Reviews, Statistics and Women

VIDA, a Women Literary Organisation which was founded in August 2009 "to address the need for female writers of literature to engage in conversations regarding the critical reception of women’s creative writing in our current culture" has conducted a fascinating research into the gender distribution of book reviews and articles. Their findings have generated a wave of discussion on the gender biasness in literary circles or the less emphasis placed on women writings. Available statistics from big publishing houses such as Atlantic, Boston Review, Granta, London Review of Books, Harper, New Republic, New Yorker, New York Times Book Review, New York Review of Books, according to VIDA, show skewness in representation against women, even though "women write and women read". 

Source: VIDA
Some responses even suggests that since women form a larger percentage of the reading public there should be a greater representation of women in these studies. The question therefore is why this skewness then? Why are women under represented. It cannot be because men write more than women neither can it be because men read more than women. And on the side of the quality of the write, I cannot argue for or against it for I have read beautiful novels from both sexes. What then is the cause? Below are a few of the graphs (in pie chart format) showing the figures.

But is there really a deliberate attempt by these reviewers or media outlets to suppress women writing? Could this really be the case? Arguments of this nature would rage as long as there are divisions and groupings in this world. For instance, Africans do question the representation of their literary outputs whenever discussions of world literature is mentioned. In fact, since the institution of the Nobel Prize in Literature Africa's representation could be counted on one's single hand. And it is still a wonder why Chinua Achebe, the author of Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease and Arrow of God, these three commonly referred to as the Africa Trilogy, has not won the award yet. But this is a discussion for another time.

I don't want to believe that there is a deliberate attempt to highlight only men literature or, alternatively, suppress women writings. As a book blogger I don't choose a book based on gender. Gender has never influenced the kind of books I read and or review on my blog. I choose a book which is either on my challenge list, have been recommended by a fellow blogger or reader or one which would interest me. On no occasion has gender played a role in determining the books I read. However, a brief look at my gender ratio since I began reviewing books on this blog would lend credence to VIDA's findings. Am I then a sexist by nature, unconsciously? 

In 2009, I read and reviewed a total of 27 novels and 8 of these were women, as shown in the diagram below.
2009 Book Reviews
Strangely enough, the ratio was the same in 2010. Though I read 30 books in 2010, three of which were short story anthologies from various writers and were thus not included in any of the sex. 
2010 Book Reviews
However, in 2011, there is an almost equal number of female and male authored books. Again, I have not set out to equilibrate the skewed distribution.
2011 Book Reviews (includes what I am currently reading. Date: 21.02.2011)
Besides, since I started interviewing authors on this blog, I have interviewed more women writers than men as shown in the figure below. 

ImageNations Interviews as at 21.02.2011

Thus, is there really a motive behind VIDA's findings? What do you, as a book blogger, look for or what influences your choice of books to review? Do you plan to balance the sexes? Do you read what comes to you? What does your own statistics look like?


  1. Interesting stats there Nana, I know when the VIDA finding raged across the literary world and it was intriguing to say the least. As you must have found out too, all the major prizes - Nobel, Booker, etc, are also skewed against women. What I think is that most of us are sexist by nature if not upbringing, and this is even more so for men. So while a girl child wouldn't mind playing with trucks and guns, a boy child will hardly play with dolls. Think about the connotations of sissies and tomboys, and which is more harmful?

    I was listening to Debbie Macomber, a women's fiction author, bestseller, who started writing in the seventies for romance houses. She said in those days, it was even more marked, women could mostly/only come in through the publishing door through romance. Now women are publsihed more widely in literary fiction, but the bias remains. The literary/ARTS sector is a man's world at the end of the day. A commenter on some article on the Guardian UK said it may remain so until it is discovered there was a female philospher/thinker in the days of Plato, Socrates, et al..

  2. I think Myne makes a really great point that it is how we are raised culturally. It is more likely that women will read books with male characters / watch tv shows or movies with all male cast than the other way around. In large part because we are raised expecting to have to do so because it is the way that things are.

    I think when we look at newer lit it is sometimes easier to be less skewed as the classics are more men and less women. Sometimes just paying attention helps too :)

  3. @Myne Whitman... You have a point here and thanks for your in-depth analyses.

  4. @Amy, are you and Myne then suggesting that consciously we are biased? I can't bring myself to checking the gender of authors before purchasing. There are some books on my wishlist whose author's gender I cannot decipher because of the foreign name. I go for books I would love to read. May be I should pay more attention :) but that would be difficult.

  5. I'm not sure if we are necessarily biased because as you say we just randomly pick books sometimes -but I do think we are some! I think a lot of it though (especially before) is in terms of who actually got published. And it still affects where books get shelved, the covers that get chosen, and that kind of thing. And those factors affect which ones we just randomly pick up as well.

  6. @Amy I have been thinking about all the responses on my way to work. This is what i think. like you are correctly saying, the population from which we are randomly selecting from is itself biased. Hence, our random choice, where the probability of each selection is equal, would also be biased. Had each writer (male or female) had the opportunity of being published then we would have a fairly well distributed population and our sample would not be skewed.

    I agree with you on this.

  7. @Nana, I think that is the bottom line. Until the early nineties, most of the literary fiction published were by men. And when it comes to genre, while women would deliberately pick up thrillers written by men, men would not pick up romance by women. It is just what it is. It takes conscious effort to break through this. I know it took you a while to try AHTM :)

  8. Very interesting discussion.

    I don't have gender bias, but lately I have been reading a lot of fiction written by women, because of my PhD that is on women's writing. As a woman, I feel attracted by women's writers, but it hasn't been always like this for me. During high school I was reading many classics, so a lot of male French, Russian and Italian writers.
    Last year (2010) I read 22 male writers and 29 women writers. The year before the statistics are inverted (30 men and 20 women).

  9. @Myne, I agree that content and genre counts. Because men would not want to be found reading romance, probably. Personally, I read only two novels from Danielle Steel and Perfect from Judith McNaught and decided not to read any book from these writers. Why? I found the story lines impossible to happen especially in relation to where I was coming from. In Perfect (which I read almost fifteen years ago) a man who has been wrongly accused abducts a woman who later falls in love with him but turns him in to the authorities, he was imprisoned for 15 years and was released when they found he is innocent. He couldn't do anything/was unhappy and returned to the same woman who had him imprisoned... I was like me I wouldn't do that. lol

  10. @Stefania, I have been following you, Stefania, for at least two years and I know this. I have read your reviews on the classics and the contemporary with equal relish. I don't consider 30-20 or 22-29 as a bias. In fact statistically it could even be that there is no significant difference between the two. One can hardly read at a ratio of 1:1, unless the effort is consciously taken. Though I know of a blogger who read at such a ratio and said it was purely accidental. And it can happen. But to keep it that way for many years is impossible.


Post a Comment

Help Improve the Blog with a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

10. Unexpected Joy at Dawn: My Reading

Quotes for Friday from Ola Rotimi's The Gods Are not to Blame I

69. The Clothes of Nakedness by Benjamin Kwakye, A Review