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Are Literary Publications Biased Against Women?

Statistics compiled by VIDA, an organisation representing women in the literary arts, appear to show gross imbalance between men and women in leading literary magazines and newspapers. They publish far more poems by men than women, far more reviews of books by men than by women, and a large majority of reviewers are men. The statistics show an even greater imbalance than I would have suspected. In 2010, the London Review of Books, for example, used 168 male reviewers and 47 women, and reviewed books by 195 men and only 68 women. The TLS used 900 male book reviewers and 341 female, reviewing 1036 books by men and only 330 by women. , a TLS editor defended its record by saying:

“I’m not too appalled by our figure, as I’d be very surprised if the authorship of published books was 50/50. And while women are heavy readers, we know they are heavy readers of the kind of fiction that is not likely to be reviewed in the pages of the TLS. The TLS is only interested in getting the best reviews of the most important books.”

According to the TLS, then, it’s to do with “best” and “most important”. These, apparently, are not the books women read, and the best reviews are those written (mainly) by men.

That attitude reveals rather a lot! But the figures themselves don’t tell a complete story. I wonder, for instance, if specialist poetry publications achieve a more equal gender balance than the more general literary publications (I don’t know the answer to that one). It could be that there are far more male reviewers than female and far more books published by men than women, although figures don’t seem to be available to prove or disprove those assertions. This suggests that more books are published by men than women. However, it’s too small a sample to constiture real proof. If such assertions were borne out, is it really the role of magazines and newspapers to work towards a greater gender balance? For example, should a magazine publish poems by a woman even if they aren’t as strong as poems it could have published by a man, just to represent the genders equally? And if a magazine, with space to review 10 books, receives 50 books by men and only 20 by women for review, should it review 5 by each gender as a matter of policy, or simply try to review the most interesting books, irrespective of other factors?

In case anyone is wondering, I’ve compiled figures from the last nine issues of Magma (Issues 40-48). I haven’t included anthologies and I’ve ignored poems when I wasn’t sure whether the writer was male or female:

Reviewers: 20 male, 14 female
Authors of Books Reviewed: 39 male, 52 female
Authors of Poems Published: 214 male, 242 female

This Post Has 58 Comments

  1. “We don’t describe poetry written by young men as ‘dick lit’, even if they write about themselves.”

    Let’s not reject the idea out of hand! I’ve certainly read some work for which that would be an apposite description…

  2. I just wanted to add some info about the PR letter of 2009 that came up here and to which I was a signatory. This turned into such a sinister story which played out completely outside public view because Fiona Sampson would not publish any further correspondence, nor respond to the many women poets who wrote in asking to review as a result of her statement that they don’t ask.
    When Fiona Sampson published the first letter she placed above it the note that ‘corrections’ to the letter could be found on another page. The ‘corrections’ were in fact different statistics presented as corrections, in absolutely tiny writing, like footnotes. The effect of this was to give the impression that the original letter was flawed, which it was not. This also meant that none of the actual issues were dealt with in her riposte. The insinuation was clear: the signatories were wrong, and what is more incapable of presenting a coherent argument. -t was very effective in silencing the debate.
    There was a second letter sent to PR by Kate Clanchy and signed by more poets (some of the original signatories dropped off after seeing the ferocity of the response to the first). This letter made clear that the statistics were correct and called on Poetry Review to account for its dismally narrow approach. This letter was not published.
    I personally took from this crushing of a vital debate in a publicly funded journal that one should think twice before taking a stand. There are real consequences to your reputation and career if you decide to get involved. This debate will always remain as a surface squabble because to try to change anything requires personal risk and a challenge to some very cosy vested interests, and the cost will be genuine and high. I believe that most if not all the signatories to those letters were shocked by the consequences of speaking out.

  3. This kind of response to anyone daring to raise this issue seems more the norm than note and I mentioned just this in Intro to WW. I’m quite certain that contents of of that and being signatory to above letter was behind PR telling me they wouldn’t review the book there because they were no longer reviewing anthologies. When I pointed out this was clearly not so and mentioned another anthology I was told that THAT was not in fact an anthology but a “generation demarking activiity” I kid you not. On the very same day, the TLS was also telling me why wouldn’t review either, this woman’s anthology, which was quite a coincidence. Even writing this I can hear more doors slamming in my face.

  4. Polly, that is interesting indeed and thanks for sharing it. Your point is good that people are often shocked by the consequences of speaking out (not only on this issue) which can be far-reaching, effective and invisible.

    However, it’s good that it is not forgotten, and the thread here indicates something continues to bubble away incorrigibly. One advantage of being shut outside any door is that there’s instant solidarity with the folk on the same side of the door as you.

    There are fewer on the inside, in this case, I believe. Things change eventually, sometimes in ways we don’t expect. We need to be very good at what we do, and not forget. Water wears away stone.


  5. Hi Polly

    Thanks for adding to the debate. I don’t subscribe to PR so didn’t see the original letter or Fiona’s response or know that there was a further letter.

    The simple answer is to let everyone who is bothered by the issue let their subscriptions to PR lapse and let the membership secretary know why they are letting their subscriptions lapse.

    I don’t subscribe so can’t do this. But if we focus on supporting magazines and publishers who do have a more balanced view, those who don’t will slowly get the message. Hitting people in the pocket is often more effective than carefully researched arguements. I don’t see that not supporting a magazine or group that would exclude you anyway does any harm.

    I would echo Nell’s comments that things change eventually and we have to keep wearing away…

  6. Have any of the signatories to the two PR letters been published in PR since? (And if not, is that because they haven’t submitted?). Or are all signatories effectively black-listed now (making the gender imbalance even worse). I did hear there were serious ramifications for speaking up. This should be publicly discussed. We (A-gender) are in the process of setting up a website at to allow this discussion to be ongoing. Anyone who would like to contribute articles on gender imbalance in literature is invited to get in touch.

  7. As it happened I WAS asked to contribute an essay just after that point so not blacklisted. However, when I was corresponding with Fiona about a review of WW she sent me back this quite amazing note about how few people are asked to write an essays for PR and I should realise what an honor it was to be asked. Because this was during this same period I copied around to a few people here this offensive letter and my reply, which I thought rather pretty restrained under teh circumstances but but still civil and polite, if honest about her offensive address, so am probably blacklisted now. I also send copies of this correspondence to the Director of Poetry Society.

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