Thursday 2 May 2013

Poetry and Sexism in the Guardian Review: update

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??

B.  Reviewers

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.

C.  Publishers

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.


  1. Thanks for this excellent breakdown Fiona! As a female poet, a more disheartening statistic than the rubbish male/female ratio is still the complete stranglehold on the reviews section by the Big Five. The papers' advertising space argument merits a double facepalm. As you point out, good luck finding a critical review of an advertiser's book. No wonder reviews are saturated with bland superlatives relating to established figures, and the poetry audience never really expanding.

    We run a small press and know of many talented, innovative other presses, of whom the wider public has no inkling. It costs smaller publishers a far bigger percentage of their income to send out review copies, so after a while you give up sending them to the big papers, because they'll likely be used as doorstops and that's a sizeable chunk of your investment down the drain.

    One other statistic it's worth investigating is age of poets. Roddy Lumsden calculated that the lists of the biggest poetry publishers were dominated by poets over 45.

    1. Kirsten – thank you for this. Examining poetry/gender statistics in the Guardian is like pulling a piece of string… then realising that there’s a whole tangle behind it and a lot of unravelling to do. Gender is the easy bit to disentangle. The big five phenomenon must be utterly maddening for every small publisher. Size of publisher rather than quality of output has to be the deciding factor.

      My next post will show a link between that part of the tangle and the sexism, which I do think matters hugely. So does the mainstream lack of UK ethnic minority poets. I think both those issues are more important than age (though I’m probably biased!) Gender and racial prejudice are based on who you are, not where you are in life.

  2. Really really sad that this is the case (the other thing I note from these statistics is not only the woeful mix, but just how few poetry books in total are reviewed). I experienced this two years ago when we published The Zoom Zoom, the stunning debut from Penny Goring. It was highly commended by the Guardian First Book Award judges (along with two other books out of over 100 submitted), mentioned twice in the columns writing about the shortlist. Great, we thought, maybe they'll review it. I wrote - yes, yes, they said, send another review copy they said. Needless to say, the other two book (both fiction, both by men) got long glowing reviews, whilst Penny's was ignored and any further correspondence about it went unanswered.

    1. Thanks Dan for this chilling example of Guardian bias in action – genreist, sexist, sizeist or a combination of all three.

  3. What would be interesting, although probably not discoverable, would be a gender and age breakdown of poetry books sent for review to the Guardian.

    1. Yes, good point especially given Kirsten's comment. The unreviewed give up trying, because it's too expensive, thus helping the division persist. Though any reviews editor who was interested in the wider scene, small publishers etc could ask for copies...

  4. Stephen Payne3 May 2013 at 13:46

    It's depressing, this stuff. Good for you for exposing it. I don't know that I'd expect the Guardian to "challenge literary hierarchies", but the sex bias is something they should be concerned about. With respect to the "big publisher" thing - it's maybe not so surprising, I'm not sure how else a non-specialist outlet like the Guardian could cope with quantity; they can hardly read all published books. I'm more disappointed by the PBS, which I think should make an effort to read everything and find and recommend good books that might be overlooked, but instead seems, by and large, to favour exactly those books/authors/publishers that receive the most publicity elsewhere. Fancy doing a breakdown of their biases?

    1. Your first point may well be right, Stephen, even if distressing! As for quantity, they don’t need to read all published books – they just need to be well-informed about what’s going on. That should be enough to enable them to read with discrimination – including books from a more diverse range of publishers.

      Your point about the PBS is very interesting. I’m not a member, so don’t have a feel for this; but have read and enjoyed those quarterly booklets they put out. I fear my inner geek will be exhausted by the time I’ve audited the publishers. For now… The PBS is one of many who also deserve an audit – the Guardian is just one small way in to a tangled subject.

  5. of course the first question is:
    the % proportion of books by women published each year?
    % proportion of successful submissions?
    % of agents - and on and on?.

    why have you not quoted this data..? it is very naughty to omit this..

    if it proved to be in line with the %s being reviewed - what is the hardship?

    from what i can find online (and it's difficult) ~it's about the same as the percentages you quote to being reviewed (depending on what type of publisher - plus etc etc).

    the big question is:
    why aren't woman published (in all genres) equally?
    the answer is fanciful - and farcical: business

    1. You seem to have a flattering and somewhat unrealistic view of my information-gathering capabilities! Not to mention of the availability of such data.

      Please see my point C above for your first question. Even collecting that info is quite difficult; watch this space, as I said at the end of my post.

  6. Hi Fiona,

    Complaining about not getting media coverage is one sure route... not to get coverage.

    So I generally shut-the-hell-up and keep sending review copies and beautifully constructed pitches to the same old broadsheet editors. Very very occasionally you get a bite, and even more occasionally it might lead to something. A review, perhaps. Or a mention. Yay! At the end of that costly (time/money) exercise, you sit back and wait for the orders to roll in... Oh, wait a second, there aren't any!

    My complaint with the Guardian is as follows:

    In my 5 years of publishing mainly poetry (7 if you count an outlier anthology), I have never received a single review in the Guardian. Not one. In fact, if memory serves, not even a mention, a byline, nothing. That's over *30 books* utterly ignored by the newspaper that is supposed to serve the most culturally-active readership of any broadsheet, which sets itself up as a cultural and literary arbiter, that has (apparently) a flourishing online poetry section. And not a peep for my press, which delivers, in advance, review copies of all books to at least three editors/writers at the Guardian, accompanied by professional press releases.

    These are books that have won prestigious awards (if you like that kind of thing), been reviewed in The Times, The Telegraph, The Independent, Time Out, Poetry Review, appeared on Newsnight, and a myriad of brilliant online literary reviews.

    Guardian: W.T.F.?

    I realise this is not addressing your central point, around gender proportions, but I do agree with Kirsty that the two are probably linked. In any case, I would like to see the Guardian having a real rethink about the way they review, the kind of culture they want to support, their openness to things that lie just beneath the surface. I guess my chances are now, finally, shot. But hey, it's good to talk.

    Tom Chivers
    Penned in the Margins

    1. Tom, I’m glad you didn’t shut up! Your own experience with the Guardian suggests that you don’t have much to lose. But your experience of other newspapers is encouraging.

      The gender thing was pulling at a loose piece of string that was easily accessible – and started by chance, in response to Magma’s blog on VIDA a couple of years ago. In the Guardian, I agree that it’s symptomatic of a whole set of problems. See my next post on publishers for how things are linked.

      Perhaps it’s time for everyone to give a giant heave……

  7. The statistics here are pretty similar to those pertaining to so-called mainstram anthologies in my introductory essay to "Women's Work: Modern Women Poets Writing in English" (Seren) which straddles UK, USA and Ireland poetry mainly.

    Do check it out for more analysis on this subject and also how women's poetry is re/viewed: that is, inadequately, with gender being the lens through which it's understood. Reviewers apply a whole different vocabulary.

    Basically the glass ceiling is 1/3 women, as above. And the figures are considerably worse when it comes to women actually editing anthologies. I mention a Guardian/Faber series and the fact that the Guardian upholds a ghettoisation that perpetuates the problem. That they have a Women's Page almost seems a sop. It's profoundly depressing.

    1. Thanks Eva. I have indeed read your admirable intro to ‘Women’s Work’, which is on my bookshelf. And of course I have thought about all these issues (I felt particularly irked by the way women’s books used to get treated in Poetry Review, as laid out in that famous letter). This piece wasn’t meant as a comprehensive treatment – but an update, as I explained above, to the audits I did last year and the year before, which contained more comment.

      NB: the Guardian’s glass ceiling has lowered, from one third to one quarter! Watch this space for an audit of publishers.

  8. The Guardian Review (which happens to have a woman lit editor) is one small part of the Guardian newspaper. If you do the stats on news, sport, finance reporting, I'm guessing that you'll find them even more male-weighted. If you do the stats on all national newspapers, even more so. These are conservative institutions - they change slowly, very slowly. Traditionally, journalism has been a male (and heavy-drinking) profession; and at its top end is probably still dominated by people from certain class/education backgrounds. This is not an excuse for the gender imbalance that Fiona is documenting, just a suggestion that the few pages the Guardian gives to books on a Saturday have a certain context. Outside that context, the more equal gender balance in blog reviews, online magazines, new start-ups, is surely encouraging. Though 'more equal' is a guess: if the stats were done on these places and still found to be gender-imbalanced, that would be even more worrying.

    1. Charles – this is great – all I have to do is post the figures, and others come in to discuss every angle. Of course you are right about conservative institutions – I know, I worked in one
      (not to do with the media) for over 20 years, and spent the last few trying to change it, armed only with an MBA on organisational culture! One lesson this taught me was that getting people talking about the issues was a good starting-point.

      Most of the poetry world is now much less male dominated than the other areas you mention – it doesn’t occur to me to think about gender representation when reading Magma, Poetry London or [these days] Poetry Review, not to mention the online world and most small publishers. Lack of equal representation in Parliament, the low status of women in sport, or scant female FTSE board representation are ocean liner sized issues that will take years to turn around.

      Which makes poetry a yacht… One would hope that the Guardian, given the politics it professes, would show some self-awareness and move on / tack smartly. The TLS and LRB, by the way, are included in the VIDA gender count and come out equally poorly.

      Tom Chivers’ comment above is interesting on small publishers' profile – Penned in the Margins’ books have received coverage from other mainstream newspapers, but not from the Guardian.

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Thank you Harry for describing your experience in publishing – presumably novels and/or non-fiction rather than poetry, but none the less interesting (and strange!) As for readership, I believe that the majority of those who buy poetry books are female.

      I don’t think anyone has ever tried an Orange Prize equivalent. The poetry world may be too small for another conventional prize, and anyway the major prizes are less unbalanced than they used to be. For the first time last year, the TSE prize shortlist contained more women than men. I think it’s more useful to highlight where things aren’t working; the more discussion there is, the more likely that things will change.

      One of the nice things about this thread is the number of men who have commented!

  10. Fiona, I'm glad you've taken this thorny and persistent issue on. It's been fascinating to read your report and the thoughtful on-line comments. I've tried to find my notes from a panel on women, publishing and poetry (part of WOW festival over the past two years, I think) and failed, so can't offer quotes or sources for the following observations:
    1) It was asserted that the gender disparity observed in publishing and reviewing disappeared in "blind" competitions, citing National Poetry Competition winners/commended as support.
    2) One panelist described sitting on judging panels where poems were anonymous but a few male judges seemed very interested in discussing the possible gender of the poet. Sounds like old-fashioned sexism to me and very believable ... but does it ring true to those who've sat on panels?

    I'm not sure if this is widely known in the UK, but it's been well documented that the number of women in US orchestras increased when blind auditions (i.e. behind a screen) occurred; they noted increases in the number of women advancing to the final stages as well as those getting the job.

    Depressing, yet also hopeful... I wonder what poetry's equivalent would be?

    1. Nancy – thanks for this – maybe the equivalent is indeed poetry competitions. Harder to do an anon book, though – I’m sure that some of the entrants to pamphlet/book competitions must be known to the judges. I had heard the story of the screened auditioning, I think it’s gone round the UK too.

  11. The idea that paying for adverts gets your books reviewed is another poetry world myth. When have you ever seen a poetry book from Bloodaxe or Carcanet advertised in the Guardian? Or a new collection from a Cape or Picador poet? National press advertising costs THOUSANDS! Ask your editor informant to check out the Guardian's advertising rate card before making any more of these ridiculous claims.

    1. Neil, thanks for commenting on this, I was hoping someone would. I did challenge my informant! And got an answer which I'll summarise like this:


      I think you've exploded the myth. We are still left with the Guardian's massive bias against books by women, books from small publishers, etc. I wonder whether their non-poetry ads are one reason for the exposure Picador, Cape and Faber get.