Redressing the Balance

In my last post I mentioned the VIDA count, and that I was trying to find experienced women reviewers who want to review for TLS. Suddenly twitter went crazy and I gained a couple of hundred new followers (@judi_sutherland) who, it seemed, were desperate to review for one of our most prestigious literary journals. I set up a facebook group for us to share ideas. Then I asked the Assistant Editor of the TLS, Michael Caines, if we could speak on the phone.

Here’s a precis of our conversation, held on 22nd April:

TLS generally draws on the academic community for reviewers in its different subject areas (brief perusal of the site reveals them to be: Arts & Commentary; Biography; Classics and Modern Languages; Fiction; History; Literature and Poetry; Philosophy and Religion; Politics and Social Studies; Science) and each area has its own editor. The male bias in reviewers tends to reflect the male bias in university departments; in Literature, there are proportionally more female academics and therefore the bias runs the other way. I asked if reflecting the bias was enough – should TLS not be helping to redress the balance and therefore maybe even assisting the careers of female academics? Maybe…

Do reviewers have to be academics? MC says no, not in every field. For fiction, in fact, a large number of reviewers are not academics. (Presumably others in the trade can be credible: novelists, editors, publishers, freelance writers, for example.). He said that in other fields it was hard to imagine how anyone other than an academic could review, and gave the example of books on religion. (I can understand they don’t want random opinions, but I suspect a bishop might meet their credibility criteria!)

In some ways, MC said, an ex academic could be the ideal candidate. And, it goes without saying that TLS want people who can get copy in on time, be clear and logical, and preferably “engaging”. Reading between the lines it may be that some of TLS’s academic reviews are a touch dry and dusty and don’t come across well to a lay readership.

Yes, TLS would like to see your CVs. Obviously to include qualifications, jobs, a list of previous publications, and some idea of your speciality, e.g. 20th Century Latin American magical realism, George Eliot, nuclear magnetic resonance… whatever. The TLS tends to have a large pool of reviewers which it can call on for specialist reviews.

The TLS will not accept unsolicited reviews. It likes to receive books directly from publishers and to send them out to reviewers itself as commissions. This ensures that there is a broadly complementary range of work available for particular issues, and also that the reviewer is not the best friend of the author in question, who is mentioned gratefully in the book’s acknowledgements.

So I think here’s what we can do:

  1. Make sure that publishers actually send more books by women authors off to TLS in the first place. If you’ve got a book coming out, ask your publisher to send it.
  2. Read TLS reviews in your general area to get a feel for the style.
  3. Get your CVs organised to send to TLS.
  4. Append a couple of reviews you’ve done in the most prestigious journals / newspapers you can muster. Even if they were reviews of books by men!
  5. Add a good covering letter emphasising that you are part of this VIDA count response.
  6. Ask your friends to join us and do the same.

Now. More than a month later and I’ve hardly had any CVs come in. So maybe the TLS is right, and women just don’t put themselves forward as reviewers. Dear readers, it’s down to you.

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?