“Newly arrived in the country”: Women Critics and the LRB
The new VIDA count of gender parity in book reviewing revealed today that the while the situation at many small literary magazines and journals – and at the prestigious Paris Review – has improved, nothing much has changed at the New York Review of Books or the London Review of Books. In both magazines in 2013, female reviewers comprised roughly a quarter of male, and books by women were reviewed only a third as often as books by men. This, despite the fact that the latest report on the subject confirms women read more. Radio 4’s Open Book recently featured a segment on women’s writing and reviewing, discussing the outcry – lead by Kathryn Heyman – at the LRB’s poor showing in the VIDA index, and looking at the Twitter campaign, #ReadWomen2014, begun by Joanna Walsh (@Badaude), which draws attention to the continued neglect of women writers. The LRB were unable to appear on Open Book but sent a letter to the programme to explain their position. Although their letter has not been published (despite many requests), thanks to Viv Groskop, who transcribed it, we know what the LRB thinks the problem is: “Women find it difficult to do their jobs, look after their children, cook dinner and write pieces.” “Men”, on the other hand: “are not so frightened of asserting themselves. And they’re not so anxious to please.” How else to read this other than as provocation? Rather than taking the opportunity to reflect upon why in the twenty first century, a magazine like the LRB – devoted to literature and politics – features so few women, they react as if they are under attack and come out fighting: “Counting is a feminist weapon”, they assert. But the implication is that it’s a blunt one, which those incapable of literary nuance resort to in order to make their argument. While women may be weapon-wielding in the eyes of the LRB, they are, at the same time, poorly armed when it comes to the job of criticism: “They often prefer not to write critically about other women.” Finally the LRB insist that there are more pressing matters for women to worry about: “the pay gap… rape conviction rates and a thousand things that are more important than the proportion of women who write book reviews.” What’s perhaps most galling about the LRB response, though, is that it makes no reference to women’s writing itself, and appears to be speaking into a critical void – arguing that few women are good enough for the LRB pages because women are still so “newly arrived in the country”. It is this remark that concerns me the most. At a stroke, it denies the history of women’s literary criticism, which, above all else, has concerned itself with the problem of creating tradition in a hostile “country”, one that continually insists women writers are orphaned outsiders, without precedence. Despite this, and against those who try to ignore, traduce or patronize women as biologically unsuitable to write (mistaking a pen for a penis), a women’s canon has been built. Neglected authors from across the centuries have been brought back into the light and entered into conversation, helping young women writers to see that others before them have battled with feelings of outlandishness and isolation, and in the process to understand why these are at the core of so much writing by women. Perhaps the best response to this latest dismissal is to remind ourselves of some of the most important works in this tradition. As #ReadWomen2014 suggests, we all need to extend our familiarity with women writers, but we should ensure that there is among our reading those works of criticism and theory that have sought to contextualize, illuminate, reflect upon and celebrate the history of women’s writing.