This week there was an explosive discussion on BBC Radio 4 about women and book reviews — about how there are fewer female reviewers and fewer books by female authors. Thanks to @LisaAllardice for flagging up the Guardian’s graphic of the figures.
The discussion featured an extraordinary statement from the London Review of Books (who declined to appear on air), which I have reproduced below because a lot of people on Twitter were asking what all the fuss was about.
I have transcribed it myself. As I am, unfortunately, a woman no doubt there are many errors. Because really I should have been doing the washing up instead of producing a transcript. In actual fact I was also looking after 3 sick children, doing a supermarket-and-McDonalds run (quality parenting), filing 2500 words of copy (probably illiterate — see previous statement re gender) and I still took the time to do this. Because I do think both on Twitter and in real life – “to hell with it.”
I wanted to reproduce the statement in full because I think it’s important that it is known that there are people out there who still think this way. Whilst I’m loosely on board with the basic “Lean In” sentiment implied here (you can never “Lean In” far enough if you’re a committed, passionate person, whether male or female), I could throw a lot of dirty washing up water in the face of anyone who uses these “women are too busy cooking dinner and looking after children to do any proper work” arguments as part of a supposedly serious discussion.
But there I go producing just the sort of rubbish sentence that would not be the best version of itself and therefore not be fit for publication in the London Review of Books.
Here comes the transcript:
Mariella Frostrup [presenting discussion about women and book reviews with Rachel Cooke and Jonathan Gibbs]: “We asked for one of the executive team from London Review of Books to come on the programme, as they were one of the publications cited as having more male books and reviewers than women. But they were unable to join us and instead sent us this rather lengthy statement.”
[statement read as voiceover by female announcer -- interesting editorial decision]
“Counting is a feminist weapon. “How many women are on the board?” “How many women are in Parliament?” “How many women are in the LRB this fortnight?” Over the history of the LRB 82% of the articles have been written by men and 18% by women. None of the editors — count them, four men and five women — are proud of that. We need to do better.
It shouldn’t be controversial to say that doing better isn’t as easy as it seems. The number of women’s bylines are low in the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker, the TLS. Just as numbers of women are low on corporate boards. It’s down to more than editorial whim.
The problem is, as Jenny Turner said earlier this year, both subtle and deep-rooted. Partly a matter of social arrangements that work against women and partly due to the effect a sexist world has on women. Women send fewer pitches to the LRB. They often prefer not to write critically about other women. They are under-represented among historians of the Second World War, particle physicists and macro economists. And any number of academic disciplines the LR Books covers.
When the editor of the London Review [sic], Mary-Kay Wilmers, gave an interview to PN Review in 2001, she put it this way [HERE COMES THE BEST BIT]: “I think women find it difficult to do their jobs, look after their children, cook dinner and write pieces. They just can’t get it all done. And men can. Because they have fewer, quite different responsibilities. And they’re not so newly arrived in the country. They’re not so frightened of asserting themselves. And they’re not so anxious to please. They’re going to write their pieces and to hell with the rest. And I don’t think women think that way.”
Perhaps they do say “to hell with it” on Twitter more these days. And perhaps eventually these days that will make it easier to say “to hell with it” in the real world. But it’s not a pathetic excuse to say that the world is still sexist and that the feminist revolution is hopelessly incomplete. You can see evidence of this everywhere from the pay gap to rape conviction rates and a thousand things that are more important than the proportion of women who write book reviews.
Counting women is one way of looking at the problem. For the counters, the answer is a quota. A women’s edition. Positive discrimination of one type or another. But counting then trumps all other considerations. The LRB’s way — which isn’t to say it’s the best way or that it doesn’t have disadvantages — is to publish women writers in the same way as male writers — as writers. We give them space, work with each sentence to make it the best version of itself, encourage them to write about the things they can’t write about elsewhere.”
If this is the country, I don’t want to live in it. Fortunately the country they describe is no place I recognise. Now I must go and cook dinner because obviously (a) men cannot cook dinner and (b) no pre-prepared food is freely available in this country. *bangs head against wall*
We have two great debut writers at Bath Literature Festival: literary supremo and ex-Booker judge Alex Clark is continuing the series she started at Stoke Newington Literary Festival — Alex Clark’s Stars of Tomorrow — with Darragh McKeon, author of Everything That is Solid Melts into Air on Friday March 7 at 8pm. This is a much-talked about elegant debut which tells the story behind what happened at Chernobyl. (I am struggling not to use the word “fall-out”.) Recommended. Colm Toibin: “Daring, ambitious, epic, moving.”
Here’s the blurb: “Russia, 1986. In a run-down apartment block in Moscow, a nine-year-old piano prodigy practices silently for fear of disturbing the neighbours. In a factory on the outskirts of the city, his aunt makes car parts, trying to hide her dissident past. In the hospital, a surgeon immerses himself in his work to avoid facing his failed marriage. And in a rural village in Belarus, a teenage boy wakes up to a sky of the deepest crimson. Outside, the ears of his neighbour’s cattle are dripping blood. Ten miles away, at the Chernobyl Power Plant, something unimaginable has happened. Now their lives will change forever.”
I am also so proud that Joanna Rossiter is the (debut) author of this year’s Big Bath Read. I need to check the archives but I’m pretty sure it’s the first time a debut novelist has been chosen for the Big Bath Read. The local response to the book has been phenomenal. Over 60 people signed up for our Goodreads book group online (the first time this has ever been trialled — and already it has been chosen as a featured Goodreads Group, promoted to Goodreads’ 18 million members) and we’ve been holding face-to-face book groups across Somerset, talking to readers about The Sea Change.
Tonight’s group at Midsomer Norton (pictured above) awarded it an unprecedented (for them) 7.9 out of 10. Judging by their faces, this was an exceptionally generous mark and meant it was a book they would recommend to anyone. (They gave Wolf Hall 5 out of 10 and they really liked it. Scary.) Earlier today, I talked to Joanna Rossiter on BBC Radio Bristol and she talked about how much something like this means to an author with their first novel. This is exactly what the Festival is for and it makes me very happy.
You can join me for our big Festival Big Bath Read Book Group on Wed 5 March at 1pm in Bath — it will be a lot of fun.
Or you can join Joanna at Keynsham Library at 7.30pm on Wed 5 March — or in Bath at 1pm on Thurs 6 March — both are waiting list only now, I’m afraid.
Hurry hurry hurry to secure tickets for Bath for 28 Feb to 9 March! Because lots of great events are sold out: Germaine Greer, Austentatious, Rory McLean on Berlin, Alev Scott on Turkey, Henry Marsh on neurosurgery, Stephen Grosz on psychotherapy, several of Joanna Rossiter’s book groups (author of our Big Bath Read, The Sea Change — click here for the Goodreads group to join the conversation online)… If you are desperate for a ticket, please sign up for the waiting list with our box office on 01225 463362 — I have been monitoring the situation and I am seeing tickets emerge from time to time so it is worth doing. (This happens because sometimes people make block-bookings and then realise a couple of people can’t come.)
And a lot of events are down to single figures for remaining tickets: Jeff Williams’ jazz gig on the final night (he’s a jazz drumming legend and Mr Lionel Shriver — this is the first festival they’ve performed at together); historical novelists Sarah Dunant and S J Parris in conversation about what will be the next Wolf Hall; philanthropy expert Theresa Lloyd on the psychology of giving.
What you should buy now because tickets flying and will soon be in the final phase: Jennifer Saunders, Great Bath News Debate (with Alain de Botton and Jon Snow), Joanna Trollope, Tim Moore, Ben Chu’s Chinese Whispers, Hanif Kureishi, Claudia Roden, Alastair Campbell.
Some of my own favourite events:
– Patrick Barkham and his badgers — Britain’s leading nature writer on our most elusive creature
– Julian Baggini on the art of eating — The entertaining philosopher on why we’re obsessed with food
– Sally Magnusson on her memoir about her mother — An extraordinary moving family story about memory and grief
– Gary Shteyngart: “America’s funniest writer” on a rare visit to the UK — if you love David Sedaris, you have to see him
– Miranda Seymour: the award-winning biographer on the colourful historical relationship between England and Germany
– Tom Rob Smith: “My father told me my mother needed psychiatric treatment. My mother told me my father was lying. Who was I to believe?” His new novel The Farm is based on this nightmarish true story
– Darragh McKeon: Fantastic debut author with an extraordinary novel that tells you everything you need to know about Chernobyl.
PLUS: The “A Woman’s Place Is…?” debate with Kirsty Wark, Jane Shepherdson, Hadley Freeman and Sarah Bailey; and the Encouraging Wealth Creation debate with Stefan Stern, Nick Cohen, Steve Richards, Theresa Lloyd and Tom Hughes Hallett. For a guide to all our debates click here.
There are more updates on the all the events and the changing picture daily as we come into the Festival countdown on our Facebook page, including news on the latest press coverage for all the authors at the Festival. Meanwhile I need to start planning my shoes.
Here’s my guide to the Festival in the Independent. 2 weeks to go! Top tips: Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld; Miranda Seymour; Tom Rob Smith; Gary Shteyngart (I’m reviewing his new book on BBC Radio 4 Saturday Review next week); Darragh McKeon (amazing debut novel on Chernobyl).
Germaine Greer’s White Beech: The Rainforest Years reviewed in Red.
“With all Germaine Greer’s campaigning and public speaking it can be easy to forget that she’s a great writer too: above all White Beech: The Rainforest Years is a surprisingly compelling read, filled with expert botanical details and personal asides.”
There is an outside chance still to see her in Bath on Saturday March 1. The event sold out just before Germaine’s 75th birthday in January — but you can still go on the waiting list if you call 01225 462231.
Here’s a couple of guides to the comedy at Bath Literature Festival in GQ and on the Bath Festivals website including Jennifer Saunders (who I’m interviewing), Jo Caulfield, Lucy Porter, Mark Watson, Count Arthur Strong, Steve Richard, Ellie Taylor, Mary Bourke, Rachel Parris, Austentatious…
There’s a handful of tickets left for our Great Big Comedy Night: Happy 75th Birthday, Germaine! on Friday March 7 at 7pm — and for my show I Laughed, I Cried at 4.30pm the same day.
Writing in today’s Mail on Sunday about why people should never have affairs in the first place.
“Is it unrealistic to suggest that people just shouldn’t have affairs? Really, is it that outlandish an idea, to just keep your pants on when you’re with someone who is not your partner?
I am trying to avoid shouting here. Because it feels a bit like telling off a toddler. Don’t pick your nose. Don’t draw on the walls. No, you can’t have a fourth Frube. And no committing adultery. I have no sympathy. It’s childish.
I am not talking from personal experience. Yet. Just keeping my husband of 14 years on his toes there. Only joking. Because the thing is, I would not have an affair. Ever. And I know this. This is why I am married.
If I wanted to have an affair, I would stop being married.”
Sorry to anyone who was hoping to have an affair with me. *sound of George Clooney wailing and gnashing his teeth*
The Germaine Greer public lecture (based on her new book, White Beech) on Saturday March 1 at the Independent Bath Literature Festival is pretty much SOLD OUT! I’m so thrilled. A handful of extra tickets may be released in the next few days or you can go on the waiting list here. Keep checking the Bath Festivals website.
If you can’t get a Germaine ticket for love nor money nor first editions of The Female Eunuch, then this is a great substitute: The Great Big Comedy Night – In Honour of Germaine’s 75th Birthday (which is in late January — but better late than ever). It’s at Bath Komedia on Friday March 7 at 7pm in association with Bristol’s award-winning all-female comedy night What the Frock. At Bath we’ll be featuring a token man – Live at the Apollo’s Mark Watson. I think it’s what Germaine would want.
Our official big launch for the Independent Bath Literature Festival 2014 kicks off at 9.30am on Monday 20 February at the Bath Box Office next to the Abbey. Several events have already sold out and Germaine Greer only has a handful of tickets left.
I will be there handing out free copies of The Big Bath Read 2014, Joanna Rossiter’s The Sea Change, a brilliant novel by a local debut author about the relationship between a mother and a daughter as the fall-out from the Second World War echoes across the generations. Here’s more on The Sea Change in our discussion group on Goodreads. See you for free books! (Bring coffee for me. And cake. I will have a day off my sugar detox.)
The second I got the job as the new artistic director at the Independent Bath Literature Festival, I knew I wanted to put Austentatious on the 2014 programme. They were the first thing I thought of. So it makes me especially proud that they were the first event to sell out, almost two weeks ahead of our official programme launch on January 20. Featuring Cariad Lloyd, whose BBC3 pilot has earned her comparisons to Catherine Tate, and Rachel Parris, star of Channel 4′s The IT Crowd, Austentatious is a seven-strong crack team of improvisers who conjure up a “lost” Jane Austen novel out of thin air, based on audience suggestions.
To go on the waiting list for Saturday March 8 click here or call the Box Office on 01225 463362.