Let's have a round of applause for Bryan Talbot, the only man on the "all-women" shortlist for the 2012 Costa Prize. Talbot is the illustrator of Dotter of Her Father's Eyes, about James Joyce and his daughter Lucia, which has won the award's biography category. The words were written by his wife, Dr Mary M Talbot, which means that for the first time in the award's history, a woman features as a winner in each of the five categories – and poor Mr Talbot has been somewhat forgotten in all the fuss.
Mr Talbot is already a multi-award-winning graphic novelist, and perhaps that's why he seems to be pretty relaxed about hiding his light beneath his wife's bushel on this occasion. Or perhaps, being married to a writer (Mary Talbot's previous books include Language and Gender: An Introduction, 1998, and her next will be about the Suffragettes), he understands that this is how female authors feel much of the time.
The US organisation Vida put numbers to the disparity last year when it analysed book reviews coverage in British and American publications. In 2010, it found, the London Review of Books reviewed nearly three times as many books by men as by women (74 to 26 per cent). Seventy-eight per cent of its reviewers were men. In the Times Literary Supplement, 75 per cent of the books reviewed, and 72 per cent of the reviews, were by men.
The TLS's editor, Peter Stothard, said: "I'm not too appalled by our figure, as I'd be very surprised if the authorship of published books was 50/50. And while women are heavy readers, we know they are heavy readers of the kind of fiction that is not likely to be reviewed in the pages of the TLS." (Figures from various industry sources show that women write about as many books as men, buy about 68 per cent of books, and read about 80 per cent of fiction.)
A similar bias is shown in literary prizes. The last all-male Costa Prize shortlist was announced in 2009, to little controversy, and since 1995 there have been four all-male novel shortlists. Last year's Forward Prize for poetry had an all-male shortlist, taking to 17 out of 20 the number of male winners.
The Orange Prize, now the Women's Prize for Fiction, was set up in 1991 in response to an all-male Booker Prize shortlist, and continues successfully to this day – though inevitably, each year it is awarded, a man somewhere must complain that "they wouldn't like it if we set up a book prize just for men, would they?". Nobody has ever bothered to set up a book prize just for men, so we still don't know.
It seems statistically unlikely that men are just provably "better" writers than women, but it's hard to strip away reputation and preconceptions to judge just the writing on its own.
Perhaps there needs to be a "blind book prize", in which publishers would send out all the books between blank covers. How many established writers, men or women, would dare to enter a competition like that?