Thursday, 31 March 2016

Poetry and Sexism in the Guardian Review 2014-16

There was originally a question mark at the end of this post’s title.  My expectation was that there would be both less poetry and less sexism than in previous years.  Also, I wondered if an audit of poetry reviews in the Guardian Review could still be relevant; now, having done the count, I’m quite glad I did.

Results and conclusion first:

* There's no improvement over time in the gender balance, none in the range of publishers represented and not much in the presence of black, Asian and minority ethnic poets / reviewers.
* Under a third (31%) of the 45 collections reviewed are by women.  This figure is probably lower than the percentage of books by women published by the big poetry publishers (which was 39% from 2010-13).
* Under a third (31% again) of reviews were written by women.
* Both these figures are worse than last time – and both represent the average across all six years of this audit. 
* Collections by (I think) three BAME* poets are reviewed: 7%.  Slightly better than last time.
* Two reviews (I think) are by BAME reviewers: 4%.  Last time there didn’t appear to be any, so that’s progress.
* Publishers are unlikely to get their books reviewed unless they are one of the big six poetry publishers or another large publisher… or, this time,  Shearsman (hooray for that at least!).
* The number of poetry reviews continues to go down.
* Figures for the Saturday poem are much better than for the reviews.

* Conclusion: over the last six years, while the world of poetry changes around it, the Guardian Review has kept its poetry reviewing coverage much the same.  It seems to be stuck in a pattern of reviewing books by the big publishers.  This must be the biggest determinant of the results, but isn’t the only one.  It doesn’t appear to explain why the figure for women’s books reviewed is so low.  And of course it doesn’t explain at all the small number of female and BAME reviewers. 

Background to the audit:

This is the fifth audit I’ve done of reviews of poetry books in the Guardian Review, as a micro supplement to the US-based VIDA review which takes an annual look at representation of women (as both reviewers and reviewed, across all subjects) in literary publications.  I started out just looking at male/female representation but then extended the audit to include BAME poets / reviewers and which publishers’ books get reviewed.  This count was never quite in sync with VIDA so last year I decided to wait until now, to synchronise – VIDA’s count cameout yesterday. 

I’ll repeat the reasons for doing this, from an earlier audit:

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.

This may all be less relevant than it was when I did the first audit in 2011.  The Guardian’s coverage of poetry online has grown and is diverse.  There’s Carol Rumens’ poem of the week.  Last year there was the poem-a-day on climate change for Keep it in the Ground.  A list of items for March includes a podcast with Holly McNish and Luke Wright discussing political poetry, and a poem by the Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh who is in prison in Saudi Arabia, until recently under sentence of death. 

It’s the coverage on paper, in the Review, that stays traditional.  I still read it and enjoy much of it, so I still care. 

This audit sticks to the same four categories as the last one and covers the 21 months since June 2014.  It was harder to do this time – on the Guardian website it’s no longer possible to search for poetry reviews.  One can search for poetry-related items, and reviews within this tend to be colour-coded grey.  But I may have both missed things and included one or two reviews that didn’t appear in print.  I’ve included a couple of pieces by writers about their own books: by Seamus Heaney on his Aeneid VI translation, and Karen Van Dyck on her anthology of new Greek poetry.

See the 2014 audit, here, to compare.  That audit also lists the results from previous years.

The 2014-16 audit:

A.  Books reviewed in the Guardian’s Saturday Review

31 books by men, 14 books by women.  That’s 69% and 31%.

Disappointing because the last audit showed some improvement, with women having written 37% of the books reviewed.

3 books by BAME poets, 2 women, 1 man.  That’s 7%.

Slightly better than last time’s figure of 5%, which represented two books.  It would be interesting to be able to compare this with the percentage of books by BAME poets published by the big six.

B.  Reviewers

34 reviews written by men, 15 by women.  That’s 69% and 31% again. 

Disappointing again; this reverses what appeared to be a slight but steady improvement over time.  In the last audit 34% of reviewers were female.

2 BAME reviewers, both women.  That’s 4%. 

At least better than last time, when there appeared to be no BAME reviewers.

(Discrepancies in numbers between A and B are because I’ve counted reviewers of anthologies but not the anthologies themselves.) 

C.  Publishers

Only five books reviewed were not published by the big six poetry publishers or another large one such as Penguin.  That’s 10%.  Of the smaller publishers Shearsman (see right) had 3 books reviewed, and Gallery and Nine Arches one each.  These figures fail to reflect what’s happening in poetry publishing today… there’s a whole world out there which it would be nice to see given some attention in the Review. 

D.  Saturday Poem

57 poems in total. 

32 poems by men and 25 by women.  That’s 56% and 44%.

6 by BAME poets, 5 of them women.  That’s 10.5%. 

This one was easy to search.   The gender breakdown seems more or less within normal variation (last time it was 50/50).    The last audit showed no BAME poets at all so this audit’s figure is a very positive change  (and interesting that the gender balance is reversed here).  Just over a quarter of the poems were out of books from small publishers. 

That’s it. 

* BAME figures are as accurate as I can make them but may not be entirely correct.


  1. Very well researched.I hate this policy of the Guardian.
    Barry Tebb

  2. Dear Fiona

    I bet that they love you at the Guardian! The winning poem from last year's Poetry Society competition was read out on the Today Programme this morning. Frankly, I wasn't impressed. Also I noticed that the first and third places had gone to Americans. Given that the Poetry Society is basically funded by British taxpayers this seems a bit unfair. Why can't the Americans host (and fund) their own poetry competitions?

    Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish

  3. Penelope Shuttle1 April 2016 at 17:28

    Agree with Simon. And thanks to Fiona for this information.

  4. Simon, they do, and to the best of my knowledge UK poets are free to enter them.

  5. Thanks all for the comments. I liked the NPC winning poems.

  6. Dear Fiona

    I recently bought a bunch of pamphlets from Helena Nelson including your 'Night Letter'. I was very impressed and am already looking forward to reading your first volume when it appears.

    Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish