Wednesday 11 June 2014

Poetry and Sexism in the Guardian Review, 2013/14

This has become an annual exercise, or rather a 13-monthly one.  New readers, please see last year’s audit, and also the latest VIDA audit, for the background and reasons for doing this.

2013/14 results:
*  Over a third (37%) of books reviewed are by female poets.  This is the highest percentage yet, and only two points lower than the percentage of women’s books published by the big five poetry publishers.
*  Just over a third (34%) of reviews are written by women. 
*  Middle-sized and small poetry publishers get only 4 books reviewed.  It’s all about the big five.
*  The Guardian is capable of breaking its own glass ceiling: the Saturday Poem has gone gender neutral!
*  Black and Asian poets are very poorly represented in all categories, apparently not at all as reviewers or in the Saturday Poem.
*  The Guardian is reviewing less poetry.

*  Incremental improvement.  To achieve a Saturday Poem-style breakthrough, the Guardian might have to start reviewing a range of books more representative of the good poetry that’s being published today.       

Figures for May 2013 to early June 2014 are in purple.  Figures for mid March 2012 to end April 2013 are in red.  Figures* for mid February 2011 to early March 2012 are in green.  Figures* from January 2010 - early February 2011 are in blue.  You can access the Guardian’s archive of reviews here.

A.  Books reviewed in the Guardian’s Saturday Review

24 books by men, 14 books by women.  That’s 63% and 37%.
36 books by men, 12 books by women.  That’s 75% and 25%.  
30 books by men, 16 books by women.  That’s 65% and 35%.
27 books by men, 11 books by women.  That’s 71% and 29%. 

Best yet, and a big improvement on last year’s terrible figures.  The split is getting close to the M:F ratio of books published by the big five poetry publishers, which from 2010 to April 2013 was 61:39, see here for the figures on that. 

I think that only 2 books by black and Asian poets were reviewed, the same as last year.  This time the poets were Derek Walcott and Grace Nicholls.  The figure appears disproportionately low.  However, at 5% it’s possible that it might not be far off the percentage for the big five.  It would be good to audit the ethnic origin of poets published by the big five, but this would be much harder than last year’s gender audit.   

See section C below for more on publishers. 

The Guardian Review is reviewing less poetry: see this year’s decline in the number of reviews.  The first two years’ figures above don’t include the short reviews* the Guardian used to do.      

B.  Reviewers

25 men, 13 women.  That’s 66% and 34%.
31 men, 17 women.  That’s 65% and 35%. 
32 men, 14 women.  That’s 70% and 30%.
28 men, 10 women.  That’s 74% and 26%.

The figures consolidate an upward trend, just about.

Female reviewers get given women’s and men’s books to review in roughly equal proportions.  The male reviewers mostly get given books written by men. 

No black or Asian reviewers, I think.  Why not?  
C.  Publishers

In this category the figures are even worse than last year.  4 out of 38 books were published by smaller publishers; last year the number was 8.

Again it’s the big five (Bloodaxe Cape, Carcanet, Faber, Picador) who predominate.  There are a few books from larger, non-poetry specialist publishers.  Nothing at all by medium sized, high quality poetry publishers Seren or Salt; there wasn’t last year, either.  The only smaller publishers represented, at one book each, are Shearsman, CB Editions, Polygon and Eggbox Publishing.  Eggbox got in because they published a pamphlet by Faber author and last year’s Forward 1st Collection Prize winner, Sam Riviere. 

British poetry culture has got more diverse, with a range of excellent smaller publishers flourishing and capturing attention.  And there’s the rise of poetry pamphlets; it’s nice that the author of the Eggbox review, David Wheatley, talks a bit about poetry pamphlet culture generally.  But that’s the only concession to these wider changes in the whole year’s Guardian output.     

The Guardian Review’s glass ceiling for smaller publishers is firmly in place. 

D.  Saturday Poem

19 by men and 19 by women.  That’s… 50% and 50%.  Hooray!
23 by men and 13 by women.  That’s 64% and 36%
33 by men and 18 by women.  That’s 65% and 35%.
[I didn’t work this out for 2010.] 

The Guardian can do it!!  Many of the poems chosen are from new collections.  A shame that all the poets are white, at least I think so.    But it’s a start.  Come on, Guardian Saturday Review – make these annual audits unnecessary!  Do this blog out of a job!  First step: start handing out a wider range of review copies.  Then the numbers will improve. 

E.  Audits – what next

The emphasis of this audit is shifing slightly, from the VIDA-inspired gender-only audit that inspired it in the first place to a broader consideration of what lies behind the Guardian Review’s figures. 

The main exercise I want to do, once my inner geek recovers from this one, is an audit of the Poetry Book Society choices and recommendations.  If people have any other ideas, please say.  And do check out the Sidekick Books blog, where Jon Stone has just started a series on how to fix contemporary poetry culture. 

* In the first two years, the Guardian also ran short reviews and I counted these separately (they improved the M:F ratio).  There are still occasionally a few short reviews on the paperbacks page, but these don’t appear when one searches the Guardian’s online poetry reviews.  All the figures given in this audit are for long reviews only.  I always include Nicholas Lezard’s paperback review, if this is of a poetry book.

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Thank you very much to readers of this blog who voted for me in the Saboteur Awards, Best Reviewer category.  The result can be seen at the top right-hand corner of this blog.  Your votes mattered! 


  1. Dear Fiona

    Congratulations and please don't mention it. (I was only too happy to cast my vote in the right direction!) Your love of audits makes me suspect that you might be a Virgo. In my two decades' close observation of the British Poetry Establishment, my subjective experience is that it is easier to get published if you are:- female, Scottish or Irish rather than English or Welsh, gay rather than straight etc The real problem with the British Poetry Establishment however is the shameless quantity of cronyism and nepotism that goes on. Poetry editors really do publish their friends and acquaintances and no amount of audits are ever going to reveal the full extent of that ugly reality.

    Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish

    1. Thanks Simon. I'm not convinced by your theory of who can/can't get published. But with you on the nepotism etc.

  2. I haven't published many full poetry collections, though I intend to do more. However, I began to feel slightly guilty (reading about the reviews in the Guardian, for example) about the fact that I don't send books, or pamphlets, to the Guardian as review copies -- or at least I have done this only very rarely -- because I assume the chances of their being taken up are zero.

    Same with the Guardian Saturday Poem. I assume that so MUCH stuff is coming in, most of it in book form from high status imprints, that mine would just be a waste of a copy and more expensive postage.

    Whereas for the Scotsman poem of the week, the poem is chosen by a member of the Scottish Poetry Library's expert staff, and they get all my publications automatically. But the readership for the Scotsman is far smaller.

    I just wonder how many of the smaller presses don't bother to send books for consideration, or only send certain books where the author's name has already attracted some public notice. Small presses, most of them not publicly funded, have tiny budgets. Sending off more copies (some of them in alarming multiples) to be considered for competitions you have no chance of being short listed for, or to be considered for reviews that won't happen in a month of review Sundays -- well, why would you?

    I think it is probably true, that if small presses persistently sent all their books in for consideration, your statistics would remain pretty much the same. But I don't actually KNOW that. I'm just introducing the question, tentatively, that the thing could be self-perpetuating. Maybe a publication like the Guardian might be more proactive -- please do send new publications for consideration...

    But maybe they think they already are.

    1. Thank you Nellissima. Sorry for slow response, I've been away. I'm sure you're right that there's an element of self-perpetuation here. I'm going to start asking small publishers who they send review copies to... One I know does send to the Guardian, but has never got a review, is Penned in the Margins - see Tom Chivers' exasperated comment under the 2013 audit, link right at the top of this piece.