With our book A Secret Sisterhood just out in the UK, it gives us such pleasure to look back on the past three years running Something Rhymed together.
By the time we launched our blog at the beginning of 2014, with this post on Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf, we had been researching the subject of female literary friendship for some time already. But, over the months that followed, it was the enthusiasm of Something Rhymed readers that encouraged us to explore the subject of female literary friendship in far greater detail in a book.
A Secret Sisterhood features the stories of the literary friendships of Jane Austen and amateur-playwright-cum-family-governess Anne Sharp; Charlotte Brontё and early feminist author Mary Taylor; George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe, of Uncle Tom’s Cabin fame; fellow Modernists Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf.
We thought you might be interested in the following articles and reviews, which give something of a taster of the book. We’re also hard at work on pieces for the I newspaper, and the TLS, among others, so do look out for those.
We’ll be profiling another pair of female writer friends, suggested to us by one of our readers. If you have an idea for a pair of literary pals you’d like to see featured on Something Rhymed, do please let us know. You can do this by leaving a comment or visiting the Contact Us page.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.