Where are all the female reviewers?

Women are big players in the industry, but you won't see many in the books pages. Our Literary Editor, Katy Guest, asks why

Here's a question: if most major UK sports were played at high levels by men, watched by men, and commentated on by mostly men, then would you be justified in expecting that the majority of sports journalists would probably be men? That's quite an easy one, so how about this? If women wrote about as many books as men, bought 68 per cent of books, read about 80 per cent of fiction, and comprised up to 85 per cent of the publishing industry, then would you expect most book reviewers to be men or women? And the authors who are most reviewed in UK newspapers? Men and men, you reckon? Yes, you've got it.

As the Orange Prize revealed its longlist last week, questions were again asked about the point of the prize. Why do we need a special award that is only for books written by women? Its committee has long cited the absence of women authors among major prize shortlists. But, if books by women don't even make the reviews pages, surely that's only to be expected.

A few weeks ago, Vida, an organisation for women in the literary arts, caused a stir when it surveyed a year's reviews coverage from major US publications (as well as the UK's London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement) and found that the reviewers and the authors reviewed were predominantly male. The LRB was a fairly typical case: in 2010, men wrote 78 per cent of the reviews and 74 per cent of the books reviewed. And a brief (and admittedly unscientific) survey of UK papers reveals a similar result.

Looking at the past week's books coverage in 10 major newspapers (excluding this one – for now), we can see that 71 books by men and 37 books by women were reviewed. Of the reviewers, 68 were men and 36 women. (One paper carried 17/20 reviews of male authors, and 18/20 male reviewers.)

You can do your own maths on the books pages here, but bear in mind that all of the reviews were commissioned before this article was (so we're not cheating), and that the results are skewed by the fact that this week's paperbacks reviewer is a woman. This week it's seven female authors/subjects to five men, and seven female reviewers to four. Last week, with a male paperbacks reviewer, and including the interview (of a woman, by a man), we could count authors at six men to seven women; reviewers at nine to four.

By now, it probably won't have escaped your notice that the literary editor of this paper is me, and I'm a woman. I'm also a feminist, and I notice when women are under-represented. But it doesn't, apparently, stop me doing it. And it's not just me: about half of the literary editors of the 10 or so major nationals with significant books coverage are women, and so was my brilliant predecessor in this job, Suzi Feay. She addressed this issue recently in her blog, at http://suzifeay.blogspot.com. "I used to have a ledger in which I recorded all the books sent out, and to whom," she wrote. "I could fit roughly 12 entries to the page. It would have been so easy to let this settle to a 9:3 ratio in favour of male reviewers – and frequently it did. But [finding female reviewers] seemed to take an extra effort – why? Can it be unconscious prejudice? Do we secretly think that men are more weighty, more serious? That men are Mankind, speaking to everyone, and women are just women, talking to their own sort?" My own ledger is a Microsoft Word document, but it records a very similar bias.

How do I justify it to myself? Well, looking at my contacts book of handy reviewers, I see half a dozen men who send me neat, chronological lists of forthcoming books for review, complete with publisher, publication date and brief notes about why they'd like to review them. There are no women who do the same. Are men's minds more organised when it comes to list-making? Is mine? Or, as one fantastic woman reviewer asked me when I told her about the lists, "Oh, are they really that bare-faced? I wouldn't be nearly so pushy. And I do think that women are more readily tainted with this idea of being pushy."

It's also worth noting that, when women do review books, they're often by women and almost always fiction. Yes, men are over-represented among senior academics, so they may be approached more often to review non-fiction in their field. But I can tell you that men put themselves forward far more readily as reviewers of serious, philosophical and political books. Why? I've no idea. (As it happens, men also make up a slightly greater proportion of readers of Wikipedia, but write four times as many Wikipedia entries as women. Are men more confident in their own abilities? It looks like it.)

I'm not the only one mystified about the gender imbalance. Meike Ziervogel, the founder of Peirene Press, told me, "When I first published Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi last year, I assumed that because of the subject matter women would be the main reviewers. However, the first reviews were all by men. While of course I was very pleased about the reviews, I also started to worry as I strongly believe that this is a book women ought to read and react to."

When I asked the novelist Linda Grant, she pointed out that her new novel, We Had It So Good, despite having a male lead character, was reviewed by only two men. "I don't believe I saw a single review of Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question by a female critic ... Is this a bad thing in itself? I don't know, but I do wonder if the reviews might be somewhat different if the opposite gender reviewed them. In my case, women often say that they don't find my characters' 'likeable', which is not a charge I have ever heard from a male reader. If likeability was a factor in a review, you have to wonder how the novels of Martin Amis, Philip Roth, Howard Jacobson and others would fare at the hands of female critics."

So, does it matter if book reviews for whatever reason favour men? The author and critic Amanda Craig thinks so. "I wrote about all of this in A Vicious Circle [in 1996], and it hasn't changed," she tells me. "Either this is a culture for everybody or it's a club. And if you really think about what you're doing and the effect you have on a culture, it's a serious responsibility."

She's right, of course. Thank goodness there's the Orange Prize.

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