Shouldn’t the Guardian’s Saturday review be challenging literary hierarchies, not strengthening them? In the case of poetry it is doing the latter. Why do I care? Because I read it every Saturday, enjoy most of it, but get regularly annoyed by the poetry reviews. And because the Guardian is mainstream, reaching a far wider audience than any poetry magazine. People whose acquaintance with contemporary poetry goes no further than skimming the Review’s reviews will have no idea of its diversity.
One aspect of my annoyance is gender. In the spirit of VIDA (and first inspired by a piece on the Magma blog a couple of years ago), here is Displacement’s annual gender audit of poetry coverage in the Guardian’s review section on Saturdays. It was easier to do this time, because they seem to have stopped doing short reviews. You can access their index of poetry reviews here.
I am also going to touch on ethnic minority representation, and on which publishers get reviews. More on the latter next time.
* Three-quarters of books reviewed are by male poets. The gender imbalance among poets reviewed has got worse.
* Slightly more than one-third of the reviewers are women. The gender imbalance among reviewers has lessened.
Now for the detail. NB: because all the reviews this year were long ones, I’ve used previous years’ figures for long reviews as the first comparison. Then I’ve done a second comparison, of this year’s figures with the totals (both long and short reviews) for previous years.
Figures from January 2010 - early February 2011 are in blue. Figures for mid February 2011 to early March 2012 are in green. Figures for mid March 2012 to end April 2013 are in purple. No they’re not, they’re in red – I’ve just worked out the results and changed the colour!
A. Books reviewed
Books reviewed in 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%.
36 books by men, 12 books by women. That’s 75% and 25%.
Total - all books reviewed (includes both long and short reviews from previous years)
67% books by men, 33% by women.
65% books by men, 35% by women.
75% books by men, 25% by women.
Only a quarter of the poetry books reviewed in the Guardian Review in the last 13 months or so were by women. Down from the previous two years’ approx one-third. Last year’s slight improvement has been more than reversed.
I could only find two books this year that were by UK black or Asian poets. It’s possible there are more that I haven’t identified.
See last year’s blog post for an analysis, and an extremely unfavourable comparison with the reviews in most poetry magazines, where this simply isn’t an issue. My conclusion then was that the range of male poets covered in the Guardian was much wider than the range of women. So when a decision on whom to review was taken, different criteria were being applied to male and female poets. This year, that is less the case, with collections by Jane Yeh, Anne Carson and Tishani Doshi being reviewed, plus retrospectives on Hope Mirrlees and Elizabeth Jennings. But the total number of women reviewed, already very low, has shrunk still further. Why??
Reviewers: long reviews
28 men, 10 women. That’s 74% and 26%.
32 men, 14 women. That’s 70% and 30%.
31 men, 17 women. That’s 65% and 35%.
I think that all the reviewers were white, but can’t be certain. There were also 4 anthologies, not included in the figures, all of whose reviewers were male. And there was one review (by a man) of half a dozen pamphlets, also not included. Oh, for more such! The tendency to assign women to review women seems to have died back; of the 12 books by women, 5 were reviewed by women.
Total: all reviewers (includes both long and short reviews from previous years)
82% men, 18% women.
73% men, 27% women.
65% men, 35% women.
The percentage of women reviewers has nearly doubled – from a low base, and there’s still some way to go. But the trend is strongly positive.
Faber, Carcanet, Picador, Cape, Bloodaxe: these big five get nearly all the reviews. I counted eight books from small publishers (two of them from Enitharmon), plus a couple from mainstream publishers who occasionally publish poetry. There wasn’t a single Seren or Salt book reviewed.
An editor told me that the Guardian mainly reviews books from the big poetry five because they pay for advertising space. Whether or not this is true, the Guardian can hardly complain at it being said, when their reviewing is so biased – which is why I have no compunction about repeating it! **update: see Neil Astley's view on this, at the end of the comments.
Last year, someone asked if I had any figures on the female/male breakdown of poets published by the big five. Because of course that would be one explanation for the gender imbalance: the Guardian reviews books from publishers who publish fewer women than men. This year, I’ve had a go at auditing the publishers too. It’s a bit of a rough exercise, which I’ll finish off and post in a few days.
D. Saturday Poem
(NB: not to be confused with Carol Rumens’ admirable online poem of the week.)
[I didn’t work this out for 2010.]
33 by men and 18 by women. That’s 65% and 35%.
23 by men and 13 by women. That’s 64% and 36%.
Negligible change. Slightly over one-third of the poems are by women. The Saturday Poem appears to be on the decline, anyway – no longer a weekly event.
That’s more than enough statistics for one blog post. Watch this space for a gender audit of publishers – next up. I’m far enough on with it to be able to say that the results will be interesting.