As part of our focus on writers of divese heritage this month, AWW team member, Marisa Wikramanayake, was invited to write about the VIDA Count and her new database of female reviewers.* Marisa writes:
On April 4, last week, the results of the 2014 VIDA Count were released.
The count measures statistics on how many women review books in major US and UK based literary journals and publications such as the Paris Review, for example. It also in the past year attempted to count how many women of colour or those who were happy to identify themselves as women of colour get to review literary work.
You can read the rundown of the results for 2014 here. Suffice it to say, some publications did well in achieving and ensuring parity in works they reviewed as well as the reviewers themselves, some didn’t. You can read The Guardian’s piece on it here.
The point the VIDA Count and the people behind it are trying to make is simple: women are 40% less likely to be promoted in mainstream or at least Tier 1 publications in the literary world. It’s part of why Australian Women Writers exists. That little fact caused a lot of havoc among female writers, particularly those of colour online:
I count! @VIDA_lit #VIDACount #WoCVIDACount #BlackWomenAuthors #HerDreamDeferred #amwriting #FeministDisney #binders pic.twitter.com/OrkUwb7l8u
— Aya de Leon (@AyadeLeon) April 3, 2015
Why does such bias exist? As one male author put it to me, a lot of the people he works with in publishing are overwhelmingly female. That is true, though not in the upper echelons of publishing where the oroportion of men is higher. What is also true is that not only male readers have gender bias: many (especially older) female readers have been educated in a predominantly male (Euro-centric) literary canon. In order to challenge whether this canon is based on “merit” (i.e. male authors are, for some reason, inherently superior) or some other factors, female authors (and authors of colour) need to be read. In order to be read, they must first come to the attention of readers. To come to the attention of readers, they must first be reviewed. To be read by reviewers, they must first be considered worthy of recognition. But if the writers are female and/or of colour the reviewer has an unconscious bias (e.g. a tendency to think Anglo-European men write better), their books may not be chosen for review – thus explaining, for example, why so many women, traditionally, have published under male pseudonymns in order to get a fair reading.
One way to ensure a fair reading of women and authors of colour is to work on bringing such unconscious gender bias to light. Other ways include contracting more female (and non-European) reviewers and making an effort to make sure a book is being judged for how good it is not on some vague dismissal that a female or author of colour equates lower quality. It is important that books that come through to reviewers, journalists, editors at publications are judged not on gender or ethnicity, but on merit (however we choose to define that: and the question of genre is important here, but that is a discussion for another time).
On the reviewing and literary journalism side of things, you need to ensure female authors get equal attention:
It’s really interesting to see some of my fellow editors moan about how hard it is. It’s not actually that hard, you just have to pay attention. There really no excuses for not doing due diligence. There’s no point in throwing your hands up and saying you believe in gender equality, you actually have to go out and look for it.”
– Rob Spillman, editor of Tin House, in The Guardian on being proactive about addressing the gender inequality issue in reviewing.
We want to achieve a situation where reviewers think highly enough of women writers and writers of colour to read their work and to seek it out as enthusiastically as they wait for the next title from a major US or British male author.
We want editors, readers and writers to be aware of their habits and open their mind to other voices, and we at Vida do really think that is genuinely happening. And I would say overall we have seen a lot of positive trends over the duration of the five years we’ve compiled these these figures.”
– Erin Belieu, co-founder of Vida in The Guardian
And now to the fun bit.
Real talk w/ my girl Rebecca West @parisreview What are the advantage of being a woman writer? http://t.co/ouT3QnjSiK pic.twitter.com/pYDnae99ZM
— Sara Nović (@NovicSara) April 6, 2015
Twitter went all, well, a-twitter, when the results were announced and I kind of blearily looked at my feed and joined in late on a conversation where someone said that someone else had said that editors didn’t know where to find female reviewers.
327 women reviewers; 715 men. But it's the fault of the women, because they don't "put themselves forward." *Headdesk*
— Joanne Harris (@Joannechocolat) April 7, 2015
To be honest, part of me was quirking an eyebrow at this statement and thinking “Do you know what Google is? I mean I know that as an editor you have a lot to do but ultimately? You are the one person responsible for gender equality across your team, you. Individual people contacting you to contribute to your publication do not have the knowledge you do of who you employ, how often they write and what gender they are.”
Then someone else weighed in: “We should have a list or a database of female reviewers that we can send them to.”
@sarasheridan @Joannechocolat of course you could also create a list of female reviewers like @WomenOnAirIE?
— MargaretEWard (@MargaretEWard) April 7, 2015
@sarasheridan @Joannechocolat that will prove female reviewers exist & are still not chosen. maybe @cristinleach
— MargaretEWard (@MargaretEWard) April 7, 2015
So I said I would create one. Half an hour later, Women Who Review was up and running. It’s not pretty or fancy. It’s a Google docs form and spreadsheet that can be printed if need be. It works.
Great news – in response to the #vidacount, @mwikramanayake is setting up a database of women reviewers #reviewwomen2015 #readwomen
— #Readwomen (@Read_Women) April 7, 2015
Which brings me to you.
If you review and are female or female identifying, it doesn’t matter where you are in the world, or in what capacity or how often or what genre you review, please feel free to add yourself to the list.
One day, an editor may call you up and offer you work. Authors are also welcome to use the list as they see fit (for those of us who blog, this might make life a bit easier).
In this day and age, I can read releases from other countries via services like NetGalley. I can check out e-book versions of titles from my local library. Authors send me ARCs (advance review copies) of books that are about to come out in PDF format via email. My location does not deter me, neither does my nationality, gender or ethnicity – I can still review.
The list asks for your name, the genres you review in, sites and places you review for, location so that editors can narrow their searches that way if required, the capacity in which you review (blogger/journalist/author) which enables people to know about time constraints and other skills you may have and a way and means of contacting you.
In the meantime, it’s a list of names that showcase the fact that women read, women review, that we exist.
Just use Google.
* This piece was edited 18 April 2015 and some changes were made that alter the content and emphasis of the original post – Elizabeth.
About me: Marisa Wikramanayake is a freelance journalist, writer and editor. She published her first book at 17, has lived on three different continents, been in ground zero of a bomb blast twice and is currently hibernating in Perth, Australia. She’s also been freaked out by the Scientologists, helped run a national publishing conference for the Society of Editors (WA) and currently sits on the WA Media Alliance committee. She is dangerous when bored, having terrorised educational institutions to finish an Honours thesis on Archaeology and a Masters thesis on Neuroscience and Science Communication. She penned book reviews for The West and science news and now writes and edits novels and dreams of fun cross platform media projects in the spare time that’s left over after painting, dancing, gaming and mentoring. She contributes her two cents as non-fiction editor at Australian Women Writers and lends her geek goddess expertise to the Guys Read Gals project. Feel free to badger her at her blog at marisa.com.au, on Facebook or tweet at her at @mwikramanayake