Wednesday 14 March 2012

Poetry and sexism in the Guardian Review

The US-based organisation VIDA, which supports women in the literary arts, has just issued 2011 figures for female representation (all genres) in literary newspapers and journals, mostly American but including the TLS and LRB.  They make depressing reading.  TLS: around one-quarter women.  LRB: around one-sixth. 

This time last year, VIDA’s survey prompted a lively discussion on the Magma blog, about the poetry aspects.  Well worth reading, if you didn’t.  (As I write, Magma’s website looks like it’s been attacked by quack spammers, but you can scroll down to read the blog.)

My contribution to that debate was to indulge my inner geek, and audit the reviews of poetry collections in the Saturday Guardian Review.  For three reasons.  First because it’s mainstream, widely read by people who have no specialist interest in poetry, so a good place for poetry to get out and about. 

Second because I’d got fed up with opening the Review, which I read every week and otherwise enjoy, and finding, yet again, an all-male poetry page...  Thank goodness I don’t even think about this when reading reviews in, say, Poetry London or Magma, which are devoid of male/female bias.  Poetry Review’s coverage has been controversial - see Polly Clark’s account on the Magma blog.

And last because it was the Guardian that had publicised the VIDA figures.  Hooray for that, but didn’t they realise what was going on in their own poetry backyard?

The results were dire. 

I’ve just done an update, below.  Figures from a year ago in blue, covering January 2010 - early February 2011*.  Figures for mid February 2011 to early March 2012 in black.  The Guardian Review carries long reviews, around 600-800 words, and short ones, around 200 words.  I’ve looked at both the books reviewed, and the reviewers.  You can access the index of reviews here.

A. Books reviewed

This year’s results are slightly better… only by 2%, from a very low base.  Just over one-third of poetry books reviewed in the Guardian are by women.  More books by women got long reviews this year - good - though fewer got short ones.

Books given long reviews:
27 books by men, 11 books by women.  That’s 71% and 29%. 
30 books by men, 16 books by women.  That’s 65% and 35%.

Books given short reviews:
10 books by men, 7 books by women.  That’s 59% and 41%.
13 books by men, 7 books by women.  That’s 65% and 35%. 

Total - all books reviewed:
67% men, 33% women.
65% men, 35% women. 

Last year, it was striking to see how the Guardian was using different criteria to decide on the male and female poets to whom it gave long reviews.  All the women were either very well-known, or on the shortlist for major prizes; all were published by big poetry publishers.  The men were much more varied - from Nobel Prize winners right through to people I hadn’t heard of - and a few were published by small presses.  See the Magma discussion for examples. 

This year, the increase in long reviews of books by women has improved things a bit, allowing in names like Sasha Dugdale and Clare Pollard; also it’s good to see Americans Kay Ryan and Gjertrud Schnackenberg, and Albanian Luljeta Lleshanaku reviewed.  But the range of men is still much greater.  Just a few examples: Peter Riley (innovative), Jaan Kaplinski (Estonia; one of several foreign language poets), Timothy Donnelly (one of several Americans), Iain Crichton Smith (one of several dead poets). 

The criteria remain different for men and women.  And there are oddities.  The Guardian only gave Alice Oswald’s Memorial a short review (in an entertaining round-up by Charlotte Higgins of current takes on the Iliad).  OK, Memorial had a full review in the Observer, but several eminent male poets were reviewed by both. 

Also, I’m sure that if Mimi Khalvati were male, she’d have got a full-length review rather than a short one for Child, her new and selected poems.  That also raises the issue of ethnic minority poets.  Khalvati and Vikram Seth got short reviews, Jackie Kay got a long one, and I think that’s it - though this is a symptom of the much deeper problem of under-representation of ethnic minorities in most parts of the poetry scene.  

Small presses hardly get a look-in, except in some short reviews. 

B.  Reviewers

Here the overall figures are even worse, though they too have improved a little.  This year’s figures show the number of long reviews written by women creeping up towards one-third, from a quarter previously.  But in the long reviews, women reviewers are often assigned to women writers: half of the women’s books are reviewed by women, yet only 4 of the 30 men’s books.  What assumptions are being made here? 

Authors of long reviews:
28 men, 10 women.  That’s 74% and 26%. 
32 men, 14 women.  That’s 70% and 30%.

Authors of short reviews:
17 men, 0 women.  Er, that’s 100%...
16 men, 4 women.  That’s 80% and 20%.

Total reviewers:
82% men, 18% women. 
73% men, 27% women.

I don’t think there are any black or Asian reviewers.  I excluded anthologies, but adding them would make the imbalance even greater.   Each year there were around half a dozen reviews of anthologies.  Last year, all had male reviewers; this year, two-thirds.  

Many of the reviewers are poets; they get a little mention of their latest book at the end of the review.

Extra: Saturday poem

The Guardian Review prints a poem every Saturday.  From the beginning of February 2011 until now, there have been 33 by men and 18 by women.  That’s 65% and 35%... again.

So: why?

Reviews and reviewers in poetry magazines such as Magma and Poetry London are roughly half-and-half female/male.  And I doubt they’re auditing - it’s just a reflection of what’s getting published.  So why not in the Guardian Review?  The problem has to be one of attitudes, as with the publications audited by VIDA - even if deeply buried in the Guardian’s subconscious. 

And this isn’t a difficult or time-consuming thing to change.  Not like getting more women into boardrooms or Parliament…  A small problem in a small world.  The Guardian could easily give its readers a richer, livelier, more representative picture of contemporary poetry.  Come on, we’re waiting!


  1. I had never considered this (as a male). That said, I have bought more books by women writers reviewed in The Grauniad than male writers. Perhaps I am in the minority? But I am grateful to the review for pointing me towards Solnitt and others. One thing the paper is good at is female writers talking about forgotten female writers, and written in such a way as to generate interest in a paper-trail.

  2. Anon - I probably found out about Solnitt via the Review too... and I agree with your point. Eg I enjoyed the piece about Sylvia Townsend Warner whose novels I've not read - yet.

    You've made me think, I should have commented on the contrast with the rest of the Review.

  3. I'm not sure you needed to make a contrast, what you have highlighted is a disparity that is not altogether surprising yet still depressing. I get a bit fed up with the essays written by men as they are almost always formulaic and often portentous. Give me an essay by AL Kennedy over Motion/Self etc anyday! I hope my spelling is ok!

  4. Thanks for the very interesting analysis. Do you have any figures for the proportions of male/female in poetry books published across the same period? Let's say for the kinds of mainstream publishers favoured by the Guardian in recent years: Faber, Picador, Carcanet, etc.


  5. I agree about AL Kennedy! And that the Guardian does carry some rather portentous stuff, sometimes by people whose literary canon appears to be all-male.

    Michael, I don't have such figures. Of course they are an important part of the background, and I thought about it when writing this piece. Thanks for asking: I might have a go at it soon, if my inner geek is willing.