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*




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