Friday, 9 September 2011

Juliet McKenna: "Everyone can promote equality in genre writing"

Juliet McKenna has blogged (here) for SFX - the gender balance of whose reviews she's been tracking on her blog (e.g. here) - about the disparity between the proportion of genre books written by women and the proportion of books reviewed that are written by women. She suggests:

"Every reviewer can check their personal choices of books, to make sure there’s balance. Each reviews editor can do the same; monthly, quarterly, annually. If balance is lacking, we can ask why without necessarily accusing anyone of sexism."

I couldn't agree more. A month or two ago I started tracking the gender balance of books we were receiving - if it's working there should be a pie chart here to show where we currently stand:

At the time of writing (9 September 2011) the figure stands at 20.5%, so in theory at least 20.5% of my reviews would be of books by female writers and editors. I want to do a bit better than that, not least, as I've mentioned previously, because I'm unhappy with how few female writers have been appearing in the pages of our magazine.

So far the Even Stephens approach I've adopted - alternating my reviews between books by men, books by women (excluding comics for now) - seems to be working well. Apart from anything else, it makes choosing my next book that little bit easier.

It's interesting to note how it works against publishers who haven't published any books by women at all, and there are a few out there (for example...) - they're not in the running for half of my review slots.


  1. “Every reviewer can check their personal choices of books, to make sure there’s balance. Each reviews editor can do the same; monthly, quarterly, annually. If balance is lacking, we can ask without necessarily accusing anyone of sexism.”
    Sounds like a department for ensuring reviewers adhere to the above is required. “Can I check your review copies for balance against your editorials, sir?” said the officer of enforcement for prevention of sexism, beneath his peaked cap.
    Now, I haven’t read the whole blog, just the quoted text above. We’re not (yet) machines, reviewers are still governed by chemical reactions – a book cover may fire a neuron towards exploration of the text within, as will a well and (sometimes) badly written blurb. There are so many variables that boiling them down to proposed accusations of sexism betrays a lack of imagination and (with respect) understanding of human nature our genre so rightly triumphs and contorts.
    There is no balance – therefore there cannot be equality.
    In a perfect world – a 50-50 split between male and female writers, then yes of course.
    But the majority of submissions for review are from male writers, so there’s not much more to be said, apart from…
    Equality is such a broad term, overused nowadays in terms of “political” correctness.
    There’s no such thing as equality – I’m as far from being equal to my neighbour across the street (he has more hair than me, his house has one more bedroom, a smaller garden and his car is two years younger than mine, although mine’s yellow) as he is to Joe Blogs living in a small town just outside of Manchester. The details of our differences are many and varied, to the point of being infinite for anyone determined enough to document them, and should they decide to do so their endeavours would fall into a Pythonesque pastiche of social commentary.
    Where does this leave the balance issue addressed above?
    Playing devil’s advocate, if only 15 books by female writers are received in one review month, and 45 by male writers in that same month, then (to enforce equality) should 30 books by male writers be omitted from review for the sake of balance? If the reviewer has a particularly good month and finds him/herself in a position to review more than 30 books, then do they put their feet up, or turn to the pile of male copies labelled ‘unequal’?

  2. For the sake of balance across the 15 – 45 split, how does a reviewer then filter his or her male review copies if they’ve been read? Should they actually be read for the sake of equality (judgement for inclusion in review against the female review copies) – or should the reviewer ignore them, for fear of committing an equality mindcrime? I apologise to Queensryche fans.
    Does the reviewer decide to include in their 15 male submissions only those who’ve been published before or those or have not? Do they (for the sake of equality across the male spectrum) decide to split the 15 into 7 books from writers who have been published before, and 8 who are first time writers? The same can be said of the 15 female review copies. There’s no equality in and odd number – and this equality suggestion seems a little odd also.
    To continue; if a reviewer does find themselves in the good fortune to receive an even number of books for review from both male and female writers, then they can obviously even out the numbers.
    Hold on. But what should a reviewer do for the sake of equality when there’s so many more books from male writers? Should the reviewer discard the majority of submissions for the sake of the minority? I know, that word’s such taboo nowadays, and I’ll probably be called all kinds of detrimental so-and-sos for using it, but the sad fact is female writers are in the minority, as are male writers whom support our genre that have one leg, 17 grandchildren, blue eyes, read The Sun and are vegetarians. For the sake of equality, should they (no matter their numbers) be catered for also? Even Psychohistory wouldn’t want to take into account so many meaningless variables. Roll back over, Isaac.
    The ‘one for one’ scenario Stephen suggested is by far the best approach, but that too falls far short of equality, as it caters for the minority until it is exhausted. Thus, the remainder (in this case male writers) are (or could be, that’s up to Stephen) left aside for the sake of balance, despite them being the majority of submissions for review. It seems the suggestion is that reviewers should limit the exposure of new titles of our chosen genre for the sake of equality. If that’s so, then that’s not equality, that’s dictatorial, and dictatorial to (our) the reader’s detriment.
    For this measure, this writer takes great comfort from TQF’s standpoint to continue to write ‘bad’ reviews, and for this I am very grateful.
    If female writers want more exposure, then they have to write – it’s as simple as that – and this comes from a househusband who knows how difficult it is to do so within the wome – sorry, staying at home with the kids and everything else, role. Promoting equality is one thing, enforcing it is something entirely different.

  3. I don’t think anyone is suggesting that every reviewer should review exactly the same number of books by women and books by men. That’s what I’m trying out, but that’s for reasons fairly specific to me: I’ve read a ridiculously low number of books by women (something like 1%, last time I counted up), and I’m embarrassed by the low numbers of female writers in our pages. I don’t need anything more to justify the decision than my own feelings, because I know that for the magazine to keep going, I need to feel good about it!

    The more general proposition is that reviewers, review editors, magazine editors should keep an eye on the gender balance of books received versus the balance of books reviewed. So if 20% of books received are by women, you’d expect roughly 20% of books reviewed to be by women. Sometimes they won’t be. That doesn’t mean you browbeat the reviewers into reading books they don’t fancy, it just means you look into it, keep an eye on it. Why aren’t the books by women getting reviewed as much? Editors should figure out the answer for themselves, so that when someone else asks why - and they will! - they have the answer ready, and say that it's something they're working on.

    For example, as soon as I started tracking how many books we received from female writers it became massively obvious why we weren't publishing many reviews of books written by women - we weren't getting sent very many! So since then I've been making an effort to request them.

  4. To give another example, Doctor Who Magazine 437 reviews about 21 items (including box sets as one item): female writers take a quarter share of two anthology CDs, but that's it (assuming I've guessed right on some of the names).

    Noting that isn't the same as saying that DWM are a bunch of sexists - it's easily accounted for by the tiny number of Doctor Who stories being published/produced that were written by women... It would only be a problem if the occasional Who books/CDs/episodes written by women consistently missed out on reviews.