Viva La Vida – An Experiment with Sexism

Every year, VIDA – an association for women in the literary arts, publishes the VIDA count; a series of rather telling histograms that depict the split of male to female writers, and reviewers, featured by a number of literary magazines in the USA and elsewhere. Here in the UK, the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement are among those getting a listing, and the results are… interesting. Rather than re-write the commentary, here’s Soraya Chemaly from the Guardian describing the whole thing:

Surprise: men still greatly outnumber women in US and UK arts publications

Here, for example are the TLS’s figures, and over the five years VIDA has been running, there’s not much of a trend toward gender parity in either the number of women authors reviewed or the women reviewers published…

Times Literary Supplement

Yesterday, the assistant editor of the TLS,  – his name… is Michael Caines… (that’s the third time I’ve used that joke on line in the last 24 hours. I’ll stop now) engaged with, if that is the right word, the poet and editor of Sabotage Reviews, Claire Trevien, on twitter (@michaelscaines). Caines, as a defence against their poor numbers, quoted his colleague at TLS, Toby Lichtig, who says that: ‘change, when it comes to the question of the wider culture, is inevitably slow’. Inevitably? Only if the editors don’t care and are completely passive. Magazines have the choice, and indeed the duty, to reflect the society on which they comment. The TLS doesn’t seem to think it has to actually DO anything to correct its conscious or unconscious failure to take women in literature seriously.

Chemaly, in her Guardian article, says this:

…editors do not, for the most part, sit at their desks waiting for random submissions to come across the transom. They have free reign in terms of whom they solicit and it is exceedingly rare, and highly unlikely, that they rely on slush pile submissions to populate their pages. The issue of whom editors – also primarily men, feel more comfortable either soliciting work from or responding to is central to this persistent gender imbalance in storytelling. Even thoughtful men at literary magazines are not immune from implicit biases and in-group dynamics (the in-group being male) that studies uniformly show are involved in hiring, promotion, mentoring and retention.

However, last night on twitter, Caines appeared to have a more open attitude:

if you can write about English literature, contact me. I can’t commission – but I WILL consider – all. (Bigots may tell you otherwise.)

I replied that I had offered to review for TLS before and had no reply. Caines said:

Sorry, I didn’t see that. Not sarcastically, you mean? That would be good…’

So I contacted a woman writer who has a book coming out shortly, and asked if I could write a review for the TLS. (If she already had a reviewer lined up I wouldn’t want to confuse Mr Caines.) I’ve been told that people have sent unsolicited reviews to the slush pile before and got nowhere.  And it’s possible my review might not be good enough – although I am sure the writer I am reviewing will be.

I’m going to do it. I’m going to send Michael Caines a review. He could ignore me. But what if a whole lot of women who review books all sent him a review of a woman writer? What if they all sent them together? He couldn’t ignore all of us, could he?

Are you in?

5 thoughts on “Viva La Vida – An Experiment with Sexism

  1. Actually the staff Classics Editor is a man (Peter Stodhart) according to the website, but Mary Beard is a Consultant Editor. so they could do better! I have a book about this which is at least 30 years old by Nicci Gerrard, who has since been a reviews editor for a national newspaper, I think (I don’t know if she improved matters). But maybe the power of social media can improve things. I’m strictly amateur as a reviewer but would love to see more balance in professional reviews.


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