An Ampelmädchen street light at a pedestrian crossing in Dresden, Germany, via WikiCommons

Late last year a US-based organisation advocating for women in the literary arts, VIDA, surveyed major UK and US literary publications such as the London Review of Books, The Atlantic and The New Republic. They counted how many women wrote for the publication, how many women reviewed books, and how many books by women were reviewed relative to books by men. The numbers show what many of us have suspected or known for a while: women are underrepresented on every level in these publications.

The stats are published online in the form of pie charts, and there’s something peculiarly poignant about seeing them broken down in this way: the small blue female slice, often scandalously slim, in a big red pie. The New York Review of Books last year published 79 women and 462 men; The Times Literary Supplement reviewed books by 330 women and 1036 men; The Paris Review interviewed one woman author and seven men. That’s a small slice.

Australian publications don’t fare much better. Books editors from The Australian, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald interviewed on a recent episode of The Book Show were all surprised to discover that their pages showed a comparable bias. If you picked up the Australian Literary Review last week you would have been faced with an illustration of a cranky John Curtin staring out from the front cover, surrounded by a list of highlights inside the issue: without exception, they take the form “male writer on male writer”. A glance at the contents list inside reveals two women contributors out of fifteen overall, and one review of a book by a woman writer. I wrote an open letter to Luke Slattery, the editor of ALR, last week, asking for his views on the issue.

Editors of the VIDA-canvassed journals have been mostly defensive. Ruth Franklin at The New Republic faulted presses for not publishing enough books by women. TLS editor Peter Stothard articulated an attitude similar to the one critiqued by Jodi Picoult last year, when Picoult complained about the attention lavished on white male literary writers in the pages of The New York Times: “while women are heavy readers,” Stothard admitted to The Guardian, “we know they are heavy readers of the kind of fiction that is not likely to be reviewed in the pages of the TLS” which simply publishes, he claims, “the best reviews of the most important books.”

Since the beginning of the novel, women have been closely associated with it as readers and writers of the genre, but attached to the most derogated and supposedly corrupting forms of fiction such as romance (think Emma Bovary). It’s a persistent form of sexist thinking, mixed up with value judgments about what kind of books count as important literature, but it’s still rare to see it so openly and uncritically expressed.

TLS aside, it’s hard to imagine to that editors are sitting around congratulating themselves on successfully excluding women from the literary world. Some of the most sophisticated discussion of the issues raised by the VIDA stats has taken place on the literary site Bookslut, where two of the editors, Jessica Crispin and Michael Schaub, initiated an exchange of ideas on the topic, exploring the complexity of the unconscious biases that shape our gut reactions to books, without recourse to a rhetoric of blame or shame.

Editors like to complain that women writers and reviewers pitch less than men. This may well be true: after all, what woman in her right mind would look at the ALR each month and think “I belong here”? There’s no way around it: if we want a bigger slice of the pie, we need to ask; it will not be handed to us any other way. The ALR is one of the few outlets that actually pays decent money per word; it’s national, with a huge distribution: it should be obvious that women are entitled to be an equal part of the public intellectual conversation to which its editor aspires.

My first novel was published last year (it was widely reviewed) and I started paying a different sort of attention to these questions. In particular, I noticed with dismay how few women are nominated for major literary awards. In the past 20 years the Miles Franklin has been won by only four women. Several state Premier’s literary awards last year included no women writers on their fiction shortlists. The exception is the recent Prime Minister’s awards, where Eva Hornung won the fiction category with her novel Dog Boy. It’s not all gloomy: I like to think the future belongs to the young women starting to shape the literary landscape, such as Angela Meyer’s super-sharp Crikey blog LiteraryMinded and the editors of the new little magazine Kill Your Darlings. And now after all these metaphors I’m seriously hungry for a decent sized piece of pie.

Kirsten Tranter is a Sydney writer. Her first novel, The Legacy, was published internationally in 2010.

20 comments so far:

Great piece, Kirsten -- agree completely. Shame you didn't mention The Monthly among those publications consistently failing to achieve a balance. And a nod should go to Australian Book Review, Meanjin and Griffith Review, which have consistently got it -- or close to. While these publications are often derided for their small circulations, they have dedicated readers of longstanding. How many people actually read the ALR?

Bob Homme
08 March at 09:58AM

As much as I appreciate what Angela Meyer and other young female bloggers are contributing to the Australian literary scene, I feel it's an exaggeration to say she's "starting to shape the literary landscape". Commenting on the literary scene isn't anywhere near the same as shaping the literary landscape by having major works published and read. I know Meyer has published short stories, is working on a PhD in creative writing, etc, and I wish her luck that her future output would indeed help to define the literary scene. But the blogs, as they say, is so much commentary.

08 March at 10:54AM

Good for you, Kirsten. It's important to keep talking about this stuff, although as I grow older I also grow wearier and wearier with the complete apathy on this front from editors, prize committees, whoever.

As you point out, women have to demand coverage to get any - but which writer among us would have the confidence, or the gaucheness, to complain that lack of attention is based on our gender? Fear of 'sour grapes' accusations shuts many of us up, I think.

Like you I have had the good fortune of being widely reviewed and interviewed about my books; but simply as a reader I am sick to death of the underrepresentation of women in literary pages.

Have you had any response from the ALR editor or others? As disheartening as the proof of gender bias in their pages is, much moreso is the collective shrugging of shoulders that takes place as a result. I believe the fear of being seen to 'pander' to those calling for gender equality far exceeds any shame at overwhelming bias in favour of men.

Let's do the survey again in a year, shall we, and see if anything has changed? If it has, I for one will be staggered.

Happy International Women's Day.

Charlotte Wood
08 March at 11:21AM

Don't forget Kalinda Ashton, who I thought was overlooked for many awards despite dealing with both women and 'serious' issues in her amazing debut 'The Danger Game.'

Benjamin Solah
08 March at 11:37AM

Very interesting post, Kirsten. Another aspect to consider is that book publishing -- in Australia at least -- has many women in senior, influential roles.Most literary agents are women, and I think (though I don't believe stats actually exist on this) that a large preponderence of editorial directors, commissioning editors, and "publishers" are as well.. Not to mention at least three CEOs. As we/they are the main "gatekeepers", i.e. deciding who will be published ,what does that say about the overall question of gender imbalance? Women are well represented in the industry as publishing professionals; and there is no bias that I'm aware of (and I've been in the business for 3 plus decades) against women authors when it comes to signing up books. So why does it exist at the reviewing level?

Mary Cunnane
08 March at 12:15PM

Thanks for the great article, Kirsten, and thank you for mentioning me.

I feel as though I have to respond to Simon's comment, just to say, yes, there is a lot of commentary in the blogosphere - it is a feature of the medium as a blog is a narrative and a serial publication, as opposed to a static one. But LiteraryMinded is a mix of reviews, interviews and personalised commentary. There are different voices involved, too (many of them female and many of them young).

I do write (critically) for other publications, big and small, including Mascara Literary Review (a wonderfully diverse and well-edited publication) and the Sydney Morning Herald. But regardless of these publications, I believe the blog does contribute to the literary landscape, with over 6000 unique readers a month (over 9000 hits). It may not contribute in what is a 'traditional' way, but as we've seen, women are having to *find* their own ways of contributing, as for the most part their critical voices are seemingly not seen as being relevant.

I do thank you in wishing me luck in my future output. I know I am still honing my creative and critical voice. But that output will *include* what's on the blog. I don't see it as just being a springboard to other publications and I will continue to write and run it as long as I can.

Thanks again for the article, Kirsten!

08 March at 01:53PM

I agree with Angela, blog commentary is part of shaping the literary landscape and I think a lot of ideas and themes are influenced by the way writers around us talk about writing and so part of that feeds into future literary work, even if you want to exclude blogs from being literary so a prominent female voice talking about literature I think is a positive thing and I wonder if there were more of them, would our literature be different? For instance, I know a lot of young women look to Angela as a role model and more of it might do more to give women the confidence to submit more

Benjamin Solah
08 March at 02:25PM

Thanks for all the comments. It has been great to see this issue generating so much interest and productive dialogue involving both men and women.
The domination of publishing by women is very interesting - but I don't think women are exempt from forms of unconscious sexist bias. Publishers do sign up women writers for healthy advances - I am living proof - and work hard to promote them. But then they also put enormous resources into the heavy hitters such as Michael Cunningham and Jonathan Franzen, and perhaps male authors are taken more seriously in some ways, in some situations, when they write about some things. They certainly win more prizes. It's complicated. The eds of the LRB are women, and they are heavily biased towards male writers. Susan Wyndham, books editor at the Sydney Morning Herald, has no conscious desire to exclude women - quite the opposite - but for all kinds of reasons her pages have tended to favour male authors and reviewers.
When I mentioned Angela and the little magazine editors I was working with a conception of the literary landscape that included not only authors of books but also critics and commentators, in print and non-traditional media; many different kinds of people have the power to shape this landscape: editors, publishers, the judges of prizes, the people who run creative writing programs, academics who teach literature, the committees who decide what high school students read, booksellers, festival programmers, bloggers.
It's easy to condescend to writers, particularly young ones, who are exploring how criticism, commentary and writing might work on the web. I think Angela is absolutely right about the fact that women are having to find places to have their voices heard, and the internet provides opportunities not only to do that but also to explore innovative forms of journalism, such as her "responsive" interviews on LiteraryMinded.

09 March at 12:15PM

I forgot to add my name to that last comment : )

Kirsten Tranter
09 March at 12:17PM

In response to Charlotte: I haven't yet had any reply from Luke Slattery. I hope he will at least print my letter, and maybe we'll see a response in the next issue. I encourage others to write to the ALR as well.
At the same time I don't want it to seem as though he is being unfairly persecuted or personally attacked. It is a broader issue and other outlets such as The Book Show and Susan Wyndham in her column in the SMH are at least acknowledging it as worthy of comment and debate.

Kirsten Tranter
09 March at 01:46PM

Update: Luke has written me a very generous email in reply.

Kirsten Tranter
09 March at 02:03PM

Agreed that ALR is not by any stretch the only offender, and brilliant news that he has responded generously. I hope your piece leads his colleagues at other papers to think seriously about this issue rather than letting it go by as a blip. Thanks again Kirsten.

09 March at 03:32PM

Excellent article, Kirsten and hopefully the catalyst to some real change.

Whilst discussion is a good thing, actual changes in the numbers VIDA has assembled will be the true test. It will be a shame if we end up having some good discussions about "why" it is happening, but then it just continues to happen.

As you say, the visual impacts of those charts was shocking. In part because, whilst I had a sneaking suspicion that men's writing tended to be treated as somehow intrinsically more worthy, I (like maybe a lot of other women) scolded myself for having such unworthy, ungenerous, carping thoughts. I told myself I was just being over-sensitive, that quality work will always receive quality coverage.

However when confronted with those numbers, it showed me that it wasn't just a "vibe" I was picking up, it was a stone cold ugly fact. A woman writer has a lot less chance of picking up a thoughtful and lengthy review of her work in a high profile serious literary publication than a man.

It left me speechless, then a bit sweary. So I'm very pleased that you have been able to channel the same anger so eloquently.

What's even sadder is the local books editors "were all surprised to discover that their pages showed a comparable bias." It's hard to know what's the more depressing thought, that women are being passed over deliberately, or that it's happening without anyone even noticing.

pm newton
09 March at 05:56PM

So true, P.M., especially about how hard it is to stop the "sweary" impulse, and thank you. I've noticed the numbers for a while but you're right, the great thing - and the sad, and then the galvanizing thing - about the VIDA stats that you know it isn't just you and your crazy ideas and resentments or whatever. And I think that helps create the conditions for more productive dialogue and hopefully long-term change.

Kirsten Tranter
09 March at 10:38PM

Thanks for this piece, Kirsten. I remember Thea Astley saying once in an interview that she found it hard when she started writing books bc she couldn’t actually imagine a man sitting and listening to her for the length of an entire book. Sounds like there is still an element of that, especially when it comes to non-fiction. Also this raises so many issues about the styles of speaking that we consider ‘weighty’ and ‘authoritive’ and ‘worthy’ of being in a cultural review or newspaper. The more personal and involved style that a lot of us feel more comfortable with doesn’t really sit well with the (still) current notion of a ‘critic’, ‘expert’, 'social commentator' or historian.

Beth Spencer
12 March at 06:37AM

Rather than bemoaning the statistics of reviews for women writers, I prefer to think about the opening lines of a book of criticism called "Essays in Australian Fiction"written in 1938 by M. Barnard Eldershaw, a two-woman writing partnership. The opening lines, repeated in the 1983 introduction to their reprinted 1947 novel. Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow are: "Year by year the numbers of woman writers increase. The sex has not developed an inferiority complex in regard to novel writing as in most of the other arts. Women had won their spurs before anyone thought of telling them they were incapable of doing so." This holds true for me today, when I browse the shelves of my library, and find myself preferring women authors who write from the heart rather than male writers who write from the pocket, their egos massaged by venal and simpering reviewers.

04 April at 01:36AM

I imagine if the tables were turned, we wouldn't have men whinging and whineing and wanting to have their own award. Come on gals, stop crying about it and grow some balls. Australian literature isn't going to flourish if all the women writers just bang on about how unfair it is when they don't get shortlisted for an award. It should make us more determined to compete with the blokes on a level playing field.

22 May at 03:32PM

Yes, but who made the playing field? If it aint level, no-one can play fairly...

Ps Is there such a thing as 'men's writing?'

Great article, Kirsten. I think it's boring and banal and exhausting, too, Lesley, having to bang on all the time about this. But the sad truth is that with the exception of one or two women writers (Doris Lessing, say, who recently won the Nobel and Margaret Atwood, who is pretty much acclaimed everywhere), most women writers simply do not get their due. Before I left London I heard an interview with Elaine Showalter about her book on American women writers -- she was talking about Roth and Mailer et al, and now J Frantzen in the new generation, who are seen as the greatest represenatives of American literature, when women writers such as Joyce Carol Oates and Jane Smiley and Marilyn Robinson are always slightly off to one side, never quite located in the centre, where everything happens....

Susan Johnson
23 May at 03:19PM

As a woman, I feel insulted by Stothard's comment. The arrogance in his words is disgusting.
How can he know what all woman read? Has he interviewed every woman in existence. Or is this a sweeping generalization?
How dare he presume that he is some ultimate judge of all that is worthy or important.
How dare he assume that women have nothing to say and nothing to contribute.
As human beings our words have just as much worth as any other's. Time to prove Stothard wrong.

01 February at 11:13AM

This is a great article and proposes why it is absolutely necessary for people to change their perceptions on women writers and reviewers, because there are so many amazing literary authors out there who are missing out because sexism continues to believe that women writers are only writing romance novels. Further, it is sad to see that so many people believe that what women write about are not considered important books.

Don't Judge
28 October at 02:46PM

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