Women Take Back the Write

New Zealand-born writer, John Forde, was inspired to pen his first blog post in nine months after attending two of the Something Rhymed salons. Here are his reflections on the state of gender relations in the UK’s literary world, and whether men have a role in this conversation.

Is feminism dead in the UK? This month’s Something Rhymed Literary Salon series re-opens a much-needed debate about women’s visibility in the literary scene. 

Not long after I moved to London, in the summer of 2003, my friend D’arcy and I were sitting in a park, watching some cute guys playing football. A cluster of young women watched them from the sidelines, giggling nervously behind their hands, and shifting their weight from one leg to the other so their kitten heels wouldn’t get stuck in the damp grass.

“There’s something wrong with this picture,” D’arcy said. “If this was New Zealand, the girls would be in there playing too.”

Her point was proved just a few minutes later, when their football rolled in our direction. One of the boys jogged towards us to retrieve it. He was about 18 or 19, lean and sexy, with a shaved head and grey trackie bottoms. As he came closer, D’arcy grabbed the ball and stood up to face him.

“Give it back!” he said. D’arcy said nothing but smiled at him, taunting him with the ball.

The boy flew into a rage – furrowed brow, red cheeks, skinny arms gesticulating. “It’s not for you!” he bellowed, grabbing the ball out of her hands. “You’re a girl!”

Though I didn’t know it then, there in a nutshell was my experience of gender relations in the UK. Action and adventure is for men; women are there to watch men, and empty the slop bucket when it starts to smell.

In the years that followed, I puzzled at the meek acceptance of women’s subordinate status in the culture, and tried to identify the conditions that made it possible. Part of it was the everyday tragicomedy that constitutes being English. Politeness and deference are celebrated as virtues, meaning in language is buried under layers of irony and passive-aggression, and there’s a national addiction to the word “sorry”. It’s amusing, in a Dadaist, masochistic kind of way, but hardly conducive to having a serious dialogue about inequality.

But there was something else at play, I sensed, that felt painfully specific to women. Feminism was a dirty word. Over the years, I lost count of the number of times I read or saw or heard a woman begin a feminist critique with “I’m not a feminist but….”. And it was truly, madly, deeply uncool for women to get angry, especially if it involved contradicting a man.

Where were the strong, stroppy feminists of my home country? The Kate Sheppards who got the vote in 1893 without having to resort to hunger strikes, the Jean Battens who flew solo around the world, the Katherine Mansfields who moved to London and made Virginia Woolf jealous, the Jocelyn Harrises who taught me at university, the Helen Clarks who became Prime Ministers? In Ye Oldie England, the only murmurings of feminist discontent came from nice white middle-class radio presenters with cut-glass accents, or columnists in the left-wing newspapers. Everything was so quiet and measured, carefully calibrated so as not to give offence.

As I learned, feminism – or any other social cause in the UK – would always play second fiddle to the monolith of class. How can class be avoided, in a society where the head of state is an unelected monarch (though admittedly a woman), where the ruling classes are overwhelmingly drawn from a handful of private boys’ schools, and where the rest of the population gets classified by their accent or what school they went to? George Bernard Shaw was onto something in Pygmalion: the way an Englishwoman talks can be literally the difference between her being a duchess or a flower seller.

It was then that I realised how shocking and revolutionary Germaine Greer must’ve been when she took on the UK in the 1970s. She was the antithesis of a “nice girl”: searingly intelligent, classically educated, articulate, funny, and most importantly, fearless in her opinions and unconcerned with being “difficult” or giving offence.

Towards the end of the 2000s, with the Conservatives back in power, the UK seemed in dire need of a re-inoculation of Germaine’s brand of feminism: articulate, angry and persuasive. Greer still popped up occasionally in the Guardian, but she seemed strangely irrelevant and lost in her own nostalgia – twittering about new translations of Proust or criticising transsexuals with a venom that was out of sorts with contemporary sexual politics. There were a few others of her generation about: Helena Kennedy was still going strong, though since ascending to the House of Lords, she’d shifted her focus from women’s justice to the wider sphere of human rights abuses.

So who was England’s modern-day feminist voice? In 2011, Times columnist Caitlin Moran had a huge bestseller with her book How To Be A Woman. Moran’s greatest achievement, I think, has been to rescue the word “feminist” from the trash heap, and repackage it for a post-Internet/lads’ mag generation. She’s a bright and entertaining writer, but to me, she’s more stand-up comic than feminist commentator – always working too hard to get the laugh, and desperate to prove that she’s as hard-drinking and rock ‘n roll as one of the lads. Her autobiographical writing is extraordinary – How To Be A Woman has a fearless and unapologetic account of her getting an abortion – but even this seems to work against her. By continually referencing her life, Moran reminds us how exceptional she is. Like Julie Burchill before her, she was a working class girl from up North with no university qualifications, who somehow became a broadsheet journalist and author. Moran is a depressingly rare success story; she’s an outlier, rather than the Everywoman she seems to want to be.

In the last few years, something has been shifting in feminist discourse, much of it centred around social media. Websites like The Everyday Sexism Project encouraged women to take note of and record daily reminders of their secondary status. The vicious trolling of academic and TV presenter Mary Beard was met with a  sustained critique about misogyny in Twitter. And research sites Vida and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender In Media published hard evidence of women’s under-representation in literature and film. Finally, women were getting angry again – and even talking about how their right to get angry was being slapped down by men smirking “Calm down, dear”. There was still little hope in hell of Britain getting a feminist Prime Minister – I’m with Russell Brand’s assessment of Margaret Thatcher breaking the glass ceiling for other women “only in the sense that all the women beneath her were blinded by falling shards” – but it was a start.

A new voice in the current wave of English feminism is Something Rhymed, a website set up by writers Emma Claire Sweeney and Emily Midorikawa to research and celebrate female literary friendships. Their efforts are soon to be turned into a book, A Secret Sisterhood, published in 2017. This month, Emma and Emily curated a three-part series of panel discussions on women’s under-representation in the UK literary scene, and what can be done about it.

I’ve been to a fair few literary salons in my time, and walked away from most of them feeling entertained but not that challenged, forgetting most of what I’d heard by the next day. The Something Rhymed salons were a weightier, more satisfying experience – like the glorious meal Virginia Woolf describes at the start of A Room of One’s Own, before she returns to the women’s college for prunes and custard.

This image is in the public domain.

The first salon (which I confess to not attending) concentrated on the shameful under-reporting and publishing of women’s voices in literature and journalism. Bolstered by statistics from Vida, the London Review of Books was singled out for a particular kicking: despite having a female editor, its record of reviewing books by women and female contributors is appallingly low. (Just a few weeks later, Jenny Diski, one of the LRB’s few regular female contributors, died, leaving the magazine looking even more terminally male and white.)

In the second salon, a new panel – writers Michèle Roberts and Karen Maitland, editor Sarah LeFanu and journalist Arifa Akbar – took on the vexed subject of “women’s writing”. Arifa kicked off by noting that many of her female interview subjects described “women’s writing” as a trap, a niche category into which female writers can be dropped into and ignored. Quoting Woolf, who said famously that “it is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex”, Arifa also noted that gender categories tend to be imposed from outside than from within. Women writers are called “domestic” when they write about family, she said, whereas male writers writing in the same territory (Philip Roth, Jonathan Franzen, Karl Ove Knausgård) are categorised as “state of the nation” writers.

This bias was something reported on by all the panelists. Karen added that there was still widespread kowtowing to the perceived authority of men, and an assumption that women’s literary territory was “domestic” and therefore narrower in scope. Arifa agreed, arguing that many male readers (including her builder) were reluctant to read fiction written by women – even The Girl on the Train, the recent femme-penned commercial blockbuster.

Sarah gave a fascinating account of her work at the Women’s Press, which was set up expressly to further the cause of the women’s movement, and to create a platform in which “revolutionary women” could get published. The Women’s Press was instrumental in publishing science fiction written by women – until that point considered largely a male domain. Sarah commented ruefully on the poor showing by women in Penguin’s recent two-volume anthology of British short stories, edited by Philip Hensher, and called on women in the literary world to renew their political credentials.

Michèle, one of the Women’s Press’s most celebrated authors, couched women’s inequality in a wider historical and political context. Since the days of Ancient Greece and Rome, women have been associated with the body and child-bearing, rather than intellect or public speaking. In our modern capitalist era, huge profits are made from dividing and categorising the sexes for marketing purposes. Arifa agreed, and discussed the sexual commodification of female writers, especially those from “exotic” BME backgrounds. She described a hair-raising moment from her days at the Independent, where a Ghanean author was selected for a profile solely on the strength of her youthful good looks.

Karen discussed the problems of literature being separated along gender lines, and the reluctance of the industry to move beyond binary categories. She related visiting a bookstore, in which the male store owner had organised all the books into male vs female sections. The owner told Karen proudly that he’d even researched authors with gender-free names, to ensure that sneaks like Pat Barker and J K Rowling didn’t end up in the “wrong” section, thus avoiding the horror of one of his male customers accidentally buying a book written by a woman.

When asked what strategies should be put in place to combat gender stereotyping, Arifa encouraged female authors to stop anonymising themselves or trying to “trick” readers with gender-neutral names. Michèle spoke encouragingly of the power of community, and praised Something Rhymed as a good example of modern-day consciousness-raising. Sarah argued that more attention needed to be paid to female success stories, and to continue the fight for pay equity among the sexes. And Karen encouraged everyone to read and write widely, and to focus on removing gender barriers for the next generation of readers.

It was a fascinating panel, as much for the generation differences in the panellists’ approach to feminism as for their individual strategies. As Sarah and Michèle spoke, I felt my shoulders drop and I exhaled with satisfaction. Here, at last, was the confidence and the unapologetic politicising that I’d been missing in over a decade. It sat in such marked contrast to the tentative, atomised discourse of whichever wave of feminism we’re in now. Maybe I am just a 70s feminist at heart; I’m certainly from the generation who benefited from their efforts. And yet Arifa seemed closer to my generation’s voice: cautious, questioning, alert to inconsistencies, and keen to avoid orthodoxies. Both voices seem necessary to inform a well-rounded debate.

In the third salon, Emma continued the discussion about strategies to improve gender equality in the literary world. The panel comprising novelists Jill Dawson and Louise Doughty, editor and blogger Varaidzo and literary curator Melanie Abrahams were asked to discuss how we can encourage more reading by and of female writers.

Louise spoke of the power of literary prizes, both to transform a writer’s career, and to bring women’s writing to wider public attention. She discussed the controversial history of the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize), in which the original sponsors Mitsubishi withdrew their support after protests that the competition was biased against men. Jill noted that the prize is now one of the world’s top literary prizes, a status that was unimaginable when it was first launched.

Varaidzo spoke about the absence of writing featuring female and non-white protagonists, particularly in children’s and young adult fiction, and pointed to the opportunities offered by self-publishing as a means of short-circuiting the publishing world. Crowdsourcing provided an accessible way to finance literary projects, she said, and has the added commercial benefit of identifying demand for a writer’s work in advance. She gave a hilarious account of attending a workshop at a major publishing house, in which well-meaning editors admitted they had no idea how to access younger and BAME audiences. While the will was there to connect, bridges needed to be built between publishers and writers from under-represented groups.

Jill agreed with Varaidzo’s assessment of the major publishers, and cited the excellent work done by the Women’s Press and smaller independent presses to fill in the gaps in the marketplace and promote women’s work. She noted similar problems for working class writers trying to find a market, arguing that the publishing industry was still dominated by white middle-class Oxbridge graduates, usually called Lucy. She noted that many publishers and agents still followed a highbrow academic culture, favouring reviews published in the LRB or the Times Literary Supplement rather than on Goodreads. Doughty added that while publishing was now a heavily female industry, the big decisions about sales and marketing still tend to be made by (male) financiers, with an eye on corporate profit, resulting in conservative decision-making.

Melanie, the creative director of Renaissance One, described her organisation’s work as literary ecology: identifying needs and potential markets, and offering support and mentoring to writers and literary organisations. She encouraged a scientific approach to combating gender inequality, identifying “points of infiltration” and shifts in power structures in the literary world, and “looking with joy” at the cosmopolitan landscape.

Jill agreed with this approach, saying that the struggle for gender equality often felt like Sisyphus pushing his rock up a mountain. Rather than a single monumental struggle, many smaller rocks can be set into motion, she said, running together to effect change across a number of sectors.

Louise praised the efforts of Birmingham writer Kit de Waal, who invested part of the royalties from her book deal into a scholarship for a student from a disadvantaged or minority background to complete an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck College (where I’m currently studying). Doughty described the huge enthusiasm that the scholarship has generated from other writers, who have donated time, money and mentoring services for the scholarship winner and finalists. All it takes is one person with a great idea, she said, around whom others will gather.

The salon looked to end on a low point, as the panelists lamented, once again, the strict gender divisions between boys’ and girls’ books. Jill spoke of the reluctance of school teachers to teach books with female protagonists for fear of alienating male students. Varaidzo pointed out that recent changes in the secondary school English syllabus has resulted in an absence of black British female authors, and that teachers needed encouragement to teach female and non-white authors.

Louise ended with slightly cheerier news – a book group of City bankers and lawyers, who realised that they were only reading books by men, and eventually put their suited hands up and asked her to recommend a female author. Jill and Louise argued that men needed to be encouraged to read more women’s writing, and that fears about boys’ poor academic progress shouldn’t result in only male-themed books being read in schools.

Emma concluded by saying that men needed to be included in the discussion on gender equality, and thanked the men present at the salon for coming along. For some reason, this moment stuck in my side like a thistle, nagging at me. Part of me senses that discussions about equality are best had by women talking on their own, at least to begin with, raising their own consciousness without the need to reassure or defer to men.

Image by Ashley Hall.

That said, Emma is right that discussions on gender equality can’t exist forever in a female-only sphere. Sooner or later, allies need to be found within the patriarchy. As Jill and Louise pointed out in their respective salons, little boys can be as constrained by gender norms as little girls, albeit with radically different outcomes in terms of their access to power. Feminism belongs to everyone – though it wouldn’t hurt men (me included) to shut up occasionally and listen, rather than being the first to offer their solutions on how best to change the world.

I’d like to offer a Great White Male Bravo! to Emma and Emily for organising a fantastic series of discussions. The energy generated in each of the sessions I attended was palpable – connections were made, business cards and email addresses enthusiastically swapped, and consciousness was raised. Perhaps timid kitten-heeled England isn’t as doomed as I thought it was.


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.