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The landmark Spinoff Review of Books gender balance survey

An international survey shows book sections publish many more male critics than female – and that they review many more books written by men than women. Spinoff books editor Steve Braunias (a man) looks at the state of play in New Zealand.

A landmark survey has revealed that more women than men review books at the Spinoff Review of Books. What’s the gender divide like at other New Zealand literary sections and journals? How come it’s so weighted towards men at the world’s best literary journal, the London Review of Books? And: does any of it matter?

Full disclosure: this story is written by a man. Also, I’m the books editor at the Spinoff. So that’s all very status quo right from the get-go, because discussion about literature seems to be something that’s set by men the world over.

The Spinoff Review of Books began in October 2015. The first reviewer who I commissioned was Fiona Kidman. I’ve very deliberately and very consciously favoured women to review books for the Spinoff ever since. Likewise I’ve very deliberately and very consciously favoured reviews of women authors – at least I thought that was the case. Wrong. Sad!

The other day I sat down and conducted a landmark survey, which is to say I sat down with a piece of paper and wrote M and F all over it in rows. I went through every page of the Spinoff books section since October 2015 – anyone can do it, just follow the reverse arrows on the home page – and noted the genders of reviewers and of authors reviewed, and also of the authors of the Friday Poem, and the authors of the Monday Extract, and interviewers and interview subjects.

It was an accounting exercise in response to a fascinating Diary by Anne Enright in the September 21 issue of the London Review of Books. Enright made similar calculations of male and female reviewers, authors, and interviewers in the Irish Times. She wrote, “In the first week of 2013 I started to count, in an idling way, the number of books by women reviewed in the Irish Times and found none. They were all by men.”

The figure for that year rose to 29 per cent, Enright estimated. (Her count was no longer “idling”). In 2016, the figure was 39 per cent. “This matches, more or less, what we know about the gender balance in published books … The figure for all published books is often given at something over a third.”

Enright’s three-page essay then shifted to the gender of reviewers. “Growing awareness and dissatisfaction with the situation has been fed by organisations like Vida, an online resource for women in the arts, which started counting book reviews in 2010.” She counted 49 per cent female reviewers in the Irish Times in 2016. Further statistics: men reviewed 48 books by women, and women reviewed 86 books by men.

Enright widened the argument in the remainder of the essay. “Affinity is a joyful thing. I have often admired the ease with which men praise books by other men, and envied, slightly, the way they sometimes got admired in their turn. This spiral of male affections twists up through our cultural life, lifting male confidence and reputation as it goes. Work by men is also read and discussed by female critics; only one side of the equation is weak: the lack of engagement with women’s work by men.”

And where better to look for distressing signs of this “spiral of affection” than….the London Review of Books. Earlier this month, Vida – the organisation mentioned by Enright – released its annual count of published authors and published reviewers. It found that the London Review of Books “has the worst gender disparity”, with women representing only 18 per cent of reviewers and 26 per cent of authors reviewed.

Katy Guest wrote in the Guardian on October 19, “The 2016 Vida count has been released and it demonstrates yet again that the media can’t seem to locate enough female writers. Every year Vida counts the writers featured in dozens of literary journals and periodicals across the world, and finds that the authors represented, and the critics who are evaluating those authors, are consistently about two-thirds men.”

Okay. Let the trolls out: does any of it matter? As in, so fucking what? Who cares? Isn’t it a case of choosing the best person for the reviewing job, of an interesting author of an interesting – or appalling, as the case may be – book? Or are those questions invalid, defensive, narrow, strangely carping, dumb?

I take the matter of gender really seriously as books editor. The notion of choosing mostly men to write in the Spinoff’s books section bores me to tears – here we go again, the old boys network, yapping, yapping, yapping – but equally the idea of working to fulfill some kind of quota system for women reviewers is just as profoundly, deeply boring. Statistics will kill us all. There are all sorts of considerations at play when it comes to choosing books and reviewers to review them. Mostly I go by instinct, and hope for the best.

Gender is definitely a factor. I  think it’s responsible and sensible to consciously select books by women authors, and to deliberately commission women reviewers. But I wondered whether the reality matched these pious good intentions; and so inbetween the Diary by Enright, and the Vida report, I conducted my survey of the Spinoff Review of Books. Here are the results.

Those figures, as well as interview figures, can be broken down, as follows:

And here are the results for poetry, and extracts. I meant to do a count for essays, too, but forgot.

CORRECTION: THE FRIDAY FIGURES ARE IN FACT REVERSED (52 WOMEN, 42 MEN). Illustrations: Toby Morris

What to make of these figures? I’m well pleased that there really are more women reviewers than men. Hurrah for me but more so hurrah for reviewers of the quality of Linda Burgess, Marion McLeod, Holly Walker, Louisa Kasza, Wyoming Paul et al. However I’m disappointed, perhaps even mildly ashamed, that I chose more male authors to be reviewed than female. (That first review I mentioned, by Fiona Kidman – it was of the debut novel by Joe Bennett … As an aside, I recall asking Fiona to add more to a point she tentatively raised in her first draft, about Bennett not writing very convincing female characters.)

Still, the reviewer figures are a hell of a lot higher than the Irish Times or London Review of Books – and what’s the count like at New Zealand’s other serious, intelligent literary sections and journals, namely the Listener, Landfall, New Zealand Books, and Radio New Zealand?

Returning to the Spinoff. I can’t for the life of me think why I chose more women than men poets – it’s just the way it went, I didn’t have any particular policy, really. The first poets I chose were men because they were people I knew, such as Brian Turner and CK Stead. I’m happy that women have taken the lead and in fact just the other day I was wondering about publishing a book that selected the best poems at the Spinoff; it’d include verse by Fleur Adcock, Simone Kaho, Emma Neale, Elizabeth Smither, Hera Lindsay Bird, et al.

As for the authors of the Monday Extract – I gather that the majority of non-fiction authors are men, so no surprises there. You choose from what’s most available. (Weirdly, John Drinnan once went on Twitter to say that an extract by Woman in the Wilderness author Miriam Lancewood was fake, that I’d written it as a satire; he didn’t seem to think that it was possible that a woman would actually hunt wild animals for food. While wearing a bikini. Which reminds me – I commissioned a review of Woman in the Wilderness by a woman in the wilderness of Westport, but she never filed it.)

The interviewer figures lean heavily towards men, and a very good reason for that is that I conduct most of the interviews as part of my duties as books editor. But that’s no excuse or reason why so few women authors have featured. Must try harder.

But isn’t the essential problem – if there is a problem about any of this – come down to the chromosomal fact of my existence? Once again, the gatekeeper of a literary enterprise is a man. It matters, a lot, who is getting reviewed, and who is writing the reviews; it’s basically a definition or precis of my role as books editor. The best I can do about it as far as gender goes – well, you know, short of making way for a woman books editor – is to continue to commission more reviews by women of women.

Fiona Kidman, Paula Morris, Louisa Kasza, and Marion McLeod

As such, and towards that noble purpose, I asked five women in New Zealand publishing to comment on the issue.

Linda Burgess, author and reviewer:

Statistics? Just reading them turns me into a female Duke of Edinburgh. I would hate to think that what sex a writer is makes that much difference. Take me into a bookshop and I’ll tell you that most of the books in it are written by women. That’s because they tend to be the ones I notice. They tend to be the ones I buy, though I have been known to extend my interest to the works of Ian McEwen, Justin Cartwright, Nick Hornby and quite a few more men – all good enough observers of the human condition for me to accept them as honorary women.

I’ve been a judge of what was then the Montana Book Awards, and have also been on Creative New Zealand’s funding panels. People outside mutter darkly about the sex, race or geographical location of writers playing huge significance. Oh rubbish. And even keeping in mind Creative New Zealand’s earnest list of criteria, the only thing that matters is the book, the writing.

Tragically, book pages are shrinking. I think wistfully of the days when Saturday’s Dominion and Evening Post with their excellent books editors had fantastic review pages. Many – too many – books are published here but sometimes even the best ones get scant attention. This is the issue: not that women need more literary attention.

Louise O’Brien, co-editor of New Zealand Books:

When I was asked to tally the gender balance of reviewers and books reviewed in New Zealand Books Pukapuka Aotearoa, I admit to butterflies. It’s something that we – my co-editor, Harry Ricketts, and I – talk about, think about, work at, a lot. Our perfectly gender-balanced editorial team (though also undeniably completely Pākehā) is certainly aware of the historical bias and exclusion in publications like ours, though often we feel ourselves constrained without a full range of choices, when selecting reviewers from the relatively small pool of local experts, especially once colleagues, competitors, friends, family, lovers and – perhaps most importantly – ex-lovers have been weeded out.

And our numbers? If my quick count (and assumptions about some gender-neutral names) is right, since October 2015 our pages have featured 86 reviews written by men and 80 reviews written by women, reviewing 159 books by male authors and 124 by female authors.

So, better than some, with still some work to do.

Emma Neale, newly appointed editor of Landfall:

My predecessor, David Eggleton, was already consciously working to correct a gender imbalance in reviewers, and it’s something I was made freshly aware of by the Anne Enright article. I’ll be actively seeking a balance of genders in all Landfall material.

Kiran Dass, Auckland Unity Books:

Anne Enright is one of my favourite writers so I read the published version of her final address as the Laureate of Irish Fiction with interest. The line “The argument about excellence – that women’s work just isn’t good enough – is incredibly hurtful given that there is so much mediocre work by men around,” jumped out at me, and in that context, I have to say I agree with her. How did Paul Auster’s ponderous 4  3 2 1 end up on the Man Booker Prize shortlist?

But if you look at how we are doing here, New Zealand literary pages could always include more books written by women. There are so many excellent ones being published and yet I’m amazed how often books page editors don’t even know about them.

Out of curiosity, I had a quick squizz at the podcasts available on the Radio New Zealand website of the books that I have reviewed on Nine to Noon and was pleased to count that 27 of those 36 books were written by women.

While I’m mindful of the politics of what authors, titles, publishers and imprints I get behind, this hasn’t entirely been a deliberate move on my part. I look at craft and content before I consider gender. But the fact the majority of these books are by women writers makes its own suggestion. The books we review on the Unity Books review slot on Nine to Noon end up on the  Unity Books top 10 bestseller charts at The Spinoff.

Tilly Lloyd, Wellington Unity Books:

Congratulations to The Spinoff book pages which run against that assumption that men’s-reviews-and-men’s-books-are-automatically-more-important. Those stats from Enright and Vida organisation are sobering. Yet, you know, even though we Unity people are politicised about the endless equity stoushes for female, Maori, LGQ, working class, and disabled peoples, our numbers reveal that in four years of book reviews on radio, our four female and three male booksellers reviewed books written by…59 women and 94 men.

Startled isn’t the word for it.


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