For five years the nice people at the Stella Prize have been counting who receives (and writes) book reviews in Australia.
No prize, even a stellar one, for guessing who does: men.
Despite men writing only 28% of all Australian books published in 2015, books by men received well over half the published reviews. Men’s books were consistently the focus of longer reviews and male reviewers had more reviews published than did women reviewers – and those male reviewers usually reviewed books by (you guessed it) men.
When you look at those figures over a five year period (see chart above) there’s not even a trend suggesting that publications are actively addressing the issue. What about the Sunday Age, you ask? It stopped publishing book reviews in 2016.
Whether by accident or design, a cause or an effect of reviewing processes, the tendency across review publications for male reviewers to review male authors rather than female authors perpetuates cultural biases that suggest that writing by men is universal, and writing by women is for women only.
Yes, the counting people took into account those books co-authored by a man and woman (about 1% of the total and not included in the figures). And yes, the counting people confirmed that female reviewers tended to review equal numbers of books by men as they did books by women. But men consistently only reviewed books by men.
At the Monthly, for instance, just 5% of reviews published were written by male reviewers about female-authored books. The proportion of other reviewer–author gender combinations was 30%, 30% and 35% (for females reviewing male authors, females reviewing female authors, and males reviewing male authors respectively).
It gets worse. Of non-fiction books reviewed, only a tiny percentage were written by women. Yet women write around two-thirds of all published non-fiction.
The fact that an imbalance in critical coverage persists, despite there being no underlying imbalance in authorship, creates and perpetuates the perception that nonfiction by males is more worthy of critical attention, in that it frequently deals with typically masculine topics such as war, history, economics and so forth.
The problem is, of course, what do we actually DO about it?
The Australian Women Writers Challenge is one excellent response, and trade publication Books & Publishing – the only Australian publication to reach something likely parity in book reviews – is certainly to be praised.
But how do we make a dent in the male-focused bastions of Australian books? I’d love to hear your ideas…
For full details about the statistics I’ve quoted above (with an easy-to-read overview and lots of useful charts) go to the source: 2015 Stella Count
Is this also a problem for Britain and the USA? Yes – read more about the VIDA count (upon which the Australian Stella count is modeled):