I’ve recently read a few interesting articles on the subject of female book reviewing. The first was on Suzi Feay’s blog: “Where are all the female reviewers?” which was a response to a Guardian article by Benedicte Page on the dominance of male writers in the books world. The second was by The Independent’s Literary Editor, Katy Guest, who repeated Feay’s question here, which led to Feay posting a useful guide to being a “Great Reviewer”.
I do wonder if men have more confidence in putting their views forwards. At the risk of generalising I think most men I know wouldn’t see being called opinionated as insulting whereas perhaps some women would see that as a negative? Amongst people I know “in real life” there are several film bloggers and several music bloggers, only one of whom is female. Does that mean anything?
I feel a little hesitant when I review books. I feel unqualified to offer my opinion as anything other than an amateur and despite being paid to review it has genuinely never occurred to me to offer a review to anywhere that has not asked. I used to imagine that as I am rather opinionated I would be unafraid to write the truth. Turns out that I hate the thought of offending anyone. If I read a book I loathe I prefer to keep it to myself. Or rant to friends. It goes against the grain to be so coy, my *thing* is truth. If I think a book badly written, poorly plotted and so on I tend to think, oh, it’s utter shit but someone spent time writing that and I wouldn’t want to upset them. What’s up with that? The younger me would scoff at this soggy old me. I even went so far as to set up an anonymous blog so that I could be honest secretly, but couldn’t even commit to that.
I have written gently negative reviews. Once an editor asked me to change one saying that they preferred to show more support for new writers, and a couple of times a different editor asked me to make a review more positive. Yesterday I read a brilliant review by Steve Finbow at Bookmunch. What a terrible review, how refreshing to read. I could never. Is that a gender thing or an individual thing?
I did once write a review here on my blog in which I stated that a particular book was such dreary toss I couldn’t comprehend how it was published. The author turned out to be good friends with a group of my online writing pals. I felt embarrassed and a little silly. Why?
I’m wary of gender based assumptions but I believe that more women read men than men read women. Certainly in the bookshop a female customer is often more receptive to being shown recommendations from either gender than some men are. Does that translate to men not taking female reviewers seriously? Then we’re back looking at the whole industry which does not revere its serious women writers in the same way it does its men. Those literary heavyweights are always blokes, aren’t they? McEwan, Amis, Rushdie, DeLillo, Roth et al.
Leyla Sanai reviews for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday:
“I do think some men are, perhaps subconsciously, more dismissive of female opinions and female novelists. There was an interesting thread in a book forum I used to belong to where people discussed the male: female ratio of the books they read. I was one of the few who had pretty much a 1: 1 ratio, I seem to recall, and I still do – not because I consciously strive to seek out books by women but because I can’t imagine not wanting to read books by women. It’s always myopic to generalise but I think some male readers – and reviewers – aren’t much attracted to books that aren’t dynamically plot-based, or don’t play with language or meta-fiction or explore ‘great’ philosophical themes in life – sex, death, and so on. This has always amazed me: while many female novelists may not ostensibly tackle these major themes, many of them are just as (if not more) insightful in their writing about everyday life: family dynamics, relationships, parenthood, ageing parents, love, hate, and so on.
That sounds like a gross generalisation because of course many women don’t write about these themes, and many men do, but I suppose people tend to write more about what they have direct experience of, and like it or lump it, many women do experience more of the interior of family life than many men, who have traditionally worked away from home. I just don’t understand how any reader, male or female, could fail to be blown away by the writing of authors like Maggie O’Farrell, Tessa Hadley, Julie Orringer, Rose Tremain, Hilary Mantel. It’s funny how the latter two only seemed to gain major acclaim when they tackled more ‘male’ themes – yet their books have always had that richness and depth, the insights, the wit and fabulous prose.”
I suspect that a woman is expected by some to only be competent in reviewing women’s books. Dismissed. Like Leyla, I read a mix – it’s what appeals, what’s good, etc, not based on gender of author. My favourite writer is a woman. That does not mean I’m not blown away by wonderful male writing too. Everything Leyla says rings true except my choice of strong literary women would differ from hers, showing what wealth of talent and variety of styles are available because…guess what…each woman is an individual.
Leyla Sanai says “Some (but not by all means all) men tend to dismiss any novel based around family life as ‘women’s fiction’. Of course there are many women who don’t like ‘domestic’ fiction, and that’s absolutely fair enough too. Personally, I get uneasy about categories: I used the term ‘domestic’ fiction in a Hadley review recently but made sure to use inverted commas because I was being semi-ironic – although her plotlines have been criticised by some reviewers as being too small in scope, I think what’s important is the writing, and whether a writer can bring a subject to life and make reading a joy. I have read some very poor family/relationship orientated fiction as well as much great stuff, just as I have read many brilliant novels based around intricate plots/adventure/action. Categorising is the enemy; some men won’t read books by women because they think ‘mothersandbabies/singlegirllookingforlove’. And that’s just so myopic. Personally, I wouldn’t read half of the stuff on bestseller lists in Smiths, and they probably include as much lightweight chicklit/’domfic’ as they do inane action thrillers like Dan Brown. What I was trying to say is that I don’t judge books on the gender of their author, nor on subject matter, but on the quality of the writing and the ability of the author to be intelligent, insightful, perceptive, smart, funny and original, and to bring characters and situations to life so that I’m completely immersed.
Some writers can make ironing hilarious, others render murder tedious.”
I suppose what is important is that opinions are expressed with spark and integrity. We need to be honest in reviews to inspire trust. I do think we need a variety of voices, male and female, so that we have a choice of reviews. It’s good to hear dissenting voices if there is a reason for that dissent but if it’s just ego wank it’s pointless.
Edit: Thanks to Jane Bradley for this pertinent link to an article she wrote at For Books Sake.