Complications at the London Review of Books

Initially I didn’t think I’d bother commenting on the London Review of Books’ admission that its editorial board find it “complicated” to find women reviewers or books by women to review and its excuse that it gets more proposals from men than women. It’s not a journal I’d review for and right now I’m not looking to do more reviews.

LRB commission reviews so who it gets submissions from is irrelevant. What I’m hearing is that the editorial board can’t be bothered to search out new reviewers and instead relies on its established, regular pool of reviewers. I’m also hearing that it can’t be bothered to check that the books selected for review represent the best books available, but lazily select based on a template according to what’s been reviewed in the past.

As for those complicated reasons why women don’t propose reviews:

  • Historically women struggled to get published. J K Rowling’s decision to use initials so as not to deter male readers is a contemporary exception rather than the rule, but literary criticism has generally been done about men’s writing by men. Books and reviews by women have a lot of tradition to overcome. Ideally books and reviewers would be selected on merit alone, but they are not. Other factors come into play such as space available, timing of publication, reviewer availability, hype and tradition. Ideally reviews and discussions would be about the books, not the writer, but that tends not to happen either.
  • When seeing a magazine that focuses on a certain type of writing by a certain type of writer, it’s easier to think “That’s not a group I belong to, I’ve got to change the way I write, is it worth the effort?” than make an enthusiastic approach. This applies as much to genre writing and writing in translation as it does writing by a particular group of writers.
  • Similarly, if publishers see certain books getting reviewed, they tend to send more of the same. They don’t have the budget to send review copies of books that they perceive as having less chance of getting reviewed.
  • I’m not convinced by the “women don’t have time/confidence/skills to review” arguments. If you want to do something, you will find the time to do it. If you have the confidence to submit work to literary magazines, you have the confidence to review. If you comment on books or poems and make recommendations to friends, you have the skills to review (although not necessarily the practice in writing them).
  • When editors approach writers for reviews, are they making the right approach? The manner of approach matters too. Asking someone whilst giving the impression you don’t really want them to do it is more likely to result in a negative. A positive approach is more likely to get a positive response.

In effect the LRB is proving it’s simply undeserving of my money as a potential subscriber (given I both read avidly and review; surely I’d be part of its natural subscriber base?).

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4 Responses to “Complications at the London Review of Books”

  1. Josephine Corcoran Says:

    Thanks for making these points, Emma. Not only do you talk such sense, I also find your comments encouraging to those of us who might want to write reviews.

  2. Fiona Moore Says:

    Your final sentence is just right – doesn’t the LRB realise it’s missing out on a large sector of its potential readership? I took up one of those free 6-issue LRB trials once, having only been an occasional reader before. I was dispirited by (a) the lack of women and (b) the lack of coverage of contemporary poetry. So I didn’t carry on, and wrote to explain why; got a nice letter back, saying they valued feedback, etc, but that was several years ago…

  3. emmalee1 Says:

    Thanks for your comment. I don’t have a problem with the LRB sticking to a tried and tested formula providing they’re happy with their current levels of subscribers and readers. If they want to expand their reader and subscriber base, then they need to change their approach. It does seem odd that they’re happy to alienate a large sector of their potential readership but that’s their problem.

  4. Stop Twittering and Ask the Trolls | Emma Lee's Blog Says:

    […] blogged previously about how the London Review of Book’s “complications” in finding women reviewers was largely down to a problem in breaking the tradition of how they approached commissioning […]


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