Female reviewers: The Mystery of the Vanishing Women

Katy Guest
Saturday 22 June 2013 19:06 BST

Are you a woman? Can you read and write? Then please will you jump up and down so that the editors at The London Review of Books can see you? Finding women reviewers, according to the magazine, is "complicated; actually, "as complicated as it gets".

The highly regarded literary magazine, whose Twitter blurb quotes Alan Bennett calling it "the liveliest … and most radical literary magazine we have", has been embarrassed by the strange lack of women in its pages. First, The Guardian published research into the gender balance of reviewers and authors in 15 UK publications, which appeared to show that the LRB featured no female reviewers or authors of fiction in March. (The Independent on Sunday appeared to have slightly more men in fiction and rather more women in non-fiction – I can tell you that's because over time our reviews are split about 50/50. People are split about 50/50).

Then, the Orange Prize-longlisted writer Kathryn Heyman published her correspondence with the magazine, in which she cancelled her subscription because "I have to assume that my lady-money is quite simply not welcome in the man-cave of LRB", and it replied: "There's no question that despite the distress it causes us that the proportion of women in the paper remains so stubbornly low, the efforts we've made to change the situation have been hopelessly unsuccessful." Ah, so it's not because of any editorial decisions; it's that naughty, stubborn proportion. And people wonder why the Orange (now Women's) Prize is still relevant.

Heyman's correspondent insists that, "We'll continue to try – the issue is on our minds constantly", so just for the LRB, here I will share the secrets I have learnt about literary editing. (The editors of the Today programme are welcome to listen, too.) In order to find some books written by women: go in a bookshop, look at the names on the spines and buy the ones by people called Margaret and Lottie as well as the ones by people called Martin and Julian. In order to find women who can review books: pick up the phone, ring up a clever woman – maybe a writer or an academic or someone – and ask her to review a book. Give her a word count and a deadline (in the LRB's case, some time in the next decade) and wait for her to send it. If you really, truly can't think of any women: first, get out more, then ask @TheWomensRoomUK to send you their list.

Of course, the gender imbalance is not the only one in the media, which tends to favour white, middle-class writers who live in London and went to public school. That needs addressing too. But the gender imbalance is one of the most obvious and easiest to solve. As the storm broke on Thursday, the LRB tweeted: "In the next issue of the LRB, David Goodhart will respond to our review of [his book] The British Dream". Great – another middle-aged, white Etonian gets a second go in the magazine! Hurry up, LRB: find some women, quick.


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