Book Reviewing and Gender: My Stella Effort

One Saturday in January, enraged by yet another hack review from an all too prolific reviewer, I set about thinking about the freshness and vitality of our the book reviews in our Saturday broadsheets.

What gets reviewed; who gets reviewed; who reviews? Why does there seem so little variety in the books chosen? Why do the SMH and The Age share the same feature reviews? Why reprint reviews from the Guardian or the Telegraph? (Yes, I know “cost” is going to be an answer. But surely there’s a question of value and richness.)

So I had a look at the review pages of The Age, the SMH and the Weekend Australian for the months of December 2011 and January and February 2012.

Over a series of posts I propose to share some numbers and thoughts that arose from this exercise.

Today being International Women’s Day, and with a number of events this week to promote the Stella Prize initiative to give greater recognition to women’s writing, I’ve put together some gender breakdowns of the reviews

My overall interest and intent isn’t confined to the representation of women – but I think that’s a significant and telling indication of the vitality of book reviewing.

Here’s a powerful and compelling case from Sophie Cunningham for why women’s representation in reviewing matters. Novelist Kirsten Tranter writes about the issues here.

For the past several years, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts has taken a count of the number of reviews of women authors and by women reviewers in major American and British journals. Here’s their most recent count – for 2011 – released two weeks ago.

VIDA’s counts stirred quite a debate, and caused not a few editors to look at their own efforts at recognising women’s writing. But has it changed anything?

When ABC RN’s The Book Show spoke to the literary editors of The Age, the SMH and the Weekend Australian last year, it noted:

They were open and honest in their appraisals and say that there’s a slight skew towards male commentators in their pages too, although their regulars are split 50-50.

I suppose it all depends on what you mean by “slight skew”.

Rather than overwhelm you with chart after chart, I have put my numbers into three series. In this post, I show the numbers for full length reviews.

Over here are the numbers for the short reviews in the SMH and The Age.

And here are the numbers for the various “Best of 2011” articles in The Weekend Australian and the piece shared by the Fairfax papers.

By “creatives”, I am counting editors, translators, photographers and illustrators where they’ve been credited in the review. Recognising these collaborations means an increase in the overall numbers but little difference to the relativities of gender.

Sydney Morning Herald

The Age:

The Weekend Australian

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