For Books’ Sake Talks To: Kathryn Heyman

For Books’ Sake Talks To: Kathryn Heyman
Last month, author Dr. Kathryn Heyman published an exchange she'd had with The London Review of Books regarding the gender disparity of their editorial content.

Heyman had decided not to renew her subscription. When LRB asked why, she wrote “ 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.”

Well, quite. But why do LRB continue to ignore the artistic contribution of the female half of the population?

“I think they’re complicated; actually, as complicated as it gets,” they write. “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…”

It’s amazing that with all LRB’s power set behind the issue of gender discrimination, they can be so ineffectual. How hard can it be?

LRB are floundering for the same reason that toddlers flounder: they don’t understand the responsibility of choice.Heyman’s response echoed the feelings of many angry voices across social media networks. “With respect,” she writes. “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?”

Kathryn Heyman, who had been a regular subscriber to LRB, says that she felt couldn’t ignore the issue any longer, telling us:

“I take literature seriously, and I want to be inspired by intelligent, insightful reviews. The model of the LRB is wonderful – the editorial policy is about deep reviews that engage with ideas, with thematic concerns, with influences. That’s the good bit. The bad bit is that the editorial policy also seems to preference male writers. I’ve always been aware of it; like many readers, I’ve spent years telling myself to get over it, to just focus on the content. But edition after edition, year after year, it starts to become tedious.”

VIDA, the organisation that critically explores cultural perceptions of writing by women amongst existing and emerging literary communities, also noted the highly concerning gender disparity at LRB; in 2012, the overall female contribution and visibility was at 30%.

Kathryn Heyman says her temper wasn’t cooled by LRB’s response, explaining: “I’d rather people owned their prejudices; in many ways those people who have responded to my blog post or my Guardian piece with ‘Men are simply better at intelligent criticism than women’ are easier to deal with. The ‘it’s complicated’ response sails a bit too close to the old ‘I’m not racist, but…’”

The exchange has sparked a furore on Twitter, yet LRB seem to be stumbling more with every response – “Submit your work,” they cry. “Men do all the time!” Kathryn Heyman notes the impact her letter has had and offers her thoughts on LRB’s obvious floundering:

“It’s been interesting, that sense that I’m not the first person to be completely riled by this,” she explains. “The ‘submit your work’ response is nonsense. Reviews are commissioned. I think that’s why it’s sparked a response. It’s so utterly irrational, the ‘we’re as mystified as you’ response.”

Heyman says it’s like arguing with a toddler: “‘I don’t like my breakfast,’ toddler pouts. ‘But who chose it?’ says despairing parent. ‘I did,’ says toddler. ‘But I don’t like it.’”

“That’s the discussion we’re having,” she says. “The LRB are saying ‘We don’t like this gender disparity any more than you do,’ but who commissions the pieces? They do. I think LRB are floundering for the same reason that the toddler flounders: they don’t understand the responsibility of choice.”

So what should LRB do going forward? A commissioning drive? An all-women issue?

“I suggested an all-woman issue and their response was to suggest that this sort of tokenism is inappropriate,” she says. “But I think an all-woman issue would be a very clear statement that the LRB take the figures seriously and are prepared to address the issues raised. They might get some subscribers back then, too. Failing that, it’s really very simple. Commission. More. Women.

As a novelist and someone who works in publishing, was Kathryn Heyman at all trepidatious about approaching LRB?

“I think many of us keep silent because of the power involved,” she explains. “We keep silent because we don’t want to be further excluded.”

Heyman’s upcoming novel, Floodline, is published by Allen and Unwin in September 2013. It’s about a woman who makes the decision to take her children on a mercy mission to a flooded city – almost losing everything dear to her as a result.

“The characters in the novel have to make enormous life-altering decisions in extreme circumstances; I’m interested in that – if we have to, how do we choose who to save? – and in the extraordinary strength that we find when we have to,” she states. “Fundamentally, Floodline is a story about the unexpected salvation that can be found on the edge of disaster.”

So. Is she expecting to see this reviewed in The London Review of Books?

“Not unless I change my name to Kevin,” she says.

Fingers crossed she won’t have to. We’re all hoping LRB can address this gender disparity and prove themselves to be an inclusive publication that gives women the artistic visibility they deserve. But judging by the one sentence they sent back in reply to our email, it’s not looking likely any time soon.