June 10, 2013

Male reviewers and authors vastly outnumber female in UK publications


Here in the US, we’re familiar with the VIDA Count, an annual survey that compares the number of male and female book reviewers and authors covered in the press.

Now The Guardian has done the same in the UK. Choosing March 2013 as the sample month, their assessment of gender disparity in the British press largely reflects the often deplorable VIDA results. Of course, the numbers must be considered within the context of how soliciting books and writers for review works, not to mention, what publishing houses actually produce.

Nevertheless, at the risk of being accused of manufacturing outrage over a single month in the life of a publication, a number of the statistics were genuinely surprising.

In the month selected by The Guardian, the London Review of Books did not review a single work of female-authored fiction, nor did it publish a fiction review written by a woman, and neither did the Mail on Sunday. Only 11% of the LRB‘s non-fiction titles were by women, and only 12% of reviews were written by women. One wonders how such a drastic fact could have escaped an editor’s attention.

Writes John Dugdale in The Guardian,

“Just as imbalanced, against a backdrop of at least superficial equality in parts of the wider book world, are the percentages for authors reviewed, with the LRB (8.7%) and New Statesman (26.1%) reviewing fewest books by women, and female authors also one-third or less of those reviewed in the MoS (30.4%) and the FT (33.3%); though again some papers did better, with the Sunday Telegraph (55.2%), the Observer (52.1%) and the IoS (50%) all scoring 50% or more. And we are no better: in the Guardian, 44.9% of reviewers were women and 34.1% of books reviewed were by women.”

These numbers do not exist simply because men dominate the field as editors. In fact, the LRB is run by a woman, Mary-Kay Wilmers, who has edited the magazine since 1992. In addition, The Guardian, the Telegraph, and the Times all have female literary editors.

While overall the comparison is not drastic — 40.5% of books reviewed by all publications considered were by women — at some venues the numbers were certainly skewed, and it has little to do with their audience. Unless the LRB is now a lad’s magazine and no one told me.

Of the many reasons that might explain such disparity, The Guardian‘s Alex Clark writes that although men are often asked to review well-known male and female authors, women are rarely asked to write about the leading pantheon of male authors.

“My own experience more or less supports this; I have reviewed books, mainly fiction, for more than 20 years but I’ve never been asked to review Martin Amis or Jonathan Franzen, although I’ve interviewed both in platform events. Make of that what you will: I wonder how much it is to do with organisers feeling that it will appear daringly counterintuitive, making it crystal clear that “this is not a macho boys’ club; we’ve got a chick in to do Martin”.”

Some might argue that the internet has been a great equalizer, and that blogs and places like GoodReads are where women, by far the greater readers, are finding their recommendations. Some women writers do not want the GoodReads territory, however, and may be actively seeking the status of Martin Amis or Richard Ford, as is their right. And it’s this status that is still conferred by the venerable literary press.

Clark’s idea that these numbers are influenced by a notion of “authority”, apparently in the sole possession of male writers, is convincing. As she writes, “What is it? Who confers it? If nobody does, can you summon it up and project it on to the outside world? Can you do this more easily if you are a man than if you are a woman?” In the UK, as in the US, the answer still seems to be yes.


Ariel Bogle is a former publicist at Melville House.