sheenaghpugh: (Critics)
[personal profile] sheenaghpugh
There's been a lot of debate recently in the literary world about whether women are under-represented in the field of reviewing, both in terms of reviewing books themselves and getting their work reviewed. And editor after editor, some of them female, have complained that "women don't put themselves forward". According to a writing friend of mine in a recent tweet, "she [editor] said "women don't contact her, but men send her lists of books they want to review, and why, and when".

This was all news to me, cos when I was reviewing, editors contacted reviewers, not the other way about. And I can't help feeling that though it may well make an editor's life easier to sit back and wait for reviewers to contact them, it's a bit of an abdication of responsibility. If I were an editor, and Joe Soap sent me a list of books he fancied reviewing, unless I knew him very well, alarm bells would ring; I would think, either these folk are his mates and he wants to puff them, or his enemies and he wants to shaft them, and neither is much use to the reader who just wants an unbiased opinion. I would also feel it was my job to decide what was reviewed and who reviewed it, and that he was being a trifle forward. If I liked his style, I would probably write back saying, none of these are available but you're welcome to review x, y and z if you like. If he refused that offer, I'd take it that I had been right about his having an agenda.

Editors are a kind of journalist, and as far as I know, journalists do not wait for news items to put themselves forward; they go out and look for them. If editors content themselves with those reviewers who put themselves forward (dear God, what an unBritish thing to do!) then we shall indeed hear from a narrow group of people. They may well be mainly male; they may also be disproportionately privately educated, because those schools, while in my view (and I'm speaking here as an ex-uni admissions tutor) offering no better an education than state schools, do tend to imbue their pupils with a self-confidence that sometimes amounts to an inflated sense of their own importance. If reviewers are mainly male, and choosing their own texts to review, then those texts too will be overwhelmingly male. I know this because more than one editor has noted a reluctance among male reviewers to assess women's writing - when I was reviewing for Poetry Review in the relatively happy days of Peter Forbes' editorship, I once asked him why he sent me so many women poets to review. He said he had to send women's books to women, because many of his male reviewers refused them. To his credit, he then sought out female reviewers who wouldn't say no; another editor, who was having trouble getting her regular reviewers to look at books from a certain part of the kingdom, simply jacked in the attempt. Me, I'd have concluded those reviewers came from too narrow an educational and geographical pool and that I needed to look elsewhere.

Editors have a hard and often thankless job, but I think it is part of that job to be proactive and independent. They, and no one else, should decide what is to be reviewed; if they go along with the suggestions of would-be reviewers they are opening the door to a great deal of intentional or unintentional nepotism, because many reviewers are also mentors of writing, and of course they think their own ex-pupils are the brightest and best; that's how teaching works. And there's nothing wrong with their promoting those whose talents they believe in as long as they do it in their own space; I use this blog to review and interview those I believe in and who might otherwise be overlooked. But part of what an editor is for is to counteract the influence of those with the loudest voices and widest connections and make sure quieter voices get heard as well.
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December 2011

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