Literary establishment shamed by statistics…

One would have hoped the old boy’s club of literary publishing to have been a thing of the past. Certainly the old-fashioned publishing lunch seems to be, and I can’t remember the last time I worked with anyone wearing a tie (except at bookfairs, for some reason). There does seem to be, however, one bastion of the literary establishment where the old order changeth not, as this report from the Guardian makes clear:

Vida, an American organisation supporting women in the literary arts, has compiled statistics on the gender split in books coverage at publications including the London Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, the New Yorker and the New York Times Book Review, each of which showed a substantial bias towards using male reviewers and covering male authors.

At the LRB last year 16% of reviewers were women (29 out of 184) and 26% of authors reviewed (58 out of 221); at the New York Review of Books 21% of 254 reviews were by women, 17 of 92 authors reviewed were female and 13% of 152 articles were by women. Of 1,163 reviews in the TLS in 2011, 30% were by women, and of 1,314 authors reviewed, 25% were women.

Apart from going some way towards explaining why the major literary journals are so staggeringly monotonous, this is truly shameful stuff; especially considering that women read far more books than men, and form the majority of the student body on most literature courses – and indeed the majority of the workforce at most publishing houses. It’s somewhat surprising, in the light of that last fact, that the bias is almost as marked in the books which the biggest trade houses choose to publish.

The Guardian contacted a number of the UK’s largest publishing houses and found that 2011 non-fiction releases for Penguin, Atlantic Books, Random House and Simon & Schuster all painted a similar picture, with 74%, 73%, 69% and 64% per cent of all titles male authored respectively. Although John Freeman, editor of Granta magazine, felt it “would not be useful” for publishers to start using gender quotas, he said that publishers do “need to think about what they are choosing, and ask if their own assumptions for which work is the best are coloured by gender”.

Vida co-director Erin Belieu said the Vida statistics clearly showed that “some sort of systemic bias” was at work.

“Such a very wide discrepancy between the rates of publication clearly points at some other external forces at work beyond an editor’s idea of ‘good’ and ‘not as good’,” she said. “And, you know, we live in a world where gender bias is embedded in practically every aspect of our lives – why would the literary world be different than the larger world in terms of the way women are viewed and valued? It’s not. No surprise there.”

This made me recall Jeanette Winterson’s anecdote:


“I was at a party in 1989 and Ian McEwan, Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie were sitting on a sofa wondering where the next generation of great British writers would come from. As we talked, it became clear they had never read a word by me.”

The implication is clearly that it never occurred to the smug boys on the sofa that the next greats might be women. Sigh.

Anyway, all this made me curious (and as a former contributor to the TLS, ever so slightly guilt-stricken and insecure) so I went back to the Ilex pub schedule and conducted a quick headcount: 19 out of 35 authors (54%) published by us in 2012 are women. So at least we don’t seem to be part of the problem.

There has, predictably but hearteningly, been a vigorous debate in reaction to Vida’s findings, and it will be interesting to see if the literary journals react in any tangible way in the coming year.

Posted by

Roly Allen

Roly Allen is Executive Publisher at Ilex. "Executive Publisher" is a slightly less depressing way of expressing the concept of "travelling salesman" but he admits that it is a pleasure to pitch the ideas which the Ilex creative teams come up with.

1 Comment to Literary establishment shamed by statistics…

  1. Emily's Gravatar Emily
    March 8, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    Don’t feel guilty Roly! There doesn’t necessarily have to be a conscious bias on anybody’s part for a system that is discriminatory overall to exist.

    Interesting topic though for International Women’s Day (which is today – fellow female colleagues ;) )

    I’ve got a copy of The Good Book Guide here, 9 of the 14 reviewers are female, as is the editor and plenty of the authors are women too.

    If it is indeed true that women read more books than men and form the majority of the workforce – then maybe this gender bias occurs because we literary females are just too masculine for our own good?!

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