June 27, 2013

Difficult women wanted: The LRB gender imbalance


Mary-Kay Wilmers

Novelist Kathryn Heyman and her husband used to play a game called “Guess the Ladies” whenever the London Review of Books showed up in their mailbox. The object? To correctly estimate the number of women (reviewers and those reviewed) included in the issue, always a small fraction compared to the number of men. Heyman recently canceled her subscription, writing to the LRB, “I would dearly love to renew my subscription, however, based on the tedious regularity with which you ignore female writers and female reviewers, I have to assume that my lady-money is quite simply not welcome in the man-cave of LRB.”

The response she received has been making its way around the internet:

I’d be glad to discuss with you, perhaps in an email exchange, why it may be that women are underrepresented in the paper. I think they’re complicated; actually, as complicated as it gets. However, there’s no question that despite the distress it causes us that the proportion of women in the paper remains so stubbornly low, the efforts we’ve made to change the situation have been hopelessly unsuccessful. We’ll continue to try – the issue is on our minds constantly – in the hope that eventually you’ll feel ready to consider subscribing again.

Summarizing this exchange in The Guardian, Heyman wrote, “By publishing a literary journal with about 70% male contributors in every edition, the implicit message is that male writing is better than female writing.”

Yet for over 20 years now, Mary-Kay Wilmers has been the sole editor of this journal—or “paper”, as she likes to call it. On the other hand, both The New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement have men topping their mastheads.

Wilmers began her career at Faber & Faber as a secretary, getting in trouble when T.S. Eliot caught her swearing. When she became an editor there, she commissioned Eva Figes to write Patriarchal Attitudes, an important early work of feminism. And in the early years of the LRB she covered the likes of Germaine Greer, Patti Hearst, Sonia Orwell, Alice James, and Vita Sackville-West. “I like difficult women,” she once told The Guardian.

Not just for the obvious reason that I’m a bit difficult myself. I like defending them against their critics and I like their complication. I’ve always been attracted to things that can go this way and that, being in two minds, being ambivalent.

Wilmers is indeed difficult. Responding to the question, “Can women write reviews?”, she said reportedly said “that women had a tendency to be either a bit jargony, or a bit breathless.”

In the 1988 Wilmers wrote a paper summarizing her editorial philosophy, now known around the LRB office as the “Turin Manifesto”. She declared:

Readers make punctual assessments – of this issue or that article – on a weekly or monthly basis. But the long haul is more important: the way in which the paper evolves, the questions it addresses – or sidesteps – how it looks at the politics and culture of its time, and the efforts it makes to shape them.

After accumulated punctual assessments, Kathryn Heyman chose to unsubscribe, publicly decrying the failure of such an influential publication to shape the politics and culture of its time. If others follow suit, the LRB will need to find some difficult women, fast. As “complicated” as that might be.


The gender balance (or imbalance) of UK literary culture. Via The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/interactive/2013/jun/08/gender-balance-literary-culture-books-graphic

Abigail Grace Murdy is a former Melville House intern.