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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. Same old stuff – see polemic section of Intro to Women’s Work (Seren), edited with Amy Wack.

    TLS reply as to why wouldn’t review this book there was telling. Poetry Review told me they didn’t review anthologies anymore as the reason not cover, this assertion not borne out by recent issues.

  2. I think that publishing not as strong poems just to represent a gender balance would be the death of poetry. I also think that the editor of the TLS should stop being so lazy. Of course there is fine and important womens’ writing out there and he should not be so hemmed in by his own preconceptions.

  3. There was an article about this (pertaining to the general press) in Mslexia last year – I also read another article (and I wish I could remember where!) that said that one of the problems is that most men don’t choose to read books by female authors – I was appalled by this and didn’t believe it – yet when I looked at the reading habits of men in my own family there does seem to be some truth in it. The article was questioning whether Harry Potter would have done so well if she had used her first name instead of J.K. Women when questioned read books by both women and men. It made me wonder if C.D. Wright uses her initials for the same reason.

  4. I’ve now published 30 titles, 17 by women, 13 by men. 4 out of 5 of my 2011 titles are by women. It’s not a policy thing, it’s just finding the writing that interests me enough to want to publish.

  5. If this is the case (and it almost certainly is), then the precedent is partly to blame. The UK scene has come on leaps and bounds in the last ten or twenty years, but I think it still has far to go.

  6. Most of the women will say yes, and most of the men will say no. The fact that we are still having this old argument some 50 years after it first appeared surely says something. I have had a great deal of support from men and from women, and learnt very early on which publications were biased: in a way I added to this bias by not sending any work to them!

  7. The truth still is, sadly, that more male publishers will elect to publish male writers, and more female publishers will choose books by women writers. Whether a question of shared identity, stylistic preference, or simply an attempt to redress the balance, evidence does show this to be (more or less) true. Until there is a significantly higher number of women in high positions within the publishing world, the trend isn’t likely to change in a hurry.

  8. AU CONTRAIRE

    I was pretty sure, subjectively, that my magazine “Obsessed With Pipework” consistently publishes more poems by women than men.

    A quick count confirms the impression – the ratio is 16 women to ten men in the current issue, 13:10 and 10:8 in a random couple of recent back issues, and a quick look at the recent pamphlet output of Flarestack Publishing follows the same pattern, with a ratio of 18 men to 13 women.

    I was in fact surprised that the difference was not greater, as I’m aware, while I’m looking at submissions, of often finding poems by men disappointing in comparison with those by women. In very general terms, I find men’s poems are often abstract, clever-clever, didactic in tone and condescending to the reader. While the ‘worst’ women poets can certainly also be guilty of this last fault, I do as an editor enjoy female poets’ groundedness in, and often greater range of sensual response to, the real world.

  9. Magazines only tell part of the story though – the true test of an equal playing field is whether the same ratios of men to women are making it to pamphlet publication, to full collection publication, into anthologies of contemporary writing and – ultimately – into the canon.

    Eva’s introduction to ‘Women’s Work’ is excellent on this – well worth a look if you haven’t already.

  10. A sideline that might be of interest. Many orchestras used to have a lack of female players. This was thought to be due to male judges preferring to select other males. Apparently we all tend to a default position of liking ‘people like ourselves’. So they started to audition musicians behind a curtain so the judges could not see an auditonee’s gender… Ta da! More female musicians were taken on.
    I see the bias with CREW lectures sometimes. The male lecturers have chosen examples from mainly male poets – perhaps ones they were taught…? So, I’ll bring in examples to workshops from female writers to try and balance the emphasis.

  11. It could be that male editors tend to choose male writers etc. Looking at the last 9 issues of Magma with its revolving editorship, that doesn’t seem to be the case. It doesn’t seem to matter whether there’s a male of female editor – the male/female poet numbers are usually close whatever the editor’s gender. Not that that proves anything generally.

    Personally, I tend to read more male poets than women (not sure why, as I like many women poets’ writing, but it is the case), so I think there is something to the idea that men tend not to read as many women as men. But personal reading habits are one thing and public publishing habits are another…

    I was interested to read this article, publsied in Poetry magazine in 2003 – http://www.poetryfoundation.org/journal/article.html?id=1778. Also the ‘letters to the editor in response to this article’ you can click on from the sidebar. Thanks to Poetry editor, Don Share, for linking to this from his Facebook page.

  12. Good old-fashioned feminist theorists would of course begin by debating the validity of adjectives like ‘strong’ and ‘important’ in relation to works of art as interpreted by a male-dominated centuries-old cultural hegemony. That’s putting it a bit strong, and of course things have moved considerably in the last thirty years, but there it is.

    And indeed Eva Salzman’s intro to Women’s Work does make interesting reading.

    What is interesting and encouraging is that the publication of this survey has caused a flurry of interest and debate on the internet and some of us are deliberately standing up to be counted (see Colin Will and Charles Johnson etc above and the link below). This debate, although it’s not new, is still very much alive.

    http://www.thesouthernreviewblog.org.php5-16.dfw1-1.websitetestlink.com/?p=509

  13. It does the heart good to see this discussion– aided by links to pieces in the TLS, The Southern Review, and Poetry Magazine– here on the Magma blog as well. I’m a VIDA member and I encourage anyone interested in what women are doing in literature to join (http://vidaweb.org/)

    I’ve seen this phenomenon both as poet and editor of a literary magazine (Drunken Boat.) It struck me when reading through submissions that there were more by males than females (this gender imbalance existed more in fiction and nonfiction than in poetry) and that men were more likely to be repeat submitters than women.
    I’m sure the reasons for this discrepancy are complex, and I’m far more interested in looking for a remedy than in discussing the reasons. As more women publish, edit, and teach literature, the landscape changes. Friendships, alliances, and mentorships among women are bound to form. These form the underpinnings for what gets published, reviewed, and ultimately read. I hold that a significant part of a literary life exists far from the page. It involves mentoring and encouraging those who come up behind us, as well as keeping in the light the work of writers whose work has influenced us.

    Recently on the Best American Poetry blog, I outed myself as more interested in the work of my gender (I’m female.) http://blog.bestamericanpoetry.com/the_best_american_poetry/2011/01/perseverating-on-a-theme-by-leslie-mcgrath.html
    Much of the reason for this is that there’s wonderful work being by women, a critical mass of intelligent women. I want to be part of that discussion. I want to be able to *find* this work in literary magazines, anthologies, and collections. Am I espousing a strict 50-50 balance? No. What I would like is already beginning to happen: literary magazines and publishers thinking about gender and offering their own stats as to who is submitting and who is being published. I’d like to see organizations like VIDA no longer spending hours compiling data and making pie charts– because the publishing industry and literary magazines are taking this responsibility on their own.

  14. Ah Charles, if only there were more editors, male or female, who preferred the thinginess of things to abstract and clever-clever! To be fair, I think a lot of small mag editors do. It’s when you get to places like the TLS that “importance” (or self-importance) and ponciness take over.

  15. What you find is that the higher up the “kudos” scale you go, the more the literary scene is dominated by men. Beginners’ creative writing classes are often exclusively female. Even BA and MA creative writing courses boast far more female students than male. In the “first rung” publications, like New Writer, the majority of writers published are women. Further along the career path, in the less intimidating literary magazines such as Magma, numbers are about equal. But when it comes to the big prize short lists and the top literary journals: Granta, the LRB and the TLS – you will find women vastly outnumbered by men. But this is not all down to the unconscious bias of male editors; women are also significantly responsible for their own exclusion.

    See: http://bethewriteryoudreamofbeing.com/does-my-gender-affect-my-success/

  16. You might like a little snippet from the Celtic fringe. In Wales, as concerns writing in English, there are, apart from the various little magazines, three more substantial “establishment” (i.e. Arts Council funded)magazines: Poetry Wales, Planet, the New Welsh Review. All are currently edited by women. Balance of work published, by gender? Off the top of my head, I’d say about 50-50.

  17. This has finally got me to do something my inner geek has been meaning to for ages: count up the figures for the Guardian’s regular Saturday reviews of poetry collections, and try to work out why so few of these, year after year, are of books by women…

    The Guardian Review carries long reviews, around 600-800 words, and short ones, around 200 words. Between January 2010 and now, the figures (excluding anthologies) are:

    Long reviews: 27 books by men, 11 books by women. That’s 71% and 29%.

    Short reviews: 10 books by men, 7 books by women. If you add all the long and short reviews together, the overall breakdown is two-thirds men, one-third women.

    When you look at the 11 women who had books covered in a long review, you start to see what’s happening. Elaine Feinstein, Fiona Sampson, Jo Shapcott, Katharine Towers, Ann Carson, Louise Glück, Pascale Petit, Fleur Adcock, Gwynneth Lewis, Sinéad Morrissey and Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin. So: leading poets, and/or poets shortlisted for awards last year. All published by big poetry publishers. The short reviews of books by women are more diverse.

    The list of men whose books got long reviews is different – it’s more varied. So this isn’t a mere case of more male poets getting published by major publishers, though that might play a part. The list includes the likes of Seamus Heaney, Edwin Morgan and CK Williams but also some less known names, such as Oliver Reynolds and Michael Haslam who are published by Arete and Arc.

    Admirable to be giving space to such books – but why only if they’re written by men? And why so few women anyway… is poetry the last bastion of sexism in the Guardian? It would be good to hear from Nicholas Wroe, or whoever else commissions the Guardian reviews.

    If bias, conscious or otherwise, continues in the Guardian of all places, then hardly surprising that it’s elsewhere too, and the VIDA figures are as they are.

    As for Magma, interesting to see the numbers, but it had never occurred to me to wonder what they were. Sometimes, thank goodness, the question just doesn’t arise.

  18. The perception of poetry written by women has changed radically during my life time. When I was at school, (I am 57) all the poetry we studied was written by men, including 20th century poetry. That certainly isn’t true now. It does, and will, make a difference having laureates who are female.

    I wish I felt the same about reviewing. Many of the heavyweight literary publications publish not only most reviews by men but also what I would describe as a solidly ‘male’ style of reviewing (further details on request . . . maybe). This is totally unnecessary. There are other ways of doing things and plenty of good women writers able to do them. But sometimes you DO have to go looking for them.

    Some of the female commissioners of reviews do not help the cause. I wish they did.

    I see no excuse for not securing a gender balance in literary reviews, and this should go hand in hand with securing high quality writing. I feel rather differently about poetry, where I think the selection may vary a bit from year to year, and essentially editors/publishers need to select the best work they can get, no matter which gender authored it. There may remain an issue in terms of attracting work from both genders equally (people tend to send where they think the work will be warmly received, and the balance of publication, and the gender of the editor/publisher can affect that perception).

    The same is not true in reviewing. There are sufficiently good reviewers of both genders for commissioning editors to insist on a balance. That, in turn, will mean future generations of human beings will not see gender as an issue in arts commentary. Nor should they.

  19. Spookily the TLS editor’s reaction sounds not unlike the NY Times literary editor’s reaction, “For us as editors, reviewers and critics, what we are really try[ing] to do is … identify that fiction that really will endure,” when a similar imbalance was pointed out. But what will endure? Most people would argue what will endure is what gets read and as most readers are female and not reading what’s being reviewed by the TLS or NY Times then that would strongly suggest both literary dinosaurs are reviewing the wrong books… (quote and discussion here: http://emmalee1.wordpress.com/2010/09/02/jolting-reviewers-out-of-their-comfort-zone/).

    It’s not simply a case that male editors tend to select work by men or that increasing female editors will see a rise in pubilcations by women. Editors do and will pick what they want to publish and don’t do a gender audit until someone points out there’s a bias (The British Fantasy Society managed to publish a book of interviews with contemporary writers and failed to notice they’d only featured male writers until a female writer pointed it out). There is however an element of Catch-22 in that women are put off submitting to magazines that appear to favour male poets so fewer submit so fewer women are published so fewer women submit…

    With regard to reviews I think there are two problems. Firstly some editors allow reviewers to chose which books to review so allow reviewers to chose not to review books by author gender. Secondly women don’t get asked to review. Fiona Sampson, editor of Poetry Review once commented that women “are disproportionately reluctant to assume literary authority through regular reviewing” (quote and discussion here http://emmalee1.wordpress.com/2010/01/10/women-poets-dont-write-reviews-allegedly/) which was news to this regular reviewer (who happens to be female).

    I’m not in favour of quotas and forcing editors to publish a balanced ratio of male and female writers as I would prefer work to be selected on merit. However, I am in favour of gathering these statistics as a reminder that we have a long way to go in achieving the position where work is geniunely selected on merit without bias towards writers of either gender.

    I don’t think the bias is deliberately towards male writers, just that writing by males has become the standard by which all writing is measured which shows in these gender audits as a bias away from writing by women.

  20. I was interested to read the on-going debate about reviewing poetry in the UK. We have had this same issue as a popular subject for several years in Canada and some women members of the League of Canadian Poets, included myself, decided that we would henceforth only review the poetry books written by women. Sadly, this still doesn’t make any difference in the large newspapers which carry mostly men’s books. However, it does give me the satisfaction of knowing that I am doing my little bit and maybe, without regulating things, one day women will find they are more appreciated as poets, and reviewers.

    I teach T’ai Chi form and philosophy and have discovered in my research that, for those who care to open their eyes to this phenomenon, the form which I teach, and have been committed to for the past forty years, very subtley leans towards right brain and left-side of the body promotion. Thus, a T’ai Chi player in my classes is unconsciously experiencing a fundemtal change ih his her understanding of gender issues, as new pathways open in his/her brain.

    Just the fact that we are all discussing the lack of women reviewers and books by women poets means that we are putting it out there in the universe and the energies will change accordingly. The alternating currents do the work for us, but sometimes it takes a few centuries!!! My latest book “In Praise of Darkness” is a book which favours night over day, but only in an attempt to illuminate the fact that there is imbalance in the universe. Thanks for listening.

  21. To reply to a few recent replies here: the figures of 1/3 women is the glass ceiling described in my Intro to Women’s Work.

    I’ve been saying for years that Guardian is the last bastion of sexism, for all its trumpeted concern about diversity and for so-called special interests, as if this describes women (another point made in WW). Frankly, the women’s pages hurt as much as anything. I just wrote Clare Armistead querying her comment about women essayists and reviewers not coming forward. I certainly have before. But although other sections commissioned me – to write on my HS teacher McCourt – she always said no, too invariably to make sense, especially as I’ve written for everyone else pretty much!

    In fact, the ball has been dropped: when it comes to an issue more widely, as people thing it’s done and dusted (again, discussed in WW). Maybe I’ll get jumped on for saying this, but my perception is that despite red-neck and tea party America with its pretty reliable bias and racism, my impression is that among academia and intellengsia the problem is MUCH worse, in England anyway (perhaps not so bad in Ireland/Scotland) than in America, or this seems so in he literary world (just poetry?) It’s a damn disgrace in fact.

    Does anyone recall the online vitriol when Hilary Clinton was running as a candidate in USA? Had it been a matter of racism, it would have been firmly stamped on by human rights groups.

  22. Just to say this has been a very interesting and educative discussion. I’ve joined VIDA. Loved your article, Ros. It confirms what I always thought was true. Enjoyed your inner geek, Fiona, and if it should extend to sharing the same stats for reviewers I’d love to know them. Emma — good point and one to remember about the perpetuating cycle: few women lead to few women. When someone points out a gender bias (I did this recently with one august publication but don’t want to say which here), it can lead to absolutely no change.

    Most reviewing and arts commentary seems to me to be commissioned by ask-a-friend tactics. In fact, I’ve been asked in just that context. But ask-a-friend tactics work better for men than women still, I do believe, and though I have no research to back this up, I have acknowledged on a number of occasions that men will ask a male friend and women will very frequently ask . . . a male friend. And when it comes to the ‘literary authority’ that Emma cites Fiona S as mentioning, we still regard authority as a ‘male’ concept.

    In fact, I myself experience the word ‘authority’ as male (sorry), which is disturbing, considering it has ‘author’ in it. But I don’t like the phrase ‘literary authority’ anyway. Smacks of old school to me. I DO like the idea of writing well about literature (among other arts), and of reviews and essays as art forms in themselves. Not authoritative god-pieces by cod-pieces but thought-provoking, dynamic reactions to art.

  23. When I commented earlier, I hadn’t counted the figures for male/female reviewers in the Guardian review. I have now, partly in response to Helena’s question and Emma’s comment that it’s worth doing the audits – Emma I agree with your reasoning here.

    As before: poetry reviews from January 2010 until now.

    Long reviews: 28 written by men, 10 by women. That’s 74% and 26%. Much the same as the ratio of male / female poets reviewed.

    Short reviews: 17 by men, 0 by women. If you add all long and short reviews together, you get 82% and 18%. Hmmm.

    I excluded anthologies, but adding them would make the imbalance even greater. There are around half a dozen reviews of anthologies of contemporary poetry, all with male reviewers.

    Is there a tendency to ask women to review books by women, and men to review books by men? Yes, though it’s not extreme:

    Long reviews of male poets: 21 by men, 6 by women

    Long reviews of female poets: 7 by men, 4 by women.

    My inner geek is on strike now. But anyone who wants more of this can look at the summer 2009 issue of Poetry Review. At the back there’s a letter criticising male/female representation in the magazine, signed by various female poets from Agbabi to Salzman who state, magnificently: ‘We do not believe that women are 28% of Poetry, and we do not believe you think so either.’ In her reply, Fiona Sampson defends Poetry Review and points out some of the difficulties. (Emma, your link to a discussion with her doesn’t work.)

    This exchange goes well beyond the numbers to consider factors such as the way reviews of female poets are presented. The signatories argued that PR ‘is not allowing us that space as critics and is ghettoising and diminishing our work as poets because of our gender’. Eva, it would be good to know what you think about this now.

  24. Fiona — thanks VERY much for your counting. Magnificent, and precisely as I assumed it would be, so I’m glad to be proved right in being monumentally depressed about all this. I remember the 2009 PR letter well, though I don’t take the magazine and so I haven’t had opportunity to see what effect it might have had subsequently.

    It did make me, now I think about it, start sending poems to PR once a year, something I had long stopped doing, because I know about the fact that women (with rare exceptions) tend to give up and back off.

    I reviewed for PR once, about three years ago. I offered to do it again, offered twice in fact, but had no reply by letter or by email. This may be because the first reviews I did were not well received. Perfectly possible. There’s no reason why one should be invited to contribute just because of being female, though interaction is always nice.

    I’m carrying out an informal exercise with my Sphinx reviews just now (www.happenstancepress.com) — because my reviewers are asked to ‘rate’ publications as well as write about them — to see whether women are generally kinder, and whether that translates into the rating.

    However, I’m pretty sure this is not true with the group I’m working with. I’m not going to publish these stats, by the way, but I do keep counting just these sort of things, so perhaps I have geek tendencies too. I hope so.

    Remember girl geeks are self-evidently iconoclastic. Breaking gender stereotypes as we go.

    This has brought back to me a dim memory of something Germaine Greer said in 1995, after a book about seventeenth century women poets I THINK, which led to me writing the following, which was printed in Envoi, when Roger Elkin was at the helm. This is most of it anyway (and in case you wonder, I was lying about the statistics). My dark ironies resulted in a letter of complaint from a gentleman in the following issue which I will not reproduce here. Here’s what I said — sorry this is a bit long:
    ______________________________________________________________

    Professor Christopher Ricks, we are reliably informed by the Independent on Sunday, (19 September 1999) has heroically rescued 20 women poets from obscurity by selecting them for the revised ‘Oxford Book of English Verse’. His predecessor, Dame Helen Gardner, 1972, had only been able to find nine female worthies.

    Although Ricks claims his choice was not influenced in any way by gender considerations, reminders are already circulating of Germaine Greer’s assertion in 1995 that very few women poets deserve to rank alongside their male counterparts. Professor Janet Todd, (biographer of Aphra Behn and Mary Wollstonecraft) according to the same report, agreed “that most women poets did not stand comparison with the best men.” However, she also volunteered the opinion that “ they stand comparison with the least of the men.” A solace. Interestingly, she also remarks that, “Some of their work is good, but sometimes not quite in the way we have got used to.”

    This is food for thought, especially if one is female and wishes to take on the curious role of poet. Women can, it seems stand comparison with the least famous male poets.

    But how badly can women poets perform? Is it possible that women can compete with the worst male poets writing today? I am not sure they can. I feel (I can support my hypothesis with statistics) that bad women poets rarely achieve the excesses of bad male bards. Indeed, if we suppose that 75% of all poetry published today – a conservative estimate – is by men, we must logically deduce that more of it will be instantly forgotten, than work published by women, since much less female work gets as far as publication in the first instance. t is even possible that some female poets will be remembered simply because of the extraordinary fact that they were published at all.

    But why should it be that when male poets are bad, they are so very bad? Could it be that as a gender, they have less self-awareness than women? Are they less likely to see how bad their verse really is? Could it be that they assume, being male, they are self-evidently laureate material?

    On a more cheering note, it is worth remembering that some women’s poetry is good “but sometimes not quite in the way we have got used to.” This is perhaps the key. Women have simply not realised that they were supposed to write “in the way we have got used to.” They have failed to emulate great male poets. They have gone it on their own and arrived, of their own volition, in obscurity.

    Clearly, I base my reasoning not on expectations regarding any particular gender, but on the work itself. If a poem appals me because it is so clearly boring and badly constructed, I would never assume this was anything to do with the gender of its author. What matters to me is whether the poem bores and depresses other readers and it is on that basis that I would select my ‘Oxford Book of Bad English Verse’ – that is, if I were asked to do so. The fact that so many terrible poems are written by men is, I am convinced, not a gender issue.

  25. Peter Forbes once told me that some of his male reviewers wouldn’t review women. He used to send me books to review; I haven’t reviewed for PR since he left, not, as F Sampson asserts, because as a woman I’m too reticent but because no one has asked me. As far as I know, that’s how it happens: editors invite reviewers, no? Or are the would-be reviewers meant to approach them?

  26. I bet you find (again I have no stats) that more would-be male reviewers approach editors than females . . . Just as more men, in the work place, ask for a pay rise than women. I believe there is research to underpin that one.

  27. Resending link that Fiona mentioned wasn’t working: http://emmalee1.wordpress.com/2010/01/10/women-poets-dont-write-reviews-allegedly/

    I got my toe in the door to reviewing by mentioning I reviewed in a covering letter with a poetry submission. The editor rejected the poems (though subsequently made acceptances) but asked if I’d review. I’ve been approached by other editors who have seen my reviews. I’ve never actually directly approached a magazine requesting to review for them.

  28. Dear Fiona et al,

    Below find excerpt from Women’s Work Intro, which grew from its original form Guardian online piece I did (this is how they dispense with the problem by having online stuff instead of in paper itself – I discuss this ghetto-ising in Intro) and then an online discussion I was part of demanded figures which I duly gatherred, those backed up by figures for jounals, certainly when it comes to the broadsheets and bigger publications with more influence and kudos.

    None of hte broadsheets gave WW a proper review (brief sentence in Guardian Adam Newey). Notably, Poetry Review failed to review. It’s been widely accalimed among those who did review, but some editors were forthright about reasons for not reviewing women’s anthology. Others were less forthright and soundly all weirdly as if they spoke from the same song sheet.

    Reading today’s Guardian review of John Stammers’ Picador love poems anthology and another Dugdale blurb about women no longer writing love poems prompts many thoughts and familiar outrage. Here we go again with the convenient simplication and almost willful misunderstanding of feminist agenda. Dugdale’s comments are well meant I think but, hey, is he the person to ask? We write love poems as much or little as men; perhaps some women need to take a principled stand on such matters to try to present the right face and get one of the places at high table, who knows.

    Apart from this, we had a review of Jackie Kay and then John Stammers. This is the Piicador poet Clive James (published by Picador) mentions in his intro to Michael Donaghy’s poems (published by Picador) as carrying the torch for American voice, now that Michael’s gone. Likewise in companion book of Mike’s essays Sean O’Brien (also Picador) provided essay on Michael ior perhaps it was the other way around, anyway, they all knew Mike well and so did I but I’m not published by Picador and it’s just a little cosy, is it not? There MUST vbe some women there SOMEWHERE!

    Anyone else notice (for example in Dugdale’s mention of Penguin anthology) that when there IS a women editor it’s NEVER a poet who might actually know their subject, but instead a media figure or someone in editorial world. With a few exceptions of course.

    Lest one put about the myth that women don’t come forward as reviewers or essayists (as I’ve read in some recent pieces) before I took around Women’s Work as an idea I approached several editors with other anthology ideas, including one which Don himself like the idea of: an anthology of love poes as it happens! That was a couple of years ago and I heard nothing. I mentioned perahps a man and woman editing with each choosing poems by writers of other gender. Anyway, couldn’t seel a single idea except the women’s one and how handy that one stays in one’s woman pigeon-hole BECAUSE THIS SUITS MANY PEOPLE AND ABSOLVES THEM OF ANY GUILT ABOUT THIS UNACKNOWLEDGED ISSUE>

    I do feel like I’ve spent enough time on this issue and while I’ve followed it here, didn’t reply. I mean for one thing, I’m too busy working and trying to make ends meet, without he handy crop rotation these guys have set up with each other as editors, judges and prize winners. Sorry, this sounds cynical. but things will never change until this issue is addressed outside of women’s pages or women’s discusssion groups. Otherwise, one speaks to the converted. In fact, I think things have gotten worse recently. When will the Guardian see this issue outside of a flash news story from the third world. IT’s right here among us. Anyway, here’s excerpt from WW. (This in haste so sorry for tyipos ect_ I urge you to go buy the book and read the rest of Intro and of corues he poems!

    “Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse ed. Kenneth Allott – 5 women/90 men; New Penguin Book of English Verse ed. Paul Keegan – 16 women/81 men; British Poetry Since 1945 ed. Edward Lucie-Smith – 7 women/90 men; Oxford Book of Contemporary Verse ed. D.J. Enright – 3 women/37 men; 101 Sonnets ed. Don Paterson – 13 women/87 men; The New Poetry ed. Al Alvarez – 2 women/26 men; Poetry 1900-1965 ed. George Macbeth – 2 women/21 men; New York Poets ed. Mark Ford – no women; New York Poets II eds. Mark Ford & Trevor Winkfield – 2 women/9 men; The Forward Anthology of Poetry for the years 1993-2006 consistently features many more men than women; critical books are similarly lop-sided. Ad nauseam. I could bore us all to kingdom come.
    The anthologies The Firebox ed. Sean O’Brien (34 women/91 men), Emergency Kit eds. Jo Shapcott & Matthew Sweeney (41 women/116 men) and The Anthology of 20th c. British and Irish Poetry ed. Keith Tuma (31 women/87 men), with the fairer acknowledgements these figures imply, nevertheless hit the proverbial glass ceiling, with women poets comprising roughly 1/3 of the total, occasionally a smidgeon more; turning hopefully to Andrew Duncan’s Poetry Review article on this last volume, we find that his 30 regretted omissions – poets from the 1950’s-1990’s – include not a single woman. The anthologies Last Words eds. Don Paterson & Jo Shapcott (33 women/55 men) and The New Poetry eds. David Kennedy, David Morley & Michael Hulse (17 women/38 men) all have a “healthier” balance; Bloodaxe, the publisher of this latter, boasts a consistently better record when it comes to publishing women. Carol Ann Duffy’s Hand in Hand and Adrienne Rich’s The Best American Poetry 1996 are the only two anthologies I could find comprised of more women than men. Here, it’s worth quoting extensively from Germaine Greer vis a vis the so-called “arbitrary” nature of coincidences:

    ‘It is not easy to imagine a male poet objecting to appearing in an anthology of men’s poems, as most anthologies have been, though the fact is not highlighted in their titles. The Amis Anthology, to cite the most doggedly laddish, does not separate work by gender, but women would have been better served if it had; out of 242 poems, eight are by women. One, by Elizabeth Jennings, is included because Amis published it when he was at Oxford in 1949; another, by Felicia Hemans, because his class translated it into Latin hexameters when he was at school; one by Christina Rossetti is accompanied by a sneer, and another by the unknown Teresa Dooley is used to caricature all poetesses. Laura Riding was doubtless happy to be one of the select company of nine women poets represented in The Rattle-Bag, compiled by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes in 1982. ‘

    She has more to say about the criteria for inclusion:

    ‘…the blokes like the girls best when they write like the blokes, and extra-specially when they write about girls the way the blokes do. It suits the male poet to believe that neither sex is specifically intended because it encourages him in his view that his specificity is actually universality. The woman poet who knowingly plays this game is not so much a ventriloquist as a ventriloquist’s dummy.’ “

  29. Interesting to see that Eva has overlooked my anthology Identity Parade, which she refused to acknowledge during her time as a PBS selector (a period when men were consistently far more acknowledged by her than women writers), which was the first anthology of its kind to feature more women than men. Or Legitimate Dangers, the equivalent US anthology which has near equal amounts of men and women, or Voice Recognition and City State (ditto) or American Hybrid, another major recent US anthology which features more women than men. The two anthologies I am currently working on for Salt, due in forthcoming months, both feature close to equal amounts gender-wise.

    Meanwhile, the list of first collections submitted last year for the London New Poetry award won by Carrie Etter shows that around 60% of the books were by women. Looking at lists of new poetry books published in the UK in the past five years, this figure is fairly consistent – 60% women, 40% men. Two issues cloud this – books from publishers who specialise in experimental writing tend to be more dominated by men. We can only speculate as to why women writers are not involving themselves here to the same extent in poetry in innovative traditions – it’s certainly not an issue in the US and elsewhere. Also, the lists at some of the commercial presses still tend to have more men, though this could be argued as being historically driven – if you count new poets added to Faber, Picador, Cape in the past two decades, gender levels are fairly equal.

  30. Roddy,

    You know you popped up in discussion elsewhere on these matters, eventually demanded figures and when these were provided you melted away,

    Your opinions on this issue seem to be based on one book only, your book. That seems odd.

    Regarding the PBS, your book had great merit and so did others and there are two judges. On the matter of serving women poets, for you to speak like this to me is absurd. Do check how many women are on publishing lists to begin with and lever out of co-judges who picked what, since personal attacks and battle seem your thing. I discuss this way of conveniently sweeping aside the important matter in my Intro to WW which I recommend! (By the way, when checking figures for women editors of books, the figure drops when one considers solo editors, have you noticed?

    By now you must have revised your opinions based on overwhelming evidience of figures for women poets and editors – books, reviews published or poems features in journals, as editors – even if the experience of your peers, who might actually know more what it is to be a woman writer, hasn’t moved you.

  31. These discussions seem to get stuck in the same place (this is what happens when one doesn’t listen) an important point is precisely that the figures for prizes do not translate themselves into figures upstairs, at the publishers and in the major newspapers and journals, That’s just the point discussed in Intro of WW which I hope you’ll have read,Roddy!

    Perhaps the figures for first books you mention are filtering through and there will be a sea change in the map of movers and shakers.

    However, Roddy, I must ask you to retract the tenor and implications of your insulting statement “which she refused to acknowledge during her time as a PBS selector”. Choices are made a professional basis but your remarks are not.

    For argument’s sake, it’s far more important that MEN come forward and fight this battle too, so I guess what you’re saying is that it’s important enough to you to choose women poets because they are women, regardless of any other criteria. I don’t agree with this view but one sign of progress will be men taking as seriously this issue as women so am very glad to hear this issue is of such great importance to you. .

  32. “These discussions seem to get stuck in the same place (this is what happens when one doesn’t listen) an important point is precisely that the figures for prizes do not translate themselves into figures upstairs …”

    That’s not surprising. Go back to the TLS editor’s phrase – “most important books”. Who decides – and who is fit to decide – what these most important books are? At the very least, it requires a certain kind of arrogance, and arrogance requires blinkeredness:

    “Professor Janet Todd, (biographer of Aphra Behn and Mary Wollstonecraft) according to the same report, agreed ‘that most women poets did not stand comparison with the best men.'”

    But according to what criteria? No scientific paper would ever pass muster if it threw around terms like ‘best’ and ‘most important’ as its qualifiers. These phrases are close to meaninglessness.

    Equality in representation is more likely at the level of smaller presses because here, people, are prepared to look beyond their inherent personal preferences and biases and cast the net wide for a richer yield. The more you enter the realms of elitism – of those who consider it their job to define the highest quality (and they do actively ‘define’ it, rather than passively ‘recognise’ it) – the more the selections will reflect the chooser’s particular, narrow vision of poetry’s purpose. So, in a world where men and the male narrative already dominate, that selection will continue to be male-dominated. It doesn’t require any conscious agenda or a failure to recognise the importance of women’s writing in theory; you can entirely see, in the defences offered, how these choosers simply don’t see any connection between their attitudes to gender and their criteria.

    A cultural disconnect from the practice of these few at the top defining what is to be ‘enduring’ would be one kind of rectification. I’d like to see a generation who read poetry and poetry magazines, but don’t really pay attention to the TLS or Granta or the Guardian’s literary coverage.

  33. Also in my Intro to WW: discussion of women poets openly calling other women poets second rate, and put alongside this Elizabeth Hardwick’s more probing, honest and interesting essay on her recognition of her own complex responses to other women writers. We are all conditioned and beholden to this conditioning, with the only hope the occasional glimipse of how this is so.

  34. “It doesn’t require any conscious agenda or a failure to recognise the importance of women’s writing in theory; you can entirely see, in the defences offered, how these choosers simply don’t see any connection between their attitudes to gender and their criteria.”

    Exactly. Surely anyone engaging with such issues knows about societal forces, psychology, anthropology, cultural learning and history itself, as per relevant to these matters surely?

  35. “I’d like to see a generation who read poetry and poetry magazines, but don’t really pay attention to the TLS or Granta or the Guardian’s literary coverage.”

    Well, I can’t be a whole generation but I have certainly always done my best to fit that bill, Jon! Have to say, though, that I’ve found a total lack of interest in LitCrit also attracts adverse comment.

  36. Great discussion, so thanks to all of you so far. I think it’s good to be aware of the issues and that some attitudes can be surprising – those which actually suggest women’s writing or reviewing is in some way inferior. It’s amazing that anyone these days expresses such views, even if they think them, but I think it’s best when the views are expressed and we can all see where people stand.

    There are many other biases in the world of poetry – few black and Asian poets published, a few select publishing houses being well represented in coveted reviews sections at the expense of many other publishers whose books are of an at least equal standard, the exclusion of certain poetic styles, geographical bias, and so on. But it’s been useful to reflect on this one area.

    Thanks Eva, for your extract from WW and other useful comments, and thanks as well for your intriguing Guardian research, Fiona. I usually find Guardian critical reviews to be remarkably uncritical, but that’s another story…

    Emma, I’ve never had people refuse to review writers not of their gender but I haven’t been a reviews editor for very long. I wouldn’t be inclined to continue asking them to review for the magazine though if that was the attitude.

    I feel uneasy at Fiona Sampson’s quoted statement that women “are disproportionately reluctant to assume literary authority through regular reviewing.” Is that what people imagine they are doing when they review? Assuming “literary authority”? You have to earn that not simply by doing it regularly, but by doing it really well. I’m not convinced we have many Randal Jarrells in the UK at the moment of either gender! But even with the likes of Jarrell, it’s not so much that he has ‘authority’ in the sense that we must believe everything he writes, but that he writes entertainingly (often with enthusiasm, but never without his critical radar switched on), provides intriguing insights, and always makes his readers think. But perhaps FS was only trying to say that more men than women tended to offer to review and just didn’t express the thought terribly well?

    Roddy, interesting point on the way experimental poetry tends to attract more men than women in the UK, in contrast to the USA. Hard to explain. I wonder about reviews of ‘innovative’ work too. Often reviews of ‘innovative’ poetry are done by other innovative poets, who will mainly be men. I wonder also how easy it is for innovative poets to write genuinely critical (as opposed to academic studies) reviews of other innovative poets, as it is something of a goldfish bowl – but possibly no more than in mainstream circles?

    Finally, I really liked this – “I DO like the idea of writing well about literature (among other arts), and of reviews and essays as art forms in themselves. Not authoritative god-pieces by cod-pieces but thought-provoking, dynamic reactions to art.” – Helena Nelson

  37. I think Fiona Sampson was expressing the view that women are sometimes reluctant to review through fear that they will be judged in turn or hoist by their own petard at a later date. Girls tend to be taught to be nice to people and consider the feelings of others so some women do find it harder to overcome such teaching an express an opinion with confidence. Naturally, that’s a generalisation so won’t be true in all cases.

    I know when I review I don’t think I’m assuming literary authority but simply giving an idea of what a book is like so that review readers can decide whether or not they want to buy a copy.

    I think time is also an issue too: women (particularly if also a working parent) are less likely to have a solid block of uninterrupted time to devote to reading and reviewing.

    If women are reluctant to put themselves forward, doesn’t that put the onus on editors to advertise reviewing vacancies or be more proactive about seeking out reviewers?

  38. “Often reviews of ‘innovative’ poetry are done by other innovative poets, who will mainly be men.” Really, Rob? You honestly believe that innovative poets are mostly men?

  39. Emma (et al)

    I understand entirely what you’re talking about but I must say that in my experience and among my writer friends Fiona’s contention seens nonsensical. .

    There are many extremely talented poets/reviewers/essayists apparently less good and hence underused. That these numbers include many women is just coincidence, we’re mean to believe. It’s NOTHING to do with sexism.

    If they were any good,they’d merit the available space otherwise reserved for their apparently infinitely more talented male counterparts. Let\’s not be so busy being offended that we neglect the point that this is too absurd to be even worth responding to. .

    I find it hard to believe that Fiona actually believes her point, but people do convince themselves as need be, if honesty threatens to shed them in a less good light.

  40. Mslexia published an analysis of poetry publishing way back in 2000, arguing that the reason, historically, that the sector has been so male-dominated was because it was largely a vanity-publishing sector. Men set up presses and literary magazines to publish (and review) their own work and work they admired – i.e. (generally) poetry by other men. I don’t think this was, or is, an exercise in misogyny. If women poets had had the time, they would have done the same. But as we all know, women everywhere have always tended to have less time than men. It’s hard enough just to find space to write the damn poems…
    In other publishing sectors what is published is governed more by the market – the market for fiction, for example, is two-thirds female and is worth £millions. The trouble with poetry is that there are almost no market forces to speak of, because poetry sales are so paltry. So those with the time and inclination can, and do, publish and review whatever they like.

    Sorry for going on, but I want to make another point – this time about reviewing. Mslexia published a thorough analysis of the reviews sections in all the major literary publications in 2000 and took another look more recently in 2010. The results on both occasions revealed a huge imbalance in favour of male reviewers and books by men in the UK. Again, I don’t think this is due to active misogyny. It’s due to an unhappy combination of factors that end up with fewer women’s books on the reviews pages.

    Firstly, women are less likely than men to put themselves forward as reviewers. Second, because men (generally) read books by men whereas women (generally) read books by both men and women, male reviewers tend to be allotted or to choose books by men to review. Third, the kinds of books that reviews editors (generally) choose for their reviews pages often have a factual informative aspect to them – simply because the editors are trying to create a varied reading experience in their publications. And it’s men who (generally) tend to write fiction and poetry with a factual aspect.

    Over the years, sadly, this exacerbates what I’ve called the ‘masculine aesthetic’ in the literary sector.

    By the way, if any woman wants to review poetry or short stories by women for Mslexia, visit our website where we’ve posted a selection of new books we’d like to see reviewed. You’ll have to buy the books first – but that’s the whole point. We’re trying to support publishers in a threatened sector who publish work by women. Two birds with one stone, n’est ce pas?

  41. Hi Debbie,

    Again, this women not putting themselves forward thing just doesn’t ring true among the self-supporting writers I know,

    While donating one’s work certainly increases possibility of getting it published, I earn my living as a professional writer and as with any profession one gets paid. As someone who has never been supported or had kids, my own experiences founding organsiations and journals does not jibe with what you say.

    Too often women’s contributions aren’t credited or whatever prestige they bring is attributed elsewhere and even when they bring such prestige, they are still expected to do disproportionate amount of drudgery. When they bow out of this it becomes apparent how they are viewed. As for at Goldsmiths where I teach…..the stories I could tell you….

    Conscious sexism or conspirarcy? No, it’s endemic and deeply ingrained. When one removes the role of carer or mother one sees starkly how women are valued otherwise.

  42. Anna, I was admittedly basing my comment on Roddy’s statement that “books from publishers who specialise in experimental writing tend to be more dominated by men. We can only speculate as to why women writers are not involving themselves here to the same extent in poetry in innovative traditions – it’s certainly not an issue in the US and elsewhere.” I hadn’t done any research to find out the truth of that, but it rang true.

    I’ve just glanced through the books published by two publishers of innovative poetry and the figures are:

    Publisher A: men 31, women 9
    Publisher B: men 34, women 7

    Hardly enough data to constitute proof of an imbalance, but it certainly suggests that such presses will publishing more men than women. It could, of course, be that many women are writing innovative poetry, but few are being published, which would surely be even worse.

  43. But just to clarify, Anna: by saying there appear to be more male publsihed ‘innovative’ poets, I don’t mean that men are more innovative than women.

    I’m using the term in its specialist sense, as synonymous with ‘experimental’, ‘non-mainstream’ or ‘post-avant’. ‘Innovative poetry’ is the term experimental UK poets have used to describe their work.

  44. There are several interesting points to respond to here, but I do generally agree with Ros Barber’s comments. The male/female figures could probably be reversed when you look at the number of women and men attending poetry courses, compared to those who are out there, high profile and at the top of their game. For similar reasons, arguably around both women’s exclusion and lack of confidence, this is also true of the wider professional world… Quite a few female lowly paid workers and middle managers, with mostly male representatives at senior and board level.

    It’s nearly 30 years since Heaney and Hughes published ‘The Rattle Bag’ featuring hundreds of poems by men and just a handful written by women (mostly by Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Bishop). Roddy is right to point out he’s taken a different approach with ‘Identity Parade’, but the broadsheet stats show the key issues remain.

  45. Wish I’d noticed this thread earlier. Great discussion.

    @Emma: “If women are reluctant to put themselves forward, doesn’t that put the onus on editors to advertise reviewing vacancies or be more proactive about seeking out reviewers?”

    Couldn’t agree more, and I think this applies to all writing, not just reviews. If what comes over the transom is disproportionately male, then the obvious solution is to correct this through targeted solicitation and well-crafted guidelines.

    For some reason, this proposal seems controversial in some quarters. I can’t imagine why.

  46. Once upon a time, must be a couple of decades back now, I declined to be in a women-only anthology (I don’t think that is the way to address the problem, which I agree exists). The publisher who was producing it tried to persuade me otherwise, and said he had commissioned htis anthology (with a woman editor) as a corrective to another, non-gendered anthology he had just brought out which to his mind had included too few women. He said this was inevitable because the said anthology had three male editors and it was a known fact that men had trouble responding to certain kinds of poetry by women (this is near enough a quote, but I don’t have his letter any more and am trying to reproduce his words as accurately as ageing memory allows).

    I thought then, and still think now, that this raised the rather obvious question, why had he chosen three male editors in the first place? Surely the answer was not to produce a separate women-only anthology, like a consolation prize, but to make sure that mainstream, non-gendered anthologies were edited by both men and women?

  47. I’ve found this discussion really interesting (and am looking forward to reading Eva’s intro at length.) I’m not sure what the answer is. The amount of prizewinners etc that are women makes it more puzzling that women aren’t being reviewed as much. It’s can’t be a question of quality.
    The notion of ‘important’ work seems to come up alot. I’m personally wondering if, whether conciously or not, some editors still have a definition of importance that favours work by men. Important subject matter, important forms, important writer.

    I’ve found some publications to be fairly equal, and competitions, but have found (not only personally, but amongst other female poets) there is sometimes a dismissal of female poets. Women under forty who write unappologetically about women are often dismissed as ‘chic lit’ poets. Whereas, I know women over that age who have been known to experience the ‘oh look, just what we need, another middle aged woman poet’ syndrome.

    These sort of dismissive categories aren’t used about male poets. We don’t describe poetry written by young men as ‘dick lit’, even if they write about themselves. Nor would we ever wave off works by older male poets with a derrogatory ageist term. Rather, we are willing to judge the merit of male poets exclusively on the work. I’m not sure this is always the case for women.
    In terms of reviewers, more women should review. That being said,there may be a reluctance, not for everyone, but some about reviewing. It may not be to be with assuming literary authority as such. My own reasons for not reviewing are more to do with how combative poetry discussions can get. I may just want to share my experience of a collection I’ve read, but to avoid potentially putting myself on the firing line of male writers, editors, publishers and reviewers i don’t. Until more women do review though I don’t see how anything will change.

  48. Angela, perhaps you would like to review for Sphinx? On my website, which reviews poetry pamphlets only, there are three reviewers for each publication. It is thoughtful and interesting but it doesn’t t normally lead to any combative situation, and the emphasis is on sharing your experience of what you’ve read, knowing that experience is personal and with have two other reactions to balance it. Besides, with a surname like yours, I think you should . . . .Take a look and see what you think. If interested, email me at nell@happenstancepress.com.

  49. This has been a great discussion. At some point soon it will be winding down, but anyone who wishes to continue discussing what can usefully be done about gender bias in literature is very welcome to join the discussion group A-gender:

    http://groups.google.com/group/a-gender

    As a result of discussions on A-gender, Jackie Wills and I are in the process of setting up a website which will profile every published female poet living in the UK, and anyone who’d like to help create profiles would be very welcome. Plus anyone else who would like a forum on which to continue gnawing the bone.

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