gillpolack (gillpolack) wrote,

Book reviews and WHM

I'm thinking about reviews today. That wonderful (and depressing) work by Vida demonstrated that reviews are not distributed at all evenly according to gender.

Large press has more money to send review copies into the wilderness and so books published by large press are more likely to get reviews (at least in theory) and publishers who do clever marketing will get enough buzz about a work to guarantee mention in key places. But this is just the beginning of it. There are publishers (who produce amazing books) who some critics will not review anything from because they know they will get criticised if they say anything negative - not all editors and publishers are understanding when a critic dislikes something. There are publishers who don't check who writes what or know enough about the magazine or organisation - someone sent the CSFG a post-apocalyptic book for review the other day, for instance, and CSFG doesn't put reviews on its website (or hasn't ever, yet)

When publishers get it right, though, and reviewers get books that fascinate them, then life can be very cool. I got to write a review essay about Sara Douglass because Ticonderoga always keeps my particular preferences in mind. Ticon often publishes books by friends of mine (which just shows that I have friends who are fine writers) and I will not review books by friends. They do the check and they know my limitations and they do not send me books by friends. Angry Robot, likewise, has a setup - as do most of the academic publishers - where I don't get review copies (not paper, not electronic) of volumes I can't use. Prometheus sends me a wider range - but Jill Maxick is a living miracle, for these books always reflect my interests - and so I can review or comment on most of those I receive. And yet I had a complaint from a much bigger publisher that I only once reviewed anything they issued. This would be because they have never sent me anything and that once I got the book for myself. And another was perplexed that I didn't review books by friends.

Most publishers who send me work (and this includes the academic presses) are very careful to reflect what they know of my interests. This is important. It's a signal that those Vida statistics are not as simple as reviewers choosing male writers. It's also a question of what publications are available for review for the places you write for. I will go out and buy books I want to write about when I have the money, and I suspect I'm not the only person who does that. But if an interesting book appears in my letterbox, then I don't have to and I'll write about that book ahead of the mythical one I have not yet seen.

All this is just a subset of possible illustrations: the gender imbalance is due to complex causes. Some of it is choices by reviewers (I need to do a pie chart for my reviews and essays to find out what it looks like, but I admit I'm a bit nervous), some of it is the policies of the place the reviews appear (what publications are offered for review, what do the editors tell their reviewers? - BiblioBuffet tells me very clearly I can write about the books I want to write about, so if I only write about books by male authors, then I'm the one who has made that choice, for instance, not BiblioBuffet), what do publishers and writers send notes about and which books do they send out and to whom (I get more books by male writers than female, across the board) and which reviews and essays elicit reader interest?

This last is one reason I chose the subject I chose for this year's Women's History Month. I wanted to see if people wanted to read about women in the arts. And they do. Lots of readers. They're not chatting about the posts on the posts, but they're coming to read them in droves. I don't think that this is because of gender - I think it's because interesting people are writing interesting things about other interesting people. And that's the bottom line. We need to stop assuming that audiences only want to read about books by men. Yes, there are many readers who discriminate by gender, but there are even more readers who aren't being given a chance to make that choice, because so many wonderful books by women aren't having enough light shone on them. If a reader doesn't know a book exists, how can they decide if they want to read it?

It's not enough to remind people to read books by women. It's not enough to get readers realising that the gender of a writer is not an indication of how good or bad a book is. We have to change the system by which knowledge of the existence of good books by women reaches the reading public.

Speaking of books - it's almost time for my library visit. I'm still running background checks because my eye still can't deal with solid work, so my check for the weekend will be long slow narratives. During the week it was the narratives surrounding Martin Guerre. I'm going to have to bite the bullet next week and do solid work regardless, but at least I learned a heap about my own assumptions of what creates story while I was dealing with life and the universe.

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