Here's a thing I've just noticed about this week's copy for the column of short book reviews I'm currently writing for the Sydney Morning Herald (what I'm writing, this week, I mean -- won't be published till early Feb).
It's something I think to check from time to time and I'm glad to say that even when I'm not doing it consciously I usually manage, over the course of four book reviews, to mix up genre, gender and nationality pretty evenly. The literary editor does the first cull of the books that come in for review and sends me more than I need, and then I choose from them.
(I'm always startled to realise how many people think reviewers choose their own books, at least for hard-copy publications. Books for review, and reviewers for them, are chosen by the literary editor, though reviewers will often make a pitch to review this or that book.)
Mostly when people are counting statistics about whether men or women are getting more coverage, they don't look any further than the numbers. This week's copy features three women writers and one man. With four books to review per week, the most frequent gender ratio in my own columns (as I say, not often deliberately: frankly I'm proud of having internalised this to the point where I usually don't even think about it) is 2:2. Sometimes, as this week, it's 3:1, one way or the other. Very rarely is it 4:0 but when it is, again, the all-male and all-female weeks are pretty equal in terms of numbers.
Recently I compared stats with a fellow writer of multiple short reviews per week, over a period of months, and was astounded to see that of 88 books I'd reviewed in that time, 45 were by women and 43 by men. Not chosen deliberately; the cards just fell that way.
Part of my job is to select a Pick of the Week, which gets twice as long a review as the others. It's usually pretty easy to do, especially in a weak week. Sometimes a book just leaps out at you; other times it's a tossup between two, or even more. Usually I pick the one that has the largest number of positive things to be said about it, which would seem to guarantee that the largest number of people won't feel as though they have been misled if they ever get round to reading the book.
This week, I happened to notice that the Pick of the Week is the only book out of the four that was written by a man. It's a clear winner, though the others are fine and none of them is downright bad -- although this isn't always the case. I have no problems with this choice at all.
But if I looked at my column for, say, four weeks in a row, or over a period of six months, and noticed that I had reviewed more women writers than men but that the men's books were consistently being featured as Pick of the Week, I would. I would have a problem with it, and with myself. There'd be some ferocious self-interrogation going on. But it's not a thing that the raw stats would pick up.
Still Life With Cat is an all-purpose blog containing reflections on whatever is going on in the realms of literature, politics, media, music, dinner, gardening etc. Its original incarnation is Pavlov's Cat (2005-2008).
Read, Think, Write is about all things books and writing, and incorporates Australian Literature Diary (2005-2010) and Ask the Brontë Sisters (May-July 2007).
Blogs are by Kerryn Goldsworthy, a writer, critic and editor who lives and works in Adelaide, South Australia.