So what if the LRB publishes more men than women

It is patronising and tokenistic quota politics to insist that magazines should be written by 50% men and 50% women.

Patrick Marmion

Topics Politics

The literary world has been shaken to its foundations. Last month, Australian novelist Kathryn Heyman announced in the Guardian that she has terminated her subscription to the lofty bastion of leftist intellectualism, the London Review of Books. Known as the LRB to its friends, she proclaimed herself fed up with their dearth of women writers. Then along comes Sarah Dunant on BBC Radio 4’s Sunday morning opinion jukebox, A Point of View, and throws her weight behind Heyman, agreeing that the lack of women in the LRB’s pages is a shameful indictment of the periodical.

Heyman tells us in the Guardian that she used to play a game with her husband guessing how few women writers would be included in the LRB each fortnight. But then she discovered the work was being done for her by an American organisation called Vida, which monitors the representation of women in the literary arts. In 2010, Vida found 75 per cent of books reviewed in the LRB were written by men, with the same proportion of reviewers. For comparison, in the Times Literary Supplement that corresponded to 75 per cent and 72 per cent. In the New York Review of Books it was a reprehensible 83 per cent in both categories. This year, the Guardian suggested the situation had deteriorated at the LRB, with 89 per cent of books and 83 per cent of reviews being by men. Caught comprehensively off guard, Dunant reports that the bumbling response of an LRB editor was that efforts to get more women had been ‘hopelessly unsuccessful’.

This then became the cue for Dunant’s radio broadcast on 7 July, in which she recalled the heady days of Virago Press back in 1973. Virago’s mission, under founder Carmen Callil, was to do nothing less than change the world by publishing more women writers and republishing neglected women’s classics. This Callil accomplished with some panache, pushing such writers as AS Byatt and Angela Carter to the forefront of cultural debate. So, imagine Dunant’s horror 40 years later when she tells us she is invited on to Radio 4’s Today programme to talk about ‘non-likeable’ women characters in fiction. She is kept waiting for an hour without hearing a single woman’s voice on air. She declared herself ‘gobsmacked’ to a producer who in turn was dutifully shocked and apologetic.

As if it were the same thing, Dunant goes on to denounce the sexism meted out to former Australian PM Julia Gillard – most notoriously in the restaurant offering ‘Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail’. It is as though this outpouring of sexist sewage was akin to the institutional sexism Dunant has unmasked at the hypocritical heart of our otherwise beloved and revered liberal establishment. Neither Dunant nor Heywood, however, make any comment on how many people of ethnic origin or how many disabled people are represented either at the LRB or on the Today programme. Nor is there any allowance made for the fact that the Today programme proudly touts an openly gay presenter in the form of Evan Davis. Nor is there any need to say so. The spectacle of equality is not the same as equality. It is tokenistic quota politics pure and simple. Surely all that matters is that everyone is treated equally from a legal point of view?

Employment law now demands that no one can be discriminated against on the grounds of gender, race, disability, religion or sexual orientation. That is all that can and should be done. As a publicly funded body, the BBC may feel inclined to pretend to ‘reflect’ its audience through policies of positive discrimination, so that we can bask in the self-satisfied glory of our politically correct meritocracy. But even if you accept that public money demands the pursuit of public piety, the London Review of Books receives no such money and is under no obligation to pose and preen. The LRB’s esteemed editor, who happens to be a woman, Mary-Kay Wilmers, can and should employ whomever she likes. Jenny Diski notwithstanding, she has a formidable stable of writers that includes historian Perry Anderson, playwright Alan Bennett, literary critic Terry Eagleton, and philosopher Slavoj Zizek. It is moreover a sexist slur upon her to insinuate that she might be some kind of manqué Thatcher figure – what Dunant sniffily calls ‘a favoured girl member’ – who heads and dignifies an antediluvian boys club where ‘bull seals hog the watering hole’.

It’s tempting to ask Dunant the same question you might ask a meddling traffic cop: why don’t you go after the real criminals? There is no shortage of men and regimes worldwide who practise systematic violence and repression against women. Of course, everyone can always do better, but if Heywood and Dunant are keen to see women well represented they would do well to come to my Catholic Church in Notting Hill where they will find not only women in the majority of the congregation, but mixed with people of all colours and disabilities. It is a crowd that she and the BBC would long to call their own except, of course, that they are in thrall to an openly male mafia better known as the clergy. Besides, Dunant, with her smiley, kittenish voice and punk leather jacket, likes to style herself as something of a bad girl – or at least not what she calls ‘a good girl’. And on this score, she is right. What she is is a very conventional girl: a thoroughly middle-class, Oxbridge-educated woman who lives in London and Florence. No doubt she would be outraged at the idea that any of these characteristics determine her thinking, but that is exactly what she is suggesting of other people.

Such an ‘essentialist’ view, where people’s ideas are deemed to be the product of their ideological conditioning, has long been a bugbear of feminism and radical thought in general. On the one hand, essentialism described the very prison house in which many women were trapped as ‘hysterics’ or ‘the fairer sex’. It was a means of keeping them in their place. But on the other hand, the concept of essentialism gave radical thinkers a weapon with which to assault the establishment and show how the apparently fixed dogma of its male institutions were in fact politically and historically contingent, designed to exclude and dominate. Caught between these two poles, Dunant isn’t so much a bad girl as a bad thinker. Her solidarity should lie not with specific social groups or genital configurations, but with the emancipatory ideals that transcend these normative categories. In literary terms, it doesn’t matter what you are – it matters only what you say. Simply changing the personnel at the top of an institution need not change its nature, any more than shuffling deckchairs on the Titanic would have stopped it going under. Mrs Thatcher proved that.

In short, the LRB has no case to answer, unless it starts systematically excluding women or any other social group on the grounds of their recorded identity. The LRB can be shamelessly supremacist, employing those authors it believes write best, prosecuting their own agenda and nurturing those relationships over time. This is how all movements, including feminism and Virago, get started. Dunant’s time at Cambridge doubtless shaped her social group and helped her land jobs in journalism and at the BBC. Nothing wrong with that. And if the LRB employs mostly men, so be that, too. Let women beat a path to their pages or unsubscribe and go elsewhere. Cynics will claim that I’m only saying this because I’m a man. But it is my firm conviction that this argument would carry no more weight if it was advanced by a woman.

Patrick Marmion is a freelance journalist, playwright, founder of Soapbox debating forum and a part-time tutor at the University of Kent. Visit his website here:

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Topics Politics


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