Finding Women Writers is complicated at the LRB

24th Jun 2013

Women Typing Wisconsin
It's no secret that the London Review of Books is notoriously bobbins when it comes to giving women writers the attention they deserve. According to the latest VIDA audit, in 2012 they reviewed only 74 books by women compared to 203 by men.

As well as books by men making up 74% of the reviews, men wrote 78% of the reviews themselves too. So it seems that equality isn’t exactly high on the agenda for LRB.

So far, so predictable. But last week, the issue came to public attention again when our new heroine, author Kathryn Heyman, published an exchange with the LRB subscription team, which she’s generously allowed us to republish here:

I have to assume that my lady-money is quite simply not welcome in the man-cave of LRB.The saga began when LRB wrote to recommend Kathryn, an established novelist with four books and numerous awards to her name, renew her subscription to their journal. She replied: 

Dear Nicholas and Subscription team,
Thanks for your recent letter expressing your concern for me in the form of a suggestion that I might have forgotten to renew my subscription [to London Review of Books].

I had planned a simple, quiet lapse, but as you have raised the question, let me assure you that I have not forgotten to renew.

Indeed, I would dearly love to renew my subscription, however, based on the tedious regularity with which you ignore female writers and female reviewers, I have to assume that my lady-money is quite simply not welcome in the man-cave of LRB.

With each issue my husband and I play the hilarious poker game “Guess the Ladies,” whereby contestants must take a punt on the number of female contributors to the LRB, or reviews of books written by women.

The percentages are fascinating. It’s not hard, just open any issue and count the names – 16 men, 4 women, that sort of thing – give it a try, it’s a great game once you get the hang of it. Recently the game has extended to an advanced version whereby we compare your statistics to the Cambridge University Alumni Magazine.

We would have assumed the LRB might be a teensy bit less conservative than the Alumni mag (recent features include a piece on old chairs) but, no, you win. And, congratulations – you also win the metaphorical arm wrestle in our household; we both give up.

We can no longer tolerate the tedium with which we are able to predict the outcomes of our gender game. We have made the astonishing decision to create a life and an environment in which men and women have equal power, equal status, equal space. This is clearly not a world which the LRB chooses to inhabit.

If at some point you choose to step into the terrifying world of gender equality, do let us know.

Dr Kathryn Heyman

LRB responded:

Dear Kathryn Heyman,

Many thanks for taking the time to let us know why you’ve decided to give up on the LRB. We’re very sorry to see you go, but respect your reasons.

If you were interested, I’d be glad to discuss with you, perhaps in an email exchange, why it may be that women are underrepresented in the paper. I think they’re complicated; actually, as complicated as it gets.

However, there’s no question that despite the distress it causes us that the proportion of women in the paper remains so stubbornly low, the efforts we’ve made to change the situation have been hopelessly unsuccessful.

We’ll continue to try – the issue is on our minds constantly – in the hope that eventually you’ll feel ready to consider subscribing again. Best wishes,


That’s right. The issue is “as complicated as it gets.” It’s on their minds constantly. The efforts they’ve “made to change the situation have been hopelessly unsuccessful.”

So what are these efforts, we wonder? Surely it must be something far more mysterious and complex than simply talking to publishers, authors and journalists, which is what we do. Because otherwise it’d be simple, right?

Luckily for us, Kathryn was equally baffled by their claims, and wrote back to clarify the issue further:

Dear Paul

Firstly, apologies for the mass of appalling typos.

Secondly, I’m sorry, but I just can’t see what on earth you mean: efforts to change the situation? Really, Paul, with respect, it isn’t that hard. I could give you a list – off the top of my head –  of scores of eminent established female novelists and non-fiction writers who are not being reviewed.

I could give you a similar list of emerging female writers. So, what’s the problem? Are your reviewers allergic to lady-words? Or is your problem finding female reviewers (because only women will review women)?

I’m sure you are aware of the facts in the publishing industry: more women write books, more women read books. Your pages are a shocking inverse to the reality.

I’m sorry, but as someone with (I assume) a nodding acquaintance with Aristotle, you know that we only know someone’s intentions through their actions. If this really causes you and your colleagues actual distress, change it. If you are genuine about not knowing how to do this, I am happy to call you and explain how.

Best wishes

Kathryn Heyman

But Kathryn (have we mentioned how much we love her for this?) wasn’t letting the exchange end there. Instead, she issued another blistering broadside; it’s not that complicated: a partial list of eminent women writers. Kathryn explains:

So, my correspondence with the darling ruffians over at LRB has continued. They seem puzzled as to how to find the lady writers, and bemusedly wrote that “Men vastly outnumber women among writers proposing pieces”.

Oooh, I said – so you don’t commission the pieces? You wait for them to come to you?

Errr, no.

“Just to clarify, the vast majority of pieces that we carry are commissioned by the editors. I mentioned the proportions by gender among the unsolicited contributions only as evidence that more men than women actively seek to be published in journals such as ours”

In a conciliatory spirit, they said that perhaps some ‘positive discrimination’ might be called for.


So I sent this:

If the editors are commissioning the reviews you don’t need positive discrimination. You just need the editors to approach women. Below is a very incomplete list of  eminent, established writers and academics, one or two of whom would, I am sure, be very happy to write for LRB and most of whom outrank or equal most contributors you’ve had. For the record,  that list was drawn together from a five minute conversation, with very little intellectual effort involved.

By the way, we’ve just had a cursory glance at the current edition of New Writing, which is also drawing on writers and literary academics in the UK. There are six female contributors, six male and one of unknown gender.

Paul, I want to applaud the space that the LRB inhabits; I want to celebrate the continuing insistence on giving serious literature serious attention. To produce a high quality literary journal is a major achievement.

But it is no longer appropriate to continue positive discrimination in favour of men. I hope that you will have the courage to shift the template of the LRB…

I would suggest that as a start, an all female issue would be a bold statement of intent, effectively a statement on your willingness to  address the issues raised in the recent studies.


Kathryn’s list includes many amazing women writers that we’ve previously featured on For Books’ Sake, like Sarah Churchwell, Marina Warner, Bidisha, Lisa Appinganesi, Susie Orbach, Ali Smith, Jane Rogers, Sarah Waters, Hilary Mantel, Kate Figes, Polly Samson, Margaret Atwood, Helen Dunmore and many more besides.

Take a look at the list so far and let us know which others you’d recommend to LRB. If you believe, like us, that it’s high time they commit to addressing these issues, rather than making ridiculous, transparent excuses about them, you can also send them an email.

We’ll be writing to them too and letting them know that featuring women writers isn’t anywhere as near as difficult or complicated as they’d have us believe. After all, we do it on a daily basis, on next-to-no budget, alongside our full-time jobs.

LRB has far more money, influence, audience and resources than us. If we can do it, so can they. Like Kathryn says, it’s really not that complicated.

[UPDATE: Women Writers vs. LRB Round Two]

(Image via wistechcolleges)


  • Sorrell says:

    Fay Weldon, Patricia Duncker and Jeanette Winterson are missing off that list.

  • Joyce Henderson says:

    Great debate, glad it’s happening. What chance do Scottish women writers have then? even award-winning ones like AL Kennedy, Janice Galloway, Janet Paisley and ( almost Scot) Kate Atkinson. To name just a few.

  • Sarah Irving says:

    The old school tie really isn’t dead, is it? One expects it of somewhere so self-consciously public school as Private Eye, but the LRB spends so much time pretending to be liberal that it obviously forgets to actually be so.

    Scottish women – Kathleen Jamie, too.

    And what about a little ethnic diversity as well!? Andrea Levy, Ahdaf Soueif, Adania Shibli, Salwa Bakr, Hoda Barakat… and contributors like Marilyn Booth…