Woman book reviewer chooses books by women shocker

I was planning to make this blog just about my favourite six books of the year so far, but when I compiled the list, I realised they're all by women and that made me think about something else. My favourites, for the record, are The Sister by Lynne Alexander (Sandstone Press); Mudwoman by Joyce Carol Oates (Fourth Estate); The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones (Chatto and Windus); Home by Toni Morrison (Chatto and Windus); Dare Me by Megan Abbott (Picador); and The Marlowe Papers by Ros Barber (Sceptre). I haven't had a chance to read Hilary Mantel's Bring up the Bodies yet or that would probably be in there, too.

There are titles by men I've enjoyed - Jon McGregor's This Isn't The Sort Of Thing That happens To Someone Like You, Peter Carey's The Chemistry of Tears, Chris Dolan's Redlegs. But as with most years, it's women writers who top the list for me.

Part of the reason for that is that when I first began reviewing professionally, back in 1998, I needed to make a living. In order to make sure I could get enough books to review to pay the bills, I looked for the titles I thought editors would give me, and what wasn't being covered very much. Woo-hoo, surprise, surprise, it was novels by women! Most books reviewers were male, and they tended to choose titles by men. So I carved a niche for myself, reviewing the titles male reviewers didn't want. Fast forward 14 years and I'm still doing it. The bulk of my reading list is fiction and non-fiction by women.

And the reason I still choose women writers to review? Because by and large, the gender divide between male and female reviewers is still there - of the 26 reviews I received for my own book, Between the Sheets, only four were by men. When Jodi Picoult complained two years ago that the New York Times wouldn't condescend to review popular fiction by women, she had a point. Their most famous critic, Michiko Kakutani, probably didn’t face quite the same financial pressures I did when she began building her career as a literary critic. She could probably afford to muscle her way in gradually for those boys' titles. And she would probably see reviewing Picoult as a step down. To be a major reviewer, you have to concentrate on the boys. 

Everyone knows that more novels are bought and read by women than men.  But that volume still isn’t reflected adequately in reviews in the literary pages, or in the status of women writers themselves. Katy Guest, literary editor of The Independent on Sunday, one of the newspapers I review for, wrote last year about the lack of female book reviewers. The target of her ire was the London Review of Books, which regularly publishes issues with only one or two female contributors. In the spirit of female solidarity, I duly emailed the LRB to ask if I could review for them (hey, I've got a PhD! A book reviewed by the NY Times! I can do it!), and suggested a title. They politely said they'd let me know. I comfort myself now that I subsequently changed my email address, and that probably my old, inaccessible inbox is crammed full of requests by the LRB to review for them....

But to come back to the point....Are there just too few women out there, wanting to do the job? Or are they not reviewing the kinds of things that papers want? Katy wrote that few female critics chase her for work, yet male reviewers do. I have no statistical evidence (this is becoming a theme to anyone who's read my earlier blogs), but I can't help wondering if there are more female literary critics on blogs than in newspapers. Are newspapers seen as too macho?

One final thing - I noticed one Saturday paper highlighting the big guns coming out in September and October, traditionally the busiest months for literary fiction. They're all there, Zadie Smith, Ian McEwan etc. But there's one title coming out once all the hullabaloo is past, and it's the one I think might steal my favourite book of the year title, even though I haven't read it yet - and it's by a man! In November, Ronald Frame publishes Havisham with Faber. As you might guess from the title, it's the early imagined life of Dickens' Miss Havisham, and I can't wait. Roll on November!  


  1. Hi Lesley - enjoying all your blogs. I think it should be Ros Barber though re Marlowe Papers. D

  2. You're right, David, thanks! Will change now!

  3. Yes,it is still a man's world, Lesley, as you rightly point out. Maybe women should vote with their purse and refuse to buy books by male writer's unless the situation changes.

  4. Well, I hope I'm not suggesting women shouldn't buy or read books by men! But I remember Jeremy Paxman saying that Tony Parsons's novel about a single father made him cry. I can't see him admitting to being as moved by popular fiction by a woman - or even reading any popular fiction by women. It's what gets rated, according to gender, that's the problem.

  5. Dear Lesley,

    What an interesting post. As a male writer who reads more books by women than by men, I find this gender split on reviewers really quite frightening; and as a writer who creates what I see primarily as women's fiction (if I may be so bold), it scares me totally witless - that I might be reviewed by people (men) who probably aren't my natural audience. And I do hope women will continue buying my book although I'm a bloke.


  6. Hi Richard - I think you probably would be reviewed by women reviewers, unless what you do is considered 'popular' fiction for women, in which case you probably won't get reviewed at all! So it's not just the gender of the writer that matters, but the gender of the audience aimed at, too.


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