and I would say if I didn''t). But we do, as women, notice different things, and what we notice about books, paintings, architecture and even music is often different from what men take in. 

At 07:13:03 on 26 October 2011,  Max Cairnduff wrote:

It's a very good point. The curious thing is that on the blogosphere it's much more even. In fact (though I have no numbers) I suspect there may well be more women reviewing books in blogs than men. Sometimes of course the gender is unknown (Max could go either way, and I've followed blogs where for a fair while I had no idea of the blogger's gender). I said Max could go either way. In fact I'm male, but once when commenting on a Guardian book blog page another commenter assumed I was female, a Maxine, and dismissed my comment on that basis. I didn't bother correcting them but it was revealing. What frustrates me is the increasing genderfication (to make up an ugly word) of fiction generally. Books by women or featuring women protagonists are marketed as books for women. Check out the covers for say Nemirovsky, or Toibin's Brookyln. As Helena says the assumption seems to be that male literature matters. Women's writing gets packaged in pastels. The other assumption is that if a book is about domestic matters, as say Brookyln arguably is or Penelope Lively's Moon Tiger, that men wouldn't be interested. Reductive and insulting.

At 09:28:07 on 26 October 2011,  Justin Cartwright wrote:

I found this fascinating. I agree with most of what you say, but I have also noticed - or perhaps I just think I have noticed - a certain tolerance and latitude granted by women reviewers to women writers. I don't think there is any doubt that women and men by and large have a different sensibility, and it goes without saying that this is a good thing. But if Lit Eds imagine that this prevents women from reviewing men and vice versa, that is obviously misguided. I seem to remember a comment by you after I wrote a piece some years ago about looking after my son and causing domestic chaos, and you wrote in response that it was fine for male novelists, indulging themselves in a little part-time domestic work when the realities for female novelists was quite different. Actually, you were right, but the fact that I thought I was being funny and you were mildly irritated, seems to suggest that there is a divide. Unless of course we were both just doing a little journo in a self-serving way.

At 10:37:04 on 27 October 2011,  Amanda wrote:

Delighted that The Scotsman is prepared to break the Boys'' Own club - but it''s not a national.

In answer to the question about how to find out what''s coming up, you just have to put in some work looking at publishers'' online catalogues, and also asking their publicity departments to send them to you (often easier said than done). You should also get in touch with the Publishers'' Publicity Circle, and fill in a form about what you''re interested in. Timing is all, as Paul Dacre said to me long before he became editor of the Daily Mail. Katy quoted her predecessor, the great Suzi Feay (whose blog is also highly recommended) saying, "I don''t want Proust, I want it by 3.30."


At 16:11:15 on 27 October 2011,  Bernardine Evaristo wrote:

A great piece, Amanda, and the stats are so shocking!

At 01:39:10 on 31 October 2011,  Trilby wrote:

Totally agree - especially with para 7. The only thing harder than getting review commissions as a woman seems to be getting commissions as a *young* woman with only (!) a few published books to her name, a handful of good degrees and a range of journalistic experience. With one or two notable exceptions, broadsheet review sections seem to be totally closed off to new women's voices (I've subbed to Katy several times over the past few months, and she's been wonderfully prompt and encouraging in her replies - persistence does indeed seem to be key, though there are plenty of eds with whom it seems to make no difference whatsoever...)

At 03:44:47 on 26 October 2011,  Lorna Fergusson wrote:

So well expressed, Amanda - and it jolted me into an awareness of how most of the time we don't stop to consider this imbalance. I was very interested to hear that men actively tout for work and women wait to be asked. It's the literary equivalent of dancing round your handbag at the Saturday dance when you're in your teens, hoping that one of the prowling, circling males will approach. And yes, I too - in spite of my admiration for Ian McEwan - found that scene in Saturday totally absurd!

At 04:21:57 on 26 October 2011,  Sue Guiney wrote:

This is something I've been aware of but haven't really thought through. Thanks for stating it all so clearly. Very interesting and important post, I think.

At 20:50:26 on 15 December 2011,  L. Legault wrote:

I fear that the real problem here - the cause of this rejection of female reviewers -is not sexism but money, although sexism may well be part of it. I am not a published writer (aside from a couple of academic pieces), but I used to have a blog in which, for fun, I sometimes talked about books I liked. When my blog acquired a (very, very modest) success, I was positively bombarded with offers of books to review, fiction and non-fiction, the serious and the frivolous. The catch? I wasn't offered any money, and indeed I suppose there might have been ethical concerns in accepting it if I had been, because the offers came not from journals but publishers.

At 22:35:03 on 09 November 2011,  Diana wrote:

Everything you said is true Amanda; I've also found over the years that getting out of the pigeon hole chosen for me by various lit eds has been all but impossible to reverse. No important, grown up books for me (and certainly none by serious blokes) but if a book was deemed quirky, humorous, interesting but lesser - I've been their gal. Well, as long as I nagged and nagged. But I can't be bothered any more.

At 08:12:36 on 26 October 2011,  Lucy Coats wrote:

Absolutely agree with this, Amanda, and have said so elsewhere. I remember reading an American survey on this very subject a while ago, and there being a fuss made then. But it needs to be said loudly and often, otherwise nothing will change. The men vs women 'pitching for reviews' comment struck a chord with me. I realise I do often wait to be asked to do journalistic things (through shyness, fear of rejection or whatever), and that's clearly something I need to work on!

At 01:49:39 on 27 October 2011,  Lesley McDowell wrote:

Absolutely agree Amanda, but you weren't the only woman to review the Hollinghurst. I did, too - for The Scotsman. I review regularly for Katy Guest, and was inspired by her article to ask the LRB for some reviewing (they hardly ever use women, despite having a female editor). I was put on a waiting list. I can only make a living at this by propsong titles to editors, and learned very early on that if I wanted to earn enough, I needed to review the books that other reviewers weren't touching. At The Herald, that meant writing by women, so that's what I concentrated on. Like you, I couldn't get near the 'big boys' - they went to other big boys!

At 04:19:46 on 26 October 2011,  Anne Lyle wrote:

I totally agree about the need for more women reviewers. There's an ongoing debate in my own genre (fantasy and SF) about the lack of visibility of women writers, particular in SF, so author Juliet E McKenna is trying to gather some hard data on the subject. The gender split amongst writers of SFF is generally around 55% male, 45% female, but as with mainstream fiction, there are often far fewer reviews of books by women writers. As part of Juliet's information-gathering, I did an analysis of book reviews in Locus (www.locusmag.com) and discovered some interesting statistics. The split on reviews of male and female authors' books was almost exactly 50/50, which certainly surprised me! Hwever there also was a distinct gender bias by both male (75/25) and female (66/33) reviewers in favour of books by writers of their own gender. This is quite understandable, IMHO - male writers are more likely, on the whole, to appeal to male readers, and the same goes for female writers and readers. Thus, the most straightforward and fair way to ensure that reviews reflect the gender balance of writers (which can, admittedly, vary a lot by genre), is surely to have a similar gender balance in the reviews. And in most cases that means more female reviewers. I think the problem is that women are simply less eager than men to put their opinions forward - we're brought up to be more self-effacing, less competitive than men. But it's an issue that those who solicit reviews need to face.

At 04:30:04 on 26 October 2011,  Helena Halme wrote:

Amanda, it's Helena here from England's Lane Books. What a perceptive and excellent article! I wholeheartedly agree with your analysis. The male domination cuts through the whole of the publishing industry; for instance why are so many more new titles by women (The Pink Hotel by Anna Stothard, Drowning Rose by Marika Cobbolt) now published in trade paperback, skipping the hardback stage all together? I'm not even going start on how difficult it is to break into the industry as an unpublished female writer. (I'm yet to try to send query letters out to agents with a male pseudonym – though I have been tempted many times) From a bookseller’s point of view, it's the same old story: men's literature matters whereas women's writing is often classed as chick lit or aga sagas. I am yet to understand why this is.

At 06:45:03 on 26 October 2011,  Tioka wrote:

Well said! That scene in McEwan had me tossing the book at my poor plant. Sorry, plant.

At 10:29:13 on 26 October 2011,  Ann Swinfen wrote:

As you know, I tried to post a comment this morning, but something was playing up. I'm now using another browser. There are some excellent comments above, but I thought I'd repeat what I attempted to post earlier. What a terrific blog, Amanda! I agree with everything you say. A particularly interesting point that male reviewers send in suggestions of books they would like to review, but if women do this, it is frowned on. This illustrates a whole range of perceptions which permeate the publishing world. You would think we had moved on from the days in the 19th century when women had to take male pen-names in order to be taken seriously. There's a similar situation in academia. It's enough to make you despair.

At 04:37:14 on 27 October 2011,  lesley mcdowell wrote:

The Scotsman is national enough for the Guardian to include it in its weekly quotes from critics' round-ups, but no, it's not a London broadsheet. Before Suzi Feay gave me a chance at the IoS, I wrote to all the literary editors of every single London broadsheet, as well as the mid-titles, and the TLS. Lindsay Duguid, sadly since made redundant, also gave me a chance. No male lit eds took me on. I suspect that would still be the case, but I haven't tried them since.

At 07:09:27 on 18 March 2013,  mdbrady wrote:

Great article. I totally agree and just wrote my own post about this issue at http://wp.me/p24OK2-Iw

At 10:30:32 on 26 October 2011,  Diane Purkiss wrote:

Fine and sensible words, Amanda; I've done bits and pieces of reviewing for the broadsheets, and I had to ask for a lot of it - and I agree that She at LRB was almost comically rude, while oddly some male editors were far more polite. What I've never known is how reliably to find out what new books are about to emerge. Are we all supposed to have friends in publishing? Perhaps it might also be worth noting that Woman's Genres never get much space; compare social with military history, romance with thrillers, boys' books with girls' books. But is this cause, or effect?

At 10:34:04 on 26 October 2011,  Nina Bell wrote:

I agree. There is one major Sunday newspaper which has never included more than 35% of books by women on its review pages, and sometimes the figure drops to 20%. And yet women write as many books as men do. More women reviewers would certainly help. No publication should have to aim at 50/50 women/men authors and reviewers in any one week, as that would be too restrictive, but I would love to see at least one major publication undertake to achieve it over one year. It would be interesting to see whether those books pages become more widely read as a result.

At 10:55:45 on 14 November 2011,  Amanda wrote:

Thanks to this debate, I was commissioned to review the new Martin Amis biography (the only woman apart from Lynne Barber to do so.) Interesting to see that both of us focussed on Amis''s family background instead of reaching for the usual hero or zero stuff that male reviewers did. You can read my review in Journalism; at 800 words, it''s about half the length allotted to most other critics.


At 18:02:19 on 26 October 2011,  Amanda wrote:


Thanks again for all these comments - and if Katy''s response has encouraged any of you to brave a rejection, then do try what she advises. Be warned, however, not many LitEds are as polite and conscientious as she.

Justin, I do dimly remember feeling quite cross at your remark, though I''m sorry if it rankles. (As you know now, I''m a great fan of your fiction.) I know some male writers effectively take on what is still the traditional female role in doing the majority of housework and child-care as well as writing, and as well as earning money doing other work. However, my impression is that it''s not many, and for so many women, it really isn''t a joke.

At 15:13:04 on 27 October 2011,  Nalini Haynes wrote:

I run an independent zine where the majority of reviews are written by women. This is not by design; rather they are the people reading and prepared to write a review for no remuneration. While the reviews are fairly simple in design, aimed at a broader cross-section of the community than mere academia, there is opportunity for longer, more involved reviews if the reviewer is so inclined, Feminism has been replaced by a swing back in the other direction while people think that because women are allowed to work (at 85% of the pay of men last time I checked the statistics), people think that Women's Lib has done its work and moved on. Worse still is the perception of equality for the disabled. The reason I have the time and energy to work on this free, independent publication is that I lost my job after being refused disability access verbally and in writing. I was working for the health department in South Australia as a community health worker, counselling victims of domestic violence, adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse and the like - but my poor vision meant I needed disability access to the computer systems. My manager bullied me and shamed me publicly for being unable to sit ergonomically at the computer, then replaced me with a student social worker who hadn't graduated yet. I have years more experience and qualifications than that person, but she played tennis with the manager. I put it to you that being paid to review a novel is one issue among many. Don't bitch about not getting paid to do it. Do it online, where you can reach a wide audience and prove your merit to others. That can result in paid employment. I'm hoping that, by producing a free online zine that gets recognition (the National Library Archives in Australia has made it available as a publication of 'significance' http://nla.gov.au/nla.arc-123161), I hope to rebuild my life and my career after losing 10 years of work and study due to disability discrimination. There has to be another way for us to move ahead, even if it means developing a strong counter-culture.

At 06:15:33 on 26 October 2011,  adele geras wrote:

Very good article, Amanda. Will retweet your link!

At 06:54:05 on 26 October 2011,  Catherine Czerkawska wrote:

An excellent piece of analysis, with which I entirely agree. I've reviewed here in Scotland for literary magazines, but only occasionally, and I have to say, until very recently, I thought all reviewers waited to be asked. I had no idea that men submitted lists of books they wanted to review. Have never been paid as much as £150 either! I'd go further and add that theatrical reviewers also tend to be male and to review more plays by male playwrights, especially here in Scotland. There's a shining exception in Joyce MacMillan, and you know that she will give intelligent, well considered - and often helpful - analysis of any play, whether written by a man or a woman. As a playwright, I read Joyce's reviews, and even when she may not entirely like something, I can see that she invariably understands what's being attempted. Quite often the male perspective seems to be woefully narrow - judging a play for what it isn't rather than for what it is - and yet they don't even realise that they are doing it.

At 12:08:36 on 26 October 2011,  Marianne wrote:

Yes you hit the nail on the head, this is one of those issues that is continually vexing. Mind you the exception that proves the rule: AS Byatt's review of Terry Pratchett's new book SNUFF in the Guardian last week.

At 22:47:25 on 26 October 2011,  Jessica Mann wrote:

You're so right, Amanda! Few woman reviewers have the nerve to "pitch" and if they do so unsuccessfully, think "he (or she) hates me" and never dare to try that editor again. Most men, if refused one week, don't take it personally and try again the next. As for the books that get reviewed - there the imbalance is even greater. Just try counting the book reviews in the broadsheets one weekend. It's a rare issue that mentions more than a small fraction by women authors. In my monthly crime fiction column in the Literary Review I try to make it half and half, but come up against the next problem: many publishers have given up sending all their books out for review, and those they do send are predominantly by men. I wonder why.

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