Arifa Akbar, Literary Critic and Reviewer: So-Called Women’s Issues

During her talk at the second Something Rhymed Salon, Arifa Akbar, formally of The Independent, gave us an insider’s glimpse of life as a literary editor.

She has generously allowed us to share it on here so that you can mull it over at your leisure.

Until recently, I was the literary editor of The Independent newspaper. I worked there for fourteen and a half years, many of these on the book desk, and in a decision make capacity, so that I was choosing who wrote reviews for our weekly books section, where they were placed on the pages, what labels were put on them, and who was reviewed.

Part of this process involved the management of so-called women’s fiction, women’s genres, women’s writing. These categories have been helpful to me at times to ensure that equal numbers of women writers are represented, to make sure they are on the books pages of a national newspaper. And further afield, the categories are useful so that we have the Bailey’s prize correcting the bias against women’s fictions because we know statistically men don’t like to buy books by women authors (that’s why we have the likes of JK Rowling, who sell their books under ambiguous gender identities). The category of women’s fiction is also helpful to publishers – Virago was built upon the idea of making space for women’s issues.

But concepts of ‘women’s fiction’, and women’s issues in literature, can be trapping too, precisely because we have created a nice tidy category that can be devalued by the literary establishment! It can be ‘put in its place’, side-lined in its own ghetto. Margaret Atwood’s fiction is suddenly women’s fiction; it’s not SF or dystopic fiction. Elena Ferrante dramatizes female friendship so she writes female fiction A builder who was recently laying my floors at home was a voracious reader and I saw that he was reading Paula Hawkin’s bestelling debut, The Girl on The Train. I asked him a few days later what he had thought of it and he said he enjoyed it but that it was ‘more a woman’s book’. Having read it, I had considered it to be a crime thriller so I asked him what he meant and he said it was ‘a book about a woman, so women would read it’. This made me think – when women read about men’s experiences through fiction, we so often universalise them, while the reverse doesn’t always happen. It’s certainly what I do with my favourite male authors such as Dave Eggers and Michel Faber – I extrapolate a universal story from their books, and their male protagonists.

Conversely, the domestic novel is only called the domestic novel when a woman writes it. Not when Philip Roth writes American Pastoral, all about one American family, or when Karl Ove Knausgaard writes about looking after the kids and wiping their noses in his series, My Struggle, or when Jonathan Franzen writes Freedom, about middle-class American life. These are considered to be state-of-the-nation-novels, but not when Anne Tyler writes them, or so many other women. And so-called women’s issues aren’t devalued either when they’re written about by men.


In 2011, Granta brought out an edition of the magazine called The F-Word. I wrote a long piece on women’s fiction at the time to mark this publication, asking what it is, and studying the sexual politics of storytelling. When I asked some writers and thinkers who I regard as staunchly feminist, and hugely aware of the issues, they told me they didn’t want to be part of that article. It seemed to me as if they didn’t want to be hounded by the same old questions – what are women’s issues, what is women’s fiction, what is a woman’s way of writing…

These questions can corner you as a woman in the same way that questions of race and writing do – some writers I know are forever having to answer the question, ‘are you an Asian writer or a writer?’ The ones who are sick of being seen as Asian writers, rather than just writers, have every right to be sick of it, but I would argue that they can’t escape being Asian writers. Just as women writers are both writers and women writers, dealing with universal issues, and also grappling with women’s issues.

So I would return to the central Catch-22 – once the categories of women’s writing, and women’s issues in fiction, are created, some use them as an excuse to take women out of the universal spectrum. I have a recent example from The Independent: we had a section called ‘Round-up’ in which five or six books under a specific category were reviewed together – so this month’s crime fiction, or romance, or historical fiction, or debuts. One week, we had a crime fiction round up that happened to feature five books by five women writers. This was flagged up to me by a sub-editor, and then, when I ignored it, by a more senior editor, and I was asked how this had happened, why it had happened that the reviewer hadn’t even included one man, and please could I make sure it didn’t happen again? It was even suggested to me that we should change the category name to ‘women’s crime fiction’. And yet, how many times had the reverse happened – that all the authors mentioned in so many lists and round-ups, are all men? And how many times is it queried?

I want to end by drawing back to my article on The F-Word, on how relevant feminism was to 21st women’s fiction, in which I quoted several acclaimed female writers, some of whom would say they write about women’s issues, and some who wouldn’t. I was struck by the broad range of opinions and differences between them and I thought their opinions might add to our discussion tonight.

Joyce Carol Oates, a writer who is constantly cited for her excellence in creating (often marginalised) female voices, said that she mines material from her imagination, not politics, and that the best literature endures beyond its political outlook: “Though I have been told by younger women – in fact, sometimes by men – that I have been a ‘model’ for them, of an imaginative sort, I had not felt this way about myself.

“In the short run, something like a ‘political’ vision seems essential; in the long run, it is probably irrelevant…. A revolutionary political vision will attract attention – initially. But if the literary work is not enduring, the politics will soon become dated. That is why the most seemingly apolitical of American women poets, Emily Dickinson, reads as if she were our contemporary, while the feminist polemics of women writers of the 1970s and 1980s have lost their audiences.”

Kate Mosse, founder of the then-Orange (now Bailey’s) Prize, reckoned that an older generation of women felt the burden to be standard-bearers of female fiction in a way that the new generation does not. Their imaginations are “freed up” she says, to write fiction that goes beyond the social realism of the kitchen sink.

Toril Moi, a professor of literature at Duke University and author of the feminist classic, Sexual/Textual Politics, strongly disagreed, but added that “I completely understand that some women can feel cornered by the question ‘are you a woman writer?’ People hardly ever ask that question of men.” The statement “I am not a woman writer” need not be anti-feminist either, she said. It is, in many cases informed by the desire to escape from the “other” enclave.

Urvashi Butalia, an Indian activist, writer and feminist, said: “Whether you like it or not, your politics and gender follow you into the world of the imagination”. And Margaret Drabble said she so often chose to write about women because “I write about what is important to me… I haven’t felt a duty or a responsibility to write fiction about women, and nobody has imposed this on me. I have written about women because their lives are important to me.”

The Ghanian-American author, Taiye Selasi, said that she had not made a conscious effort to create strong women characters in her fiction. They just “emerge on the page that way”, and Emma Donoghue said that she felt no obligation to represent women’s lives, yet a feminist consciousness remains: “I suppose to me a feminist novelist (of any gender) is one who notices gender.

“So you might say I am an obviously feminist writer in that my work often focuses on women’s lives; I try to tell neglected stories and many of them are women’s. But I would argue that I’m being just as feminist when I write about my male characters, because I am just as interested in how notions of manhood shape (and in many cases cage) them… I certainly don’t feel as if I’m working within a distinct tradition of women’s writing.”

Lastly, I want to quote Virginia Woolf, who believed in the ideal of literary androgyny. In her 1929 essay, A Room of One’s Own, she suggested that “it is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex.”


Please do continue the conversation by using the comment facility below.

Michael Caines of The Times Literary Supplement on the VIDA Count

Michael Caines of The Times Literary Supplement has kindly written up the panel presentation that he gave at the first Something Rhymed salon on achieving gender parity in the literary world.

If you attended, you might enjoy the chance to look at the infographics in more detail. And, for those of you who weren’t able to make it, this should give you some insight into the discussion.

There’s a really simple way to make men and women more equal presences in the book pages of newspapers, literary reviews and little magazines.

As Katy Guest put it to me recently, the “gender inequality problem” in the books pages could be easily solved, as she solved it on the Independent on Sunday, by commissioning approximately equal numbers of men and women.

Easy. So why don’t more editors do this?

This infographic was produced by Nancy Smith for VIDA. © 2010 VIDA

To play devil’s advocate for a moment, there could be many reasons, and although most are bad, a couple perhaps represent genuine difficulties. Gathering together everything I’ve been told or have observed over the past few years, I’d say the drearier reasons include sheer inertia (not being bothered), denying that whatever journal you work for has a wider social responsibility (a kind of neoliberal argument, perhaps), and what one editor described to me as the existence of a “man pool” of reliable male literary journalists – ie, the veterans who have been plugging away for years. I’d be interested to know if any editors here can also testify to the existence of this “man pool”.

Perhaps it’s more or less the same excuse, but I’m also interested in the concept of editorial loyalty. There’s no rule to say you can’t change things overnight on a paper, but I suspect that many editors are quite cautious by nature, and once they have somebody they can trust working for them, they tend to stick by them. Hence the rise, a long, long time ago, of the regular columnist, the chief fiction reviewer or whatever, who happens to be male.

A trickier point I take from my colleague Mary Beard, who has been classics editor on the TLS for the past two decades, and has blogged more than once about the question of reviewers’ gender: her view is that there are several variables when you’re commissioning, and gender is just one of them. She’s interested, for example, actively interested, in finding reviewers from different backgrounds and ethnicities, as well as different genders. And she often commissions reviews of books on quite esoteric subjects. So, within her academic field, Classics, which is still somewhat more male than female, you’re looking at finding, ideally, the subset of people who know everything there is to know about Attic vases, then disregarding those who are the author’s friends, and the ones who can’t write for a general readership (assuming you already know if they can write or not). Of course, it would be wonderful to find that your chosen expert is female but in Classics the chances aren’t necessarily 50/50.

A similar example from the TLS: there was a spat in the letters pages several years ago between three experts in Madagascan history. They’ve all been around for a long time, it seems, and have no choice but to review one another’s books – hence the spat – and, would you believe it, they were all men.

That brings me to a further point specific to the TLS but which I suspect has broader implications. The paper I work for reviews a lot of trade books, but also a lot of books published by university presses. We need experts in very particular fields. But then you run into a problem like the one described in the TLS last year, in a review of a book called Women in Philosophy: What needs to change? Here’s the opening paragraph of that review:

“Women occupy 25 per cent of the posts in university philosophy departments across the United Kingdom. The figures are similar throughout the anglophone world. In the United States the proportion is 21 per cent, while Canada, Australia and New Zealand all have fewer than 30 per cent women philosophers. . . . this kind of imbalance has all but disappeared from areas such as English literature and history, and is nowadays largely restricted to the so-called STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).”

There’s a further problem when it comes to the professoriate, i.e. the highest echelon in academia. Women are particularly poorly represented there, although I don’t know if this is mainly a STEM problem or not. All I have is the survey reported by the THES in 2013, which found that although “women make up 45 per cent of non-professorial academics” in British universities, “it is men who still dominate at professor level”. The average was roughly “one in five professors in the UK is female”. Not all papers draw as many of their reviewers from academia as we do, but your media dons don’t spring out of nowhere – if you can’t find women in senior roles at universities, equally sharing in the territory of intellectual authority, you have a problem that can ultimately affect the media in turn.

Coming back to the point about what editors can do, please don’t take this to mean I’m saying: look at us, poor us, our hands are tied . . . I’m just interested, as I hope you are, too, in getting to the heart of the matter. That’s why the VIDA Count for me represents merely a starting point, and why we need more specific surveys of the same sort like Fiona Moore’s annual “poetry and sexism” count which focuses on the Guardian Review and reveals that, over the past couple of years, just under a third of the 45 collections of poetry reviewed in those pages were by women, and just under a third of the reviews were written by women.

And it’s why we need studies like Andrew Kahn and Rebecca Onion’s study for Slate, published in January this year, showing how popular history books are appallingly dominated by men.

1 Who Writes History - titles copy

3 Who Writes History - bestsellers2 Who Writes History - university presses

Coming back to the VIDA Count, you could perhaps say that those publications that have more male reviews, review more books by men and so on are probably the ones more drastically affected by the broader cultural imbalance. On the TLS – which I have to use as an example not to single it out as a special case but just because I have direct access to the relevant data – I know that the weekly fiction pages have often achieved gender parity over the past few years. In non-fiction subject areas, the ratio varies enormously. I myself commission reviews relating to English literature, literature criticism, with a bit of theatre, film and television on the side; over the past year and a half, around 70 per cent of my reviewers have been women; this week I’ve commissioned six women and one man. This is not particularly difficult for me, although I do feel that there is such a thing as an Eng. Lit. man pool and have to acknowledge, somewhat grudgingly, their usefulness. The religion editor, on the other hand, can turn to the likes of Professor Alison Shell and Lucy Beckett on occasion, but is absolutely hemmed in by authorities such as the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, Professor Anthony Kenny and many other male theologians of note.

You could take every subject we cover in turn if you wanted to be really thorough about this, but the point I’m trying to make is that we don’t necessarily need just more fiction reviewers or more literary critics. If you want to write for us, that’s great, you won’t be ignored. I suspect that on other papers as well as mine, though, that’s not where the big shortfalls are. So practically, I guess it pays to have an inalienable specialist subject or two, as well as a general expertise in the subject and the ability to swing a pen, as Dorothy Parker once put it – the least helpful letters I receive are the ones that just say “I can review anything”. And if you’re the woman who knows some subject back to front that only gets written about publicly by men – it’s time to push to the front.

In any case, for the purposes of this panel, we’ve been asked to think positive, basically – what can editors do, what can writers do, and what can we do as readers. I’ve tried to describe various editorial issues already; and the point of going into these post-VIDA statistics, via Slate and the rest, is that, as writers, it’s possibly best to think strategically about who you’re trying to write for and in what role. I also wonder if VIDA’s own statistics can be made to reveal a bit more information that could be useful to you, if you’re one of those writers.

4 VIDA stats

This graph isn’t meant to say, oh look, where have all the men gone, by the way. You have to imagine that on top of each of these columns there’s another one at least as high, if not two or three times higher. The point is that over the past six years, these are the averages for the number of women each of these publications included in some way – asked to review, reviewed etc – and so even if nothing else changed, these would be the opportunities to be involved in this somewhat unreal world that each of these publications offers. Granta doesn’t do badly in percentage terms, for example, but it publishes very few writers compared to the New York Times Book Review, and of course they tend to be writers chosen for a particular theme, sometimes with a particular level of prestige. The TLS is a weekly, so by its nature it “involves” more female contributors and authors reviewed than something like the bottom ten publications put together. So, I stress, I’m not using this as some kind of magic to say, oh look, we came out top, but just to suggest that there may be ways of using this data constructively.

I’ll also throw in this more haphazard graph of my own devising.

5 TLS 1906 to 2016

This one’s inspired by the historical count VIDA carried out for the first time this year, looking back a century to survey the pages of the New York Times, I think it was. The reviews in that paper were anonymous in those days, as they were in the TLS. But nowadays the TLS archives show you who wrote what. Basically, as it’s the last week of April, I’ve hopped back from decade to decade, from 2016 back to 1906, counting and working out the percentages of female contributors from each end-of-April issue, up to the current one, that’s just been published today. Of course, there’s a danger of imposing an interpretation on this kind of jagged rising line, and there have to be strenuous caveats about my counting and calculating skills, as well as the drastically variable issues in between, but – without being absolutely sure what I would get – I’ve found that we’re on a pretty slow upwards trend, from 0, no women at all in 1906, to 38 per cent, which is where this week’s issue is. (It’s around the 1960s that you start to see familiar names appearing (not in print at first, because the paper wouldn’t start using bylines until the 1970s): AS Byatt, Susannah Clapp, Doris Lessing, PD James, Jeanette Winterson, Penelope Fitzgerald. That dip in the 90s is inevitably caused, as far as I can recall, by some special focus on politics, but I don’t think it’s typical of the decade. So 38 per cent – I think we’re going in the right direction, albeit, I openly confess, quite slowly.

And I hope that on the editorial side of things, more literary magazines and newspaper books sections and what-have-you could start to acknowledge this kind of history openly. (I started a similar exercise in the Spectator archives but was defeated by both a number of broken links and the depressing statistics I found for the few years I could access completely: 16 men to 2 women in 1956, in the last April issue, I mean; 32 men to 3 women in 1986; 33 men to 9 women in 1996.)

One further point about the numbers and how to use them: they don’t tell the full story, but we need it. Here’s another snapshot, an admittedly arbitrary one, of the latest issues of various publications that I’ve counted over the past week.

6 April snapshot percentages

7 April snapshot totals

There’s a few things you could say about this, but as I’m on the Spectator, let’s note how they do OK in terms of numbers – it’s thirteen apiece in the TLS and the Speccie. Percentage-wise, they come pretty low. But you know what? Most of those female contributors are in the back half of the paper, confined to the so-called lighter stuff, while the men hog the front half of the paper. It’s not so bad in every issue, I should say, but it’s usually a man on the cover, and men leading the line. Confronted with that, a young writer, starting out, maybe needs to ask: do I say to myself, OK, I’ll hope for the radio column in fifty years’ time – or I can see there’s a gap there for somebody young and clever and, at last, female, to break the old dogs’ stranglehold on political affairs coverage?

Maybe that’s unrealistic – it’s just a speculation for your consideration. But it also reminds me to say that beyond the numbers, there’s the question of prominence and what roles in literary journalism women are “allowed” to take up. Alex Clark wrote a great piece about this for the Guardian in 2013. She, incidentally, raises the man pool idea (sorry to bang on about it) when she quotes Claire Tomalin looking back on her time as a literary editor on two publications in the 1970s:

“I tried very hard both at the New Statesman and the Sunday Times to find and use more women reviewers – but I also remember being attacked for not doing better. The truth is, there were many more men eager to review, offering to come into the office to talk about books, more male academics then, too. But I did bring in women – Victoria Glendinning, Marina Warner, Hilary Spurling, Alison Lurie, Anita Brookner.”

But Alex Clark also makes this observation, which I’m afraid still holds good today:

“There is also the sense that men can review well-known men and well‑known women, but that women are more usually asked to review women and rarely very celebrated men. My own experience more or less supports this; I have reviewed books, mainly fiction, for more than 20 years but I’ve never been asked to review Martin Amis or Jonathan Franzen, although I’ve interviewed both in platform events. . . .

The plot thickens when one realises that this is not because it’s exclusively men who are doing the commissioning; in recent years, the literary editor of a newspaper has been as likely to be a woman as a man. . . .”

The thing is, I don’t think literary culture would be any the healthier really if we had absolute gender parity across all literary pages everywhere, but the men got the big gigs, the Franzens and the Amises, while women only got the leftovers. Instead, I suspect that the whole books business, from writers and agents to publishers to editors and reviews and booksellers and distributors and PR agents to the most important people of all, the readers, needs a good shake. And in the longer term, I wonder if it’s as readers ourselves and with our fellow readers that we need to start. We need initiatives like Joanna Walsh’s #readwomen and the Bristol Women’s Literature Festival, keeping up the pressure in both the virtual and the real world. We need to think about what the concerns behind Kamila Shamsie’s proposal for a Year of Publishing Women mean, even if it’s an idea that you don’t agree with putting into practice, and I wonder if we need to treat the weird world of literary prizes very carefully indeed. In terms of the books pages themselves, data-driven surveys more specifically targeted than the VIDA Count represent a great step forward, I think, and I’ve tried to suggest some ways in which the aspiring literary journalist might look at the information VIDA offers and use it to her advantage. I wonder also if we need a women-only equivalent to Granta, something like a prestigious quarterly that concentrates on women’s writing, on finding new writers and matching them with established figures whose names will help to shift copies and get them into a prominent position on bookshop shelves. And if we must have prizes, how about an English-language equivalent of the Prix Femina, which can have a male or female winner but, crucially, one that derives its authority from a women-only panel of judges.

At Something Rhymed, we’re keen to hear your ideas for accelerating change. Please do send us your suggestions by using the comments facility below, and we will add them to the list that we are compiling.