By Toby LichtigFebruary 24, 2015
AT THE END of last year, the Los Angeles Review of Books ran a piece by Katherine Angel reflecting on the difficulties faced by women in the literary world, the gender bias toward the male point of view, “the shocking paucity of women of authority and expertise across all media,” and “the disturbing preponderance of men (their reviews and their books) in literary magazines.”
Angel offered as evidence statistics supplied by VIDA (an organization dedicated to “women in the literary arts,” which looks at “the gender disparity in major literary publications”) and focused in particular on the London Review of Books. She also offered a host of plausible reasons for the disparity, concluding that, while the problem isn’t one of a “concerted editorial policy” on the part of any papers, many current editorial practices seem to be “perpetuating” the inequalities of the wider literary world, itself, presumably, a litmus test for the wider world at large. Angel finished by arguing that magazines ought to make more of an effort “to go in search of women writers” — not out of some patronizing gesture toward inclusivity, but because otherwise they will be missing out.
This is an article that has been written, in one form or another, many times over recent years — as acknowledged by Angel herself (or perhaps the LARB editors) in the choice of headline for the piece: “Gender, blah, blah, blah.” Though Angel didn’t mention this, the “blah, blah, blah” was also a nod to an interview conducted last year in The Guardian with the LRB’s editor, Mary-Kay Wilmers. When asked about the gender imbalance in her own magazine, Wilmers commented: “All I can say is that we hope to do better, we hope to get more female reviewers, blah blah blah.”
Angel’s piece was for the most part fairly argued, and the hackneyed “blahness” of the subject is not a case of her failure to choose a more interesting or important subject. Any glance at the VIDA statistics does indeed show a significant disparity between men and women in the world of literary journalism, and just because the point has been made before it doesn’t mean it isn’t worth making again. And then, again. But there is also another sort of “blah” that habitually creeps into writing about this topic, and it is not one to which Angel is herself immune.
Firstly, this blah involves assuming that all literary magazines are the same. They are not. Secondly, it involves a failure to take into account how much things have changed over recent years, and how change, when it comes to the question of the wider culture, is inevitably slow. Thirdly, it involves an over-reliance on VIDA’s statistics, which — though worthwhile, indeed invaluable — are limited. And fourthly, it involves the implication that editors at literary magazines aren’t fully aware of the question of gender disparity. In fact, not only are they aware, they are themselves invested in a closure of the gender gap and all the opportunities for sourcing the best writing that this might afford.
But to begin at the beginning. Because all literary magazines are not the same. And as an editor myself (and, yes, a male one), I’d like to make a small case for the magazine at which I work — the Times Literary Supplement — one of the publications so casually attacked by Angel as bastions of androcentricity. I say “casually” because Angel’s main focus of attack was the LRB, and she only offered a sideswipe at the TLS. And I also say “casually” because some of her writing on the subject was indeed casual.
I am not so much referring to Angel’s assertion that the LRB “occupies an apparently unassailable position as the serious magazine in British literary culture [...] [with] a striking paucity of real rivals to it in the UK.” I’ll let others be the judge of that (though it’s worth noting that Angel has herself written for the TLS and not the LRB). I am rather more concerned with Angel’s comment that the LRB’s historic male-female byline skew of 82 percent to 18 percent is “no doubt [...] similar to that of other magazines.”
VIDA wasn’t compiling statistics when the TLS first started out in 1902, and Angel is “no doubt” correct that there was once an enormous bias in favor of male writers in the paper — notwithstanding the platform it once gave to up-and-coming reviewers such as Edith Sitwell or Vita Sackville-West or, in the words of her first editor there, Bruce Richmond, a “clever young woman” by the name of Virginia Woolf. But this “no doubt” still worries me. And that is because it takes the current case of one particular paper and uses it to judge the community as a whole. And I’m not sure that this is a very useful line of argument.
I do not wish to denigrate the LRB. It is a superb publication, quite possibly one of the most serious magazines in British literary culture. But its record of female inclusion is hardly an industry standard. And its reputation has probably not been helped over the years by some of the comments made by its staff to justify this record. These habitually provoke a small media storm before dying down; it’s become something of a ritual. There’s no point raking over too much of this now — and many of the comments have been taken out of context — but Mary-Kay Wilmers’s pronouncements on the subject have included the assertion that “women are a bit more ho-hummy about their careers.” And in 2013, in response to LRB subscriber (and novelist) Katherine Heyman cancelling her subscription after becoming exasperated by the male dominance of the paper, another editor admitted that — as if stymied by a higher power — “despite the distress it causes us [...] the efforts we’ve made to change the situation have been hopelessly unsuccessful.”
Is the TLS any different? Well, it’s certainly vulnerable to attack. A quick look at VIDA reveals a rather less pronounced skew than the LRB’s – but a significant one nonetheless. In the most recent survey (2013), the male-female reviewer divide in the TLS was 726 to 297, or 71 percent to 29 percent. In the LRB it was 195 to 43, or 82 percent to 18 percent. And in The New York Review of Books it was 212 to 52, or 81 percent to 19 percent. It’s true, no 50-50 splits here, but you may have noticed something else significant about the statistics: not the ratio but the volume.
Where the TLS differs from the LRB and NYRB is in the fact that we’re a weekly, rather than a biweekly, and we also contain a far greater number of pieces per issue: around 30 or 40, rather than the 10 or so essay-type articles you get in the other two publications. This isn’t just a banal piece of literary trivia or one-upmanship. It’s significant because this format allows us to try out a far greater range of writers on a far greater range of topics. We are able, especially with our shorter pieces, to take more gambles on new writers. We are more comprehensive in both whom we use and what we cover. And, I would argue, this helps us produce a more accurate reflection of the literary and scholarly world as a whole.
Clearly there is still a gap to be filled — even if, as I suspect, the new figures for 2014 break the two-thirds to one-third male reviewer bias, and even if in some areas there is already something closer to equality. A The Guardian survey in response to the Heyman affair, which looked at the same month over a two-year period, found that the TLS had a 66 percent to 34 percent male-female divide in nonfiction, but complete parity in the fiction pages. (The results for the LRB were 88 percent to 12 percent and 100 percent to zero percent respectively.) Fiction in this case is an interesting area because many of our fiction reviewers tend to be on the younger side: you don’t necessarily need as much academic expertise to review the latest debut about coming of age in rural Ireland, or satire about middle-class inertia among Hampstead liberals, as you might to appraise the latest critique of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus or history of the Haitian Revolution. I'm one of the fiction editors at the TLS and I spend a fair amount of time trying out new critics, many of them young. And I wonder if the apparent lack of gender divide in this area is simply an indication of the future.
Which brings me to my second point. Because the literary world, in certain ways, reflects the world of yesterday. This isn’t to say it’s behind the times (many would doubtless disagree), but it’s inevitable that many of our most eminent writers, and therefore critics, are from an older generation. Perhaps they went to university in the 1960s or 1970s — an era in which far fewer women entered further education in the first place, an era in which women faced even more barriers than they do today. Not all TLS reviewers are based at universities, but many are, and the vast majority went through the university system. Literary journalism reflects this system and society as a whole, and so it’s hardly surprising that change has been slow in coming. And this change is inevitably going to be quicker in some areas than in others: quicker in English literature, where women have for many decades been well-represented; slower in the worlds of analytic philosophy or military history, which are, at best, only just beginning to catch up.
And catching up the literary world is — albeit very sluggishly. Those same VIDA statistics for 2013 pointed to various taperings in the gender gap, particularly in American publications, where The Paris Review (50-50) helped to lead the charge. If you look at copies of the TLS from 20 or 30 years ago, you’ll notice a far greater discrepancy than there is today. Which isn’t to say we shouldn’t still push for change. It’s just that I think that change is, in fact, slowly and surely coming.
Then there is the question of those statistics themselves — which brings me to my third point: VIDA can only tell us so much. For example, the surveys fail to take into account that many more books written by men than by women are sent into us or are available to order via publishers’ brochures. And we can only commission on the basis of the books that exist. Some areas, such as fiction and social history, show a healthy divide between the sexes; others remain very dominated by men: philosophy, for example, and archaeology and musicology. We can do our best to find the books by the best female philosophers and musicologists (and to find the most interesting female philosophers and musicologists to review them), but — in terms of sheer numbers — we are not choosing from a level playing field. Angel rebuffed these arguments by saying that magazines could perhaps “question the range of catalogs” they rely on. But anyone who has visited the TLS office, or I would imagine the offices of any other literary magazine, will be able to confirm that our many, many books come from a hugely diverse pool of publishers. I genuinely don’t think this is a question of missing the most important books. I’d like to know which catalogs Angel is referring to.
Take a more concrete example. As I write this piece, the current issue of the TLS features Susan Sontag on the front cover. The article on her is by Kate Webb and it is accompanied by a piece on Radovan Karadžić by Susan Reed and another on Samuel Beckett by Gabriel Josipovici. The lead, on Robert Burns, is by Kathryn Sutherland. It’s a fairly decent mixture of men and women all round. Except that VIDA would view this mixture somewhat differently.
Kate Webb is writing on Susan Sontag, but she’s reviewing two new biographies of Sontag, both of them by men. Suddenly a score of 2–0 to the women becomes, in the eyes of VIDA, a score of 2–1 to the men. We didn’t, to my knowledge, exclude any recent noteworthy biographies of Sontag written by women. The piece on Karadžić by Susan Reed is also of a biography written by a man. The Letters of Samuel Beckett is edited by two men and two women; and The Oxford Edition of the Works of Robert Burns Volume I, which Kathryn Sutherland is reviewing, was edited by a man. Does anyone seriously believe we were somehow influenced to critique these books because of the gender of who wrote them or who edited the volumes? Or that our decision to cover these important publications was nothing more than a witless perpetuation of the prevailing patriarchy? Send us the publisher’s catalog with an edition of the works of Robert Burns edited by a woman or a biography of Karadžić written by a woman and we’ll gladly take a look.
Then there’s the fact that VIDA does not differentiate between long pieces and short ones, that it gives no indication of prominence or impact. Anyone who regularly reads the TLS is likely to agree that women play a central role in the debate in our pages. I’m not going to pretend that it’s as equal as it could or should be, and there are certainly times when the paper feels very male-dominated; but a quick look at that cover I just mentioned — which is by no means unrepresentative of the paper — should give an indication of the prominent and highly visible parts played by both sexes.
In Katherine Heyman’s spat with the LRB about her cancelled subscription, she offered a long list of female reviewers the paper might wish to employ. I was gratified, and unsurprised, to see that well over half of these people have at some point reviewed for the TLS — and many of them still do so, regularly. The reason this figure wasn’t higher is that several of the people on the list have turned down offers to appear in our pages — another type of statistic unknown to VIDA. The LARB editor with whom I first discussed this essay, Jeff Wasserstrom — who has done a great deal to promote women in his field of expertise, China — will happily attest to the number of female sinologists the TLS has brought in over the years. More than a few have also written for the LARB.
Last April, following our Shakespeare special issue, all six pieces of which were by female critics, a reader wrote in to chide us: “Couldn’t you find [...] at least one male reviewer? Is the TLS now obeying feminist dictates?!” We didn’t print the letter, and of course we weren’t following any diktats, feminist or otherwise. This all-female cast was simply a reflection of the fact that many of our finest Shakespeare scholars happen to be women. It was not a concerted editorial policy, not a gender-based set of decisions, nor did it feel very strange to us. As my colleague, and our Classics Editor, Mary Beard pointed out to me recently, this is what we want — not a welter of statistics and gestures toward positive discrimination but “a world in which it seems very ODD to have an overwhelmingly male line up. A world in which one has internalized the idea that this is a woman’s game too.”
Which brings me to my fourth — and final — point. Because this internalization does exist — at least among the editors I know. We notice the gender divide. We think and talk about it regularly. And it is, I think, this awareness that is key to things changing.
And what do these readers want? Variety certainly. And a sense of what’s still important, what's still relevant and interesting. Of course, some might argue that Beckett and Burns are no longer relevant, that they reflect a bygone world dominated by men. But I would disagree. Yes, literary history is male dominated — and the skew becomes more pronounced the further back you go. But it’s not our job to ignore literary history. Angel made an important point in her piece when she said: “It’s not clear that an editor’s job is necessarily to redress inequalities.” And she’s right.
And that is why I have some sympathy with the LRB editor for his “hopelessly unsuccessful” efforts. The comment sounded feeble and defeatist, which is the reason it got so roundly mocked; but it is pointless pretending that there aren’t reasons for the gender skew that go beyond the complacency or patriarchal bent of literary editors. I asked around the TLS office to see what people thought, and many of the responses were similar to the points raised by both the LRB and Katherine Angel.
Along with the issue of male-dominated publishing line-ups, the most frequent comments concerned pitching. Everyone I’ve spoken to — and my own experience is the same — believes that men “pitch” more regularly than women. One colleague estimated that the ratio is around three to one. (For fiction I think it’s less.) Another colleague said that male pitchers tend to be more persistent, returning after a rejection — and Angel’s own research into the matter drew similar conclusions. While we don’t commission here much on the basis of pitching — in fact, we tend to ignore pitches, preferring to make our own judgements on individual books — pitchers do often get filed for possible future assignments. “If women do pitch less,” wrote Angel, “the solution must involve going out into new spaces to solicit writing by women.” And she’s entirely correct. But the playing field in these “spaces” isn’t always level either. Yes, there’s plenty of digging that can be done on the internet, but one of the most reliable places for sourcing new writers is in a previous publication on a similar subject to the one being reviewed — and then we come back to a reflection of a pre-existing bias. And the same goes for sourcing writers from university departments. If the departments show a gender bias then that makes our job more difficult. There are, of course, times when we find new reviewers from places other than books and universities — from talking to people, from reading interesting blogs or pieces of journalism, from being out there in the world — and this is an important part of what we do. But taking a chance on untested critics is, by its nature, hit and miss — and there is only so much of our time we can dedicate to it.
Another editor questioned whether things were as bad as they seemed. He pointed out that many literary magazines and books pages are edited by women, including, in Britain, three of the four main broadsheets — The Telegraph, The Guardian, and The Independent — along with the LRB and Literary Review. The Sunday papers show a similar skew toward female editors. There is clearly no gender bias when it comes to staffing — or at least no bias in favor of men. For the record, the TLS is edited by a man — has only ever been edited by a man — though the full-time editorial staff ratio is currently a fairly healthy nine men to seven women. Is all of this not significant?
Well, yes and no. Because this is beginning to sound like complacency and defeatism, too, and these are not the sentiments I wish to get across. Clearly we still have some way to go. It’s easy for literary editors to think that they’re doing their best, to know that they aren’t biased and that this is enough. As another of my colleagues wrote: “No editor I know discriminates against female reviewers” — and I agree. And this innate sense of our correctness can be blinding. As Mary Beard wrote in a recent blog, having always assumed that the proportion of Classics reviews by men and women published in the TLS was around 50-50, she discovered that, on a recent sampling, the ratio was more like 70-30 in favor of men. This was a big surprise to her: after all, the TLS has an excellent track record of providing space to female Classicists, especially younger ones, and even the 70-30 reality was more equal “than that of senior women classicists at UK universities overall.” Beard wrote: “Just doing the figures was consciousness raising for me [...] it will make me think harder about my own mis-cognitions.”
And that is why the statistics of VIDA do remain important — as do so many of the arguments proposed by Katherine Angel. But I also think that portraying the situation as intractable and representing the literary world as a male-dominated monolith against which women can only bang their heads or give up can be counterproductive, leading not to resistance but resignation. Rather than argue that literary editors are “perpetuating” gender disparity, better to look at the historical facts: we have made great progress in redressing “the shocking paucity of women of authority and expertise” in most areas of our culture over the past 200 years, and we should rededicate ourselves to continuing that progress, rather than blaming literary publications for slowing it down.
So don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying we shouldn’t be vigilant or that it’s a bad thing to speak up. All I’m saying is don’t forget the counterarguments. And please don’t assume that literary editors aren't aware of this issue. We think about it. We talk about it. It isn’t always easy. And yet I’m convinced that, blah aside, and although we have miles to go, things are gradually changing for the better.
Toby Lichtig is a freelance journalist, critic, and an assistant editor at The Times Literary Supplement.
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