Writing's on the wall for literary art

When people hazard a guess about why women review less – or less prominently – than men, they often say that women don’t push themselves forward, don’t ring up books desks and demand to be sent books.(John McCann)

When people hazard a guess about why women review less – or less prominently – than men, they often say that women don’t push themselves forward, don’t ring up books desks and demand to be sent books.(John McCann)

Is writing about books a male pursuit? Yes, if you go by the numbers. For the past three years, Vida, an American organisation founded in 2009 to monitor and promote the status of women in literary arts, has produced an annual count of the number of men and the number of women who write in a range of newspapers and periodicals (most, but not all, American). The resulting pie charts make dismal viewing.

When people hazard a guess about why women review less – or less prominently – than men, they often say that women don’t push themselves forward, don’t ring up books desks and demand to be sent books.

Looking back at her time as literary editor of the New Statesman in the 1970s and then at the Sunday Times, Claire Tomalin recalls: "I tried very hard both at NS 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.

"None of the arts critics at the NS were women though – think how much better things are now in that field," she says.

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 of them. 

Linda Grant’s experience of being reviewed bears this out: "It’s odd that in an art form such as the novel, written by so many women and read by so many women, the review pages still bestow secondhand status on us. It’s not just the dominance of reviews by men of novels by men, it’s also the prominence.

"Many papers have lead reviewers, most are men. But what is truly odd is how few novels by women are reviewed by male reviewers. My last novel, despite having a male protagonist, was reviewed by only two male reviewers. Howard Jacobson’s novels are rarely reviewed by women. So the ghetto is reinforced."

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, and women currently fill that post at the Guardian, the Telegraph  and the Times. Very few of them, men or women, work for a female editor, of course; only two national newspapers have a woman in charge.

But are literary editors and their bosses in thrall to the idea of the "star reviewer", created by steady accretion of high-profile reviews, eventually leading to the figure of the "man of letters"? We must acknowledge, of course, that even the idea of a man of letters becomes more anachronistic by the year.

There are women of letters, but they are rarely identified as such. Why? Well, annoyingly enough, it’s complicated. Writing by women is in exceptionally good health. So is reading by women, particularly in terms of fiction; broadly speaking, women still buy the most novels. But the literary culture – the creation of  reputation, the business of criticism, the nebulous idea of the great writer – still feels more masculine than common sense would suggest it should be. Can you do this more easily if you are a man than if you are a woman?

Here is a more pressing question: Who cares? In 2001, Amis wrote a foreword to three decades of his essays and reviews, collected as The War Against Cliché. In it, he revealed that the business of book-reviewing – a "career" that he’d satirised a few years previously in The Information – had changed substantially since he’d started out, with his job at the Times Literary Supplement and his spare time spent in pubs and coffee bars discussing Northrop Frye and Tony Tanner and George Steiner with Clive James et al. Then came the twin destroyers of inflation and democratisation. The former meant that you couldn’t afford to live on nothing; the latter that, in the formulation of Gore Vidal that Amis cites, nobody’s feelings are more authentic, and thus more important, than anyone else’s.

"This is the new credo, the new privilege," writes Amis. "It is a privilege much exercised in the contemporary book review, whether on the web or in the literary pages. The reviewer calmly tolerates the arrival of the new novel or slim volume, defensively settles into it, and then sees which way it rubs him up. The right way or the wrong way. The results of this contact will form the data of the review, without any reference to the thing behind. And the thing behind, I am afraid, is talent, and the canon, and the body of knowledge we call literature."

But Amis assures us that he doesn’t, contrary to appearances, deplore this state of affairs: "It is the summit of idleness to deplore the present, to deplore actuality. Say whatever you like about it, the present is unavoidable."

Unavoidable, but not static; which means that it develops in ways that cannot be foreseen, the specifics and minutiae of which are often beyond our imagination. Amis’s foreword was written before the world of online reviewing had really got going, before the proliferation of blogs, of below-the-line comments, of social media.

The process of democratisation surrounding books has increased apace; more is written about books, by more people, in more places. Several of the more influential lit-bloggers are women, including the Devon-based dovegreyreader, who has been blogging since 2006 and who has always insisted, despite the high regard with which she is viewed, that she doesn’t see herself as a professional book reviewer; the point, she has said, is that she wanted the freedom to be subjective.

But I don’t regret that people talk about books more, and talk about them more openly, and don’t feel held back from doing so because they lack the technical vocabulary to parse a sentence.

There is a difference between, on the one hand, writing directly about whether you think a novel is good, what you think it set out to achieve, and on the other being a specialist who aims to put an individual work or a writer into a literary context.

That the space between the two has narrowed, that they seem to have converged is true, but there is no reason for them not to be separate activities, and no harm in it either.

The impulse to undermine authority comes largely when that authority has been damagingly powerful and excluding; when it has not allowed other voices, other interests, other priorities, to flourish. For fiction –our mirror to the world, our way of understanding it – to allow itself to become that battleground is insane, and self-sabotaging.

But if the novel is more plural than it has been for some time, if it no longer has a dominant form, then we need to be able to talk about it. Currently, the argument seems centred on who has the right to speak, whose voice is the loudest, who has the advantage of prior entitlement, of privilege.

As the writer and performer Stella Duffy puts it: "We still exist in a society where the male model – be it a novel, a play, fine art or music – is perceived as the definitive, it is therefore inevitable that a woman’s work will be judged wanting.

"We shouldn’t – any of us – have to change our names or resort to initials to make sure gender is not a factor in our success, the fact that so many writers still do is a clear sign that we have a long way to go.

"It’s been less than 100 years since women got the vote in the United Kingdom. It’s just 170 years since the Brontës were writing with men’s names," she says.

"Changing laws is one thing, changing attitudes is quite another. That attitude shift is going to take a lot longer, and will simply not happen if we keep behaving as if equality – true equality, the one that comes with equality of access as well as equality of share – doesn’t matter all that much." – © Guardian News & Media 2013

Women on top in books 
In South Africa, women literary critics and books editors are more the norm than the exception. Jane Rosenthal has been chief fiction reviewer of the Mail & Guardian for 17 years.

Gwen Ansell is our chief reviewer for science fiction, fantasy and speculative fiction. Maureen Isaacson was literary editor of the Sunday Independent from the 1990s well into the Noughties.

Isaacson’s successor is Mary Corrigal. Michelle Magwood presided over the Sunday Times books pages for many years and has now returned as deputy books editor. At the Witness in Pietermaritzburg, Margaret von Klemperer took up the books editor’s mantle after retiring as arts editor.

A glance at the bloggers and reviewers on the Books Live website shows a preponderance of female output and opinion. – Darryl Accone

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