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.

Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello

Oliviers 2014Actor beat Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston to take the award
Arts & Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch is best known for this roles in Sherlock and Star Trek
TV

Arts & Entertainment
theatreAll hail the temporary venue that has shaken things up at the National Theatre
Arts & Entertainment
musicShe is candid, comic and coming our way
Arts & Entertainment
booksHer new novel is about people seeking where they belong
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

    Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

    Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
    Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

    Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

    The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
    Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

    Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

    The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
    Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

    Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

    This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
    Taunton's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success

    Education: Secret of Taunton's success

    Taunton School, in Somerset, is one of the country's leading independent schools, says Richard Garner
    10 best smartphones

    10 best smartphones

    With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
    Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
    The pain of IVF

    The pain of IVF

    As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal