Why I’ve decided to review books written by women

October 1, 2017

It is well-known that there are inequities for women at all stages of their writing careers.  (This is valid for other groups but here I’m focussing on gender, although intersectionality will feature).

Catherine Nichols found a scandalously more positive response when sending her novel out under a male pseudonym than when she attributed it to her own name, suggesting if she was a man she would be 8x more likely to be published. Novels with female protagonists are far less likely to win prizes.  Anyone who has ever led or attended a creative writing course or group in the UK knows they tend to consist predominantly of women and women buy 2/3 of the books sold here. I expect this is an approximation of the ratio of female-male writers in this country and is probably  similar in the the US but would be interested to see statistics regarding numbers submitting work to agents, publishers or journals. Bloodaxe receive twice as many submissions from men (Debbie Taylor, ‘Agenda Mslexia, Are We Cured Yet?‘ , Mslexia, Dec-Feb 16-17, pp5-8). American Journal Tin House identified this might be part of the problem, their research showing women invited to resubmit were 5 x less likely to do so than their male counterparts. This could help to explain why the numbers of professional male and female writers are roughly equal despite the barriers faced by female writers but it doesn’t excuse the fact that  books written by women are reviewed far less often than books by men and that most published reviews are written by men. So far there hasn’t been a flurry of reviews for my poetry collection Empires of Clay although my pamphlet Echolocation has received a few. I’d hate to think my gender has anything to do with this but, while the situation is so unequal, how can I be sure?

Browsing male friends’ bookshelves over the years, I have witnessed and commented on an unconscious bias towards male authors – Jane Austen tends to feature and occasionally a Bronte (sigh). I’m happy to say that several of these male reader friends have since been proactive in making shelf space for female authors and in seeking out recommendations of good books by women.

I’m aware of and celebrate the dialogue around these inequalities and the measures being taken to address them, for example by supporters of women’s literature Vida and individuals like Kate Fox but I wanted to contribute in some small way. I plan to review books by women with the hope of widening their platform. For this reason reviews will centre primarily on books published by independent presses as they tend not to receive the attention they deserve.

Post-script – because much of my reading life is determined by the work I do, I am not currently soliciting requests from authors or publishers to review their books. Instead I will choose the novels I most want to read, which will be in a variety of genres. In future I may tackle poetry or theatre but my focus is currently on novels.

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8 Comments

  • Reply Moira Garland October 1, 2017 at 3:20 pm

    Pleased you’re doing this Becky, for the very good reasons you’ve outlined. I look forward to reading your reviews. Will you be reviewing poetry as well as prose?

    • Reply beckycherriman October 7, 2017 at 10:16 am

      Initially I’m just going to be reviewing novels but this may change. So much of my reading life is determined because of the work I do, which is fine and good but I’m going to use this as an excuse to read the novels I most want to read.

  • Reply Sharyn Owen October 2, 2017 at 9:06 am

    Hi Becky, it sounds like a very interesting idea, but are you going to review a wide range of genres? I was looking at the books in the airport and noticed that there seemed to be an equal number of male and female authors. Perhaps you don’t want to bottom feed on airport reads? I would be interested to hear about your research and reviews in future. I share your concerns about inequality.

    • Reply beckycherriman October 7, 2017 at 10:24 am

      Hello Sharyn, I will initially review novels in a range of genres but may also review other forms. I’m a wide reader so this will be reflected in my choices.

  • Reply Nicholas Lalvani October 2, 2017 at 6:13 pm

    I think some of the psychology behind the bias towards male authors might be worthwhile to discuss and expose for example unconscious belief that male authors command more kudos so reviewing a male-authored book might cause a greater kudos-transfer, is there still a collective unconscious belief grounded in historical power relations that men are more likely to write ‘great books’? Look forward to reading the reviews.

  • Reply Cathy Bryant October 14, 2017 at 4:19 pm

    I believe that Catherine Nichols is a liar. Seriously – she sends out six enquiries on a Saturday and gets five responses back by the Sunday?! Ask your male writer friends if this happens. Being male doesn’t magically make the slush pile disappear, at the weekend too! Also – who are the big sellers of recent times? EL James, Paula Hawkins, JK Rowling. Agents and publishers aren’t stupid. They might suggest using the initials to put on the cover, as with Rowling and James, but they’ll still read the MS. The main sexism in publishing occurs in senior management, which is almost exclusively male at the biggest publishers. Another skein is in prestige – the (then) Orange Prize was set up because the booker had an all-male shortlist that year, despite Margaret Atwood, Ali Smith and others having eligible books out that year. But Nichols pulled a cheap stunt. I know plenty of female writers who got agents and publishers – probably more than their male counterparts.

    • Reply beckycherriman October 16, 2017 at 8:37 am

      If what Catherine Nichols wrote isn’t true it would be a terrible thing to do and would damage the campaign to highlight inequities that do still exist. Mslexia reported on this. Perhaps they have seen some of the evidence? I will look into it further but it might take me a while.
      In addition to the problems mentioned above I think there is still an issue in how work by women is described (as stated by Nichols). I’ve had personal experience of primarily ‘feminine’ words being used about my work in reviews and can’t remember the last time I heard a male poet described as confessional.

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