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Book reviews and prizes dominated by men

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By Jane Bradley
Founding editor, For Books’ Sake

Earlier this month, research published by Women in Literary Arts showed that the majority of books reviewed in the mainstream media in 2010 (mainly in America, but also in The London Review of Books, the Paris Review and the Times Literary Supplement) were by men.

Of 417 reviews in the London Review of Books, for example, only 74 featured female authors. Across all the publications audited, about 75% of the books reviewed were by men.

The question, of course, is why. In addition to good old-fashioned sexism, research has shown that women will read books by authors of any gender, while men tend to favour books by men.

So supposedly gender-neutral publications such as The New Yorker and Times Literary Supplement may be making a strategic editorial decision when they focus on male authors, rather than featuring women who their male readers are unlikely to be interested in.

Then there’s research by the Arts Council referred to by English novelist Antonia Byatt at last week’s Novel Women event.

This indicates that while women rely on recommendations from friends when it comes to what they read, men favour the opinions of authority figures, such as reviewers, critics and academics.

Again, this could indicate a conscious commercial decision from media publishers to cater to the men among their readers, thereby maximising their influence.

But while there might be any number of explanations behind this gender bias, the fact remains that this inequality has damaging implications for women. The lack of visibility means a lack of female role models and influencers in literature, leading to a self-perpetuating cycle.

Similarly, there is a lack of equality in terms of literary prizes, such as The Man Booker Prize, which in 43 years has only had fourteen women winners, with 62% of the shortlisted authors being men.

In the upcoming World Book Night, only eight out of twenty-five featured authors are women, while in the BBC’s Year of Books only a quarter of the programmes are about or presented by women.

We are a long way from parity, and while it could be tempting to dismiss the major literary prizes in the short-term as a marketing ploy aimed at promoting male authors to male readers, the prestige and long-term influence associated with these prizes means this ongoing unequal representation of women could have a far-reaching impact.

As Orange Prize co-founder and bestselling author Kate Mosse put it at Novel Women: “Prizes define an author’s literary legacy, and safeguard their future visibility. Prizes being awarded now will define what is taught on university syllabuses in decades to come.”

With such a significant gender discrepancy in prizes and reviews, despite women writing, reading and buying more fiction than their male counterparts, maintaining pressure on media and publishers continues to be of the upmost importance.

Jane Bradley is the founding editor of For Books’ Sake, a books website featuring reviews, news and interviews with both iconic and upcoming women authors.

  1. Jane Osmond says:

    Totally agree with this – when i come across book reviews I automatically count how many women authors are featured and on a good day it is around a third, but more typically it is around 8-2. Very annoying.

  2. well said.

    it’s a shameless bit of publicity, but we’ll be talking about this absence of women in the media, arts and culture at our Where are the Women event on 6th March at Bristol Watershed, http://www.watershed.co.uk/exhibits/2807/

    Bidisha is speaking!

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