Women and book reviews



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.”

[transcript ends]

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*




Bath: Move fast for tickets


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. 


#BathLitFest: 2 weeks to go


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).


White Beech reviewed



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.


Interview: What’s new for 2014



Interview for this smart new website, Culture Whisper, with recommendations for film, books, theatre and live events. In case you are feeling too lazy to click and read (and I would not blame you, it’s turning out to be a long month, this January malarkey), they are: Hanif Kureishi’s new novel The Last Word (he’s also at Bath on Sunday March 2: tickets here), American Hustle (like it needs me promoting it when it already won loads of awards and Golden Globes and things), Germaine Greer’s exclusive appearance at Bath Literature Festival on Saturday March 1, the Hampstead theatre play Rapture, Blister, Burn (I’m doing an event there on 5 Feb) and Austentatious 2014 Tour (including their performance at Bath on Saturday March 8). Culture = sorted.


BBC R4’s Woman’s Hour: New Year’s Resolutions


Talking on R4’s Woman’s Hour about the futility of New Year’s Resolutions with Jenny Eclair and Jane Garvey. Although I spoke up for CHANGE and generally embraced an Oprah-style message… 


Bath Literature Festival 2014: Programme Launch

 Today the full programme for the Independent Bath Literature Festival, 28 Feb to 9 March 2014, is revealed! 10 days, 180+ authors, 20,000+ tickets. I’m the Artistic Director and this is my first year in the job. This year’s theme? Bliss.

New names unveiled today: Alastair Campbell, Rachel Joyce, Patricia Hodge, Jonathan Dimbleby, Jed Rubenfeld, Amy Chua, Gary Shteyngart, Jo Caulfield, Ben Watt, Lucy Porter, Philip Hensher, Michael Rosen, Douglas Alexander, Jonathan Aitken, Gabin Esler, The Incredible Spice Men, Nicky Haslam, Adele Parks, David Lodge, Mrs Moneypenny, Frieda Hughes, AL Kennedy, Boris Akunin, Olivia Laing, Lionel Shriver… Er, is that enough? (That is not everyone. I’ll be blogging regular guides to the programme over the next few weeks as it’s hard to get your head around 180+ events.)

Here’s how to buy tickets: Jennifer Saunders goes on general release for the first time today. I’ll be interviewing her in the Forum about her book Bonkers and whether she is ever going to get around to writing the movie of Absolutely Fabulous. And whether Goldie Hawn is as awful as she sounds. It will be a very intellectual discussion indeed.

On sale as Early Bird releases: Hanif KureishiHenry BlofeldClaudia RodenMark HixAustentatiousRowan WilliamsMark Watson and the Great Big Comedy Night (I’m MCing), Joanna TrollopeThe Great Bath News Debate with Intelligence Squared featuring Alain de Botton, Jon Snow and Jonathan Dimbleby, Germaine Greer.

All the rest of the tickets you can buy now if you sign up as a Friend of the Festival, from £20. Details here. Membership gets you an advance brochure mailing, priority booking and invitations to exclusive events.

All tickets go on general release on January 20. Enjoy!



Events: New for 2014


New update Events for 2014 including The Night I Died at LOCO Festival on Sunday 26 January, I Laughed, I Cried at the Independent Bath Literature Festival at Komedia Bath at 4.30pm on Friday 7 March, the Great Big Comedy Night with Mark Watson, Mary Bourke and Gemma Whelan at 7pm on Friday 7 March and I Laughed, I Cried: The Show Version 2.0 at Cambridge WordFest on Saturday 5 April. Click here for all Events.

Above: discussion on Soviet propaganda posters at GRAD (Gallery of Russian Art and Design) on 22 January.


Novels of the Year: 2013



Making it into my list of 2013 novels in the Observer (click on the book title for the original full-length review): Big Brother by Lionel Shriver (The Observer), Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld (The Observer), The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, Home Fires by Elizabeth Day (The Observer), The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, The Deaths by Mark Lawson, Unexploded by Alison Macleod (The Observer), Lion Heart by Justin Cartwright (The Times), Blood & Beauty by Sarah Dunant (The Times), The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (Red), The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert (Red), Instructions for  a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell (The Observer), All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld (The Times), Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple (Red) and May We Be Forgiven by AM Homes (The Observer).

Whilst I recommend all these books, it’s interesting to note the ones I read even though I knew I wasn’t going to be reviewing them: Claire Messud, Meg Wolitzer, Mark Lawson. With all the others, lots of them I read and then ended up reviewing (it’s relatively rare for me to read something because I *have* to review it and have no choice). 


Femen’s Naked War


Picture by Paris-based photographer Ed Alcock (for ES magazine), whose book Hobbledehoy is out now. 


I loved interviewing Femen co-founder Inna Shevchenko in Russian (and a tiny bit — troshki — of Ukrainian) in Paris for ES magazine for the London Evening Standard. I have mixed feelings about Femen and the point of what they’re doing. And, as I stated in the piece, I worry for their safety: they are extremists and that attracts the attention of other extremists. But Shevchenko is a fascinating and intelligent young woman with her heart in the right place. I was sorry she had not heard of Germaine Greer.

Hilariously, a picture of me with Femen got me a warning from Facebook. (You’re not allowed to publish pictures of nipples.) And when I posted the link to this piece on the Standard website, I was banned from Facebook for 24 hours. I daren’t risk putting this picture there again…

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