Women Poets don’t write reviews – allegedly

Mslexia updated their survey of reviews in national newspapers and magazines.  In 2000 they found that reviews of books by men outnumbered reviews of books by women by 2 to 1.  In 2009, the year a woman won the Man Booker Prize and another woman was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, initial findings were that just 20% of books reviewed were by women although later findings were that books by men outnumbered reviews of books by women by 2 to 1 again.  Various reasons have been put forward:-

  • Fewer women write the kind of books that get reviewed (maybe the wrong kind of books are getting reviewed?);
  • Literary editors can only commission reviews of what they get sent (national newspapers can get sent 400 books per week and it’s statistically highly unlikely that merely 20% of those are by women);
  • Men tend not to read women writers (and don’t know what they’re missing);
  • Commercial success = literary critics dismiss the work as ‘populist’ and women enjoy more commercial success than men (in certain genres, but that’s because generally women buy and read more books than men because they don’t restrict themselves to reading books not by women).

Naturally the above refers to novels.  But the situation isn’t much better in poetry.  A group women poets wrote to the editor of Poetry Review, published by the Poetry Society, complaining about the lack of women poets published and reviewed by the magazine, “…At present Poetry Review is not allowing us that space as critics and is ghettoising and diminishing our work as poets because of our gender…” 

Poetry Review’s editor counter-complained that women “are disproportionately reluctant to assume literary authority through regular reviewing.”  Is that actually true??

When Julia Gaze assembled a new reviewing team for Assent magazine last year, approximately 64% of which are women reviewers.  At Sphinx, at least 56% of the review team are women.  Iota magazine also has a strong showing of female reviewers – in the last issue there was only one male reviewer. 

So why are these not on the Poetry Society’s radar?  Couldn’t be that none of them are based in London, could it?

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6 Responses to “Women Poets don’t write reviews – allegedly”

  1. Ros Says:

    Nice post Emma. Fancy joining the Google Group AGender? We’re a group of published writers (at the moment, largely poets) keeping a tally of similar stats to this and looking at ways of tackling the (largely unacknowledged) issue of gender bias in literature.

  2. Carrie Etter Says:

    Hi, Emma. I’m a regular reviewer for TLS and other journals for contemporary poetry, but I’m just one–there aren’t a lot of us.

  3. Curry and Discipline | The Literature Network Says:

    […] Women poets don’t write reviews – allegedly. […]

  4. Sheenagh Pugh Says:

    Hi Emma,

    I used to write reviews – for PR among others, in the time of Peter Forbes. He used to send me mainly women’s books to review and when I asked him why, he told me that several of his male reviewers were unwilling to review books by women. So he got women to do it. If there is a preponderance of male reviewers, that would presumably explain fewer reviews of women’s books. I don’t however think it ideal that reviewing should be gendered; if I were an editor, I would cross reviewers who were too picky off my list and find some others.

    “Poetry Review’s editor counter-complained that women “are disproportionately reluctant to assume literary authority through regular reviewing.”

    That quote really irritates me because she knows fine well that before anyone can review anything, the editors have to ask them to. Which women has she invited to review, and been turned down by? If I haven’t reviewed for PR since Peter’s day, it is not from any reluctance to assume literary authority but because no one has ever asked… I’ve reviewed loads of collections for free on my blog at http://sheenaghpugh.livejournal.com/ though, and will continue to do so. And I have to say that often as not, I find the most helpful and disinterested reviews on blogs these days – in mags, reviewers often seem more interested in showing how clever they are than examining a book.

  5. emmalee1 Says:

    Hi Sheenagh

    Thanks for dropping by and commenting. The quote irritated me too because, like you, the first question I had was “had she asked any?” It’s not as if there aren’t any women poetry reviewers out there but none of them are going to apply for a job they don’t know exists.

    There’s a trend amongst poetry magazine review editors to ask reviewers which book(s) they’d like to review, which allows reviewers to select on gender or other biases. I’d prefer it if editors simply sent books out and put the onus on the reviewer to say why they don’t want to review a certain book and reject any spurious reasons (like “the poet’s not a man”).

  6. Women Read, Women Write but don’t get Published or Reviewed as much as Men « Emma Lee’s Blog Says:

    […] auditing.  Statistics like the ones collated by VIDA and earlier by MsLexia shouldn’t be used to deter women writers but rather to act as a spur for women to become more […]


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