As complicated as it gets

Kathryn Hamen heaves a large sigh and wonders why the London Review of Books has such a very hard time finding women.

Having been asked, I told them: the ridiculously low number of women who are represented in each edition of your otherwise worthy journal is, well, ridiculous. The reply: It’s complicated, “as complicated as it gets”. The response was genuine in its bafflement and its hand-wringing consternation, and ended by stating that the editors at the LRB were desperate to change the situation.

To which I replied: then change it.

And then I posted the exchange on my blog, where it was retweeted and picked up by in the US. Many people responded with, “I’ve been thinking that for ages.” We might be the only household where Guess the Ladies is played, but we’re clearly not alone in our frustration with the gender balance of the LRB.

Oh yes? Oh yes – so she did. She sent them an amusing, irritated letter and got a fatuous reply:

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,


No. No, and no, and no. That is not possible. Finding women who can write for the LRB is not like finding a snow leopard or gold or a sonnet written by a chicken. It’s not that your efforts have been unsuccessful, it’s that you haven’t made them. You haven’t asked enough women.

Heyman tells him that.

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.

Quite. It’s just bullshit to claim that women who could write for the LRB are a rarity, just as it’s bullshit to claim that women who are worth hearing at conferences on secularism and atheism are a rarity. There are lots of them. People forget to ask them.

But the LRB couldn’t even manage to reply to Heyman.

Although there’s been no reply to my follow-up emails (no phone calls, no flowers, nothing), an LRB editor, Deborah Friedell, wrote to Salon, explaining, “we’re getting better, particularly when it comes to promoting and publishing the next generation of female critics”. She noted that the Review already publishes esteemed women writers.

Yes, but too few of them.

By publishing a literary journal with about 70% male contributors in every edition, the implicit message is that male writing is better than female writing.

Ah, no. With respect, that part isn’t right. The implicit message is that there are more better male writers, not that all male writers are better. The implicit message is that there are lots of good male writers and not so many good female writers.

That might be the case, considered in the abstract. (Or just as easily it might be the other way around.) But the reality is, there are more than enough writers of either sex good enough for the LRB, and people are just desperately stupid about remembering to ask enough. It’s like Cara Santa Maria saying she had a hell of a time trying to find atheist women to do that discussion, and then later revealing that she had asked only two women. I think that’s what Paul and his colleagues have been doing – asking two or three and then collapsing in anguish at how complicated it is to try to remember who the fourth might be.

My LRB correspondent explained that “men vastly outnumber women among writers proposing pieces”, but then went on to confirm that it is the editors who approach contributors – so, surely, in this case, the complication lies with the editors themselves. Is it more complicated to commission a woman than to commission a man?

This is what I’m saying! You have to ask them. You have to commission them. Don’t go telling us they won’t do it when you haven’t fucking asked them.

Bidisha (who is a writer) replies in a comment:

I’m writing this after 20+ years working directly in it, 20+ years putting up with it, 20+ glossing my complexion in the glass ceiling of it, 20+ years fighting it and 20+ years thinking about it. It’s cultural femicide: the act of erasing women from cultural life. I wrote about it 3 years ago in Tired of Being the Token Woman (which gives stats from the LRB) and Literary Women, Literary Prizes and A Call To Action and On Despair.

I’ve now spent about 4 or 5 years of those 20 producing, curating, presenting, commissioning or producing events and projects myself. Guess what? There are countless women around, all expert, all talented, all interested, all professional, articulate, insightful and keen. Despite all the complications of this complex issue – which, by the way, is incredibly entrenched and tricky, snagged on all manner of quantum enigmatic charismatic complexity – there are just gazillions of women experts, writers, critics, commentators, speakers, reviewers, artists, academics, analysts, achievers and advocates who are not shy, not unavailable, not crippled by low self esteem or any of the other victim-blaming excuses which perpetrators use to justify their extreme marginalisation of women.

Despite the positively debilitating complications of this issue let me boil it down – really, as a charitable act to help the perpetrators cut through this cloud of confusion …or shall we just call it a smokescreen… they have created.

Women are prolific and very present and active writers (in all fields and genres, fiction and non-fiction), readers, commentators, publishers, editors, agents, PRs, book event organisers and literary event attendees.

When they are ignored or heavily marginalised in the media it is exactly what it appears to be: misogynistic discrimination.

When women are working as producers, commissioners, editors and in other roles behind the scenes and still marginalise other women when it comes to handing out commissions, coverage and speaking slots, it’s exactly what it appears to be: female misogyny and man-worshipping.

It is easy to get more women: contact them and commission them. If you only know 5 women whom you consider to be worth intellectual notice, get each of them to recommend 5 other women whom they rate. It’s easy.



  1. Claire Ramsey says

    Frankly it is almost impossible for me to believe that anything has so much excessive complexity that the LRB can’t figure out how to deal with it. What a lame response: “as complicated as it gets.” How complicated would that be, then? As complicated as flying to the moon? Freezing over the flames of hell? Driving a stick shift?

  2. says

    And especially, I bet, when the “anything” in question is “thinking of enough women to commission to write for the LRB that their gender ratio won’t be permanently skewed 70/30.” Sooooooooooo not all that complicated.

  3. brucegee1962 says

    The only possible way to parse this is, “We asked a few, but they didn’t work out, so we gave the whole thing up as a bad job.”

  4. Sili says

    If you only know 5 women whom you consider to be worth intellectual notice, get each of them to recommend 5 other women whom they rate. It’s easy.

    Hell. It’s so easy the men might be able to do it.

    Srsly, I’d find it even more worrying if their 70% male contributors all could only mention the same five women.

    (Not that I’m any better than that in the sciences.)

  5. Maureen Brian says

    I call bullshit, too.

    However wide its reach, the LRB is based in London and the London Literati, Male Division, has been complaining that there were to many women writing books written by women since, hell I dunno, since the Brontes were outed as female, quite some time ago.

    If this Paul character has still not met any of them then he’s not trying. Really, he’s not trying. Poor sod.

    Hell, I live in a small town in the derelict industrial North and, listen up, Paul, there are enough published women writers within five miles of this computer to fill an edition of the LRB. It might be a strange gallimaufry but there’d be enough of it and up to a good standard.

    Btw, keep your eye out for Bidisha – she’s good and sparky with it.

  6. Minot says

    It’s not quite so simple as just finding women who are willing and able to write for the LRB at length for very small sums of money though: they have to be writers of a certain political stripe, and it isn’t really a mainstream one. Women intellectuals may be less likely, for example, to take the indulgent critical attitude towards, say, the Muslim Brotherhood, that the LRB requires. That might be a real complication.


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