Recently someone asked me why a poet who’d published most of her poetry collections during the 1930s had been largely forgotten. I reflexively gave the answer: despite her poems being widely published and anthologised, despite her collections being published by a reputable publisher, she was not widely reviewed or studied so dropped off the literary radar. I thought this was obvious, but the questioner did not. Getting published is a foot in the door, if writers want to keep that door open, they need to be reviewed.
This is why the VIDA count is so important. It reports on the number of reviews by male reviewers and female reviewers and the number of reviews of books by female writers and books by male writers and the most recent count audits reviews by and of books by women of colour. In a world where more women buy and read books than men, statistically it would seem logical that more books by women get reviewed and more women write those reviews. Actually, in most cases, the opposite is true: there are more male reviewers and books written by men get more reviews. This means that the writers who don’t drop off the literary radar are more likely to be male.
Progress is being made, generally in newer magazines who don’t have a history of using male reviewers to review books by men to overcome. But there’s still work to be done. I’m not arguing that books for review should be selected by who wrote them rather than the merit of the writing or that reviewers should be selected on who they are rather than how well they review, but that editors should be aware of lingering bias and accept the challenge of finding new reviewers rather than relying on a stable of existing reviewers.
Previous counts have shocked editors, who were working on the assumption of gender-neutrality, into realising that there was a bias. Some editors have found that publishers and agents tend to send more books by men for review and have countered this by asking publishers for lists of forthcoming publications and requesting specific books for review rather than relying on unsolicited submissions. Similarly, some editors have found that men tend to volunteer to review and put forward ideas more than women so they’ve relied less on unsolicited submissions and approached reviewers (and potential reviewers) directly. Some editors found that if they return an idea with a note “This idea isn’t quite right, please try us again,” male writers would try again but female writers were less likely to try again. It’s easy to say women should volunteer more but when you see a magazine full of male names, you get the impression it’s not open to you. You decide to try anyway and your first submission comes back with a “not quite right for us”, it tends to reinforce the impression the magazine doesn’t want you so you’re less likely to try again: it becomes a vicious circle. The door looks closed when it’s actually ajar, although doorbell’s broken and the ‘welcome’ mat appears to be missing.
Writers can only get so far by making review copies available and contacting reviewers and/or editors to get their book reviewed. Readers can assist by writing and posting their own reviews or suggesting books they’d like to see reviewed. If you want to keep your favourite poet in print, post your recommendations and reviews, nominate and vote in the Saboteur Awards.
One commenter on VIDA’s statistics argued that there was no bias towards male writers in the literary establishment because publishers employed more women than men. The commenter thought that VIDA’s count was too narrow and seemed to be looking at the reviews rather than books published. The commenter spectacularly misses the point: VIDA’s remit is purely about reviews because what gets reviewed matters.