Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Female book reviewers and so on

I've recently read a few interesting articles on the subject of female book reviewing. The first was on Suzi Feay's blog: "Where are all the female reviewers?" which was a response to a Guardian article by Benedicte Page on the dominance of male writers in the books world. The second was by The Independent's Literary Editor, Katy Guest, who repeated Feay's question here, which led to Feay posting a useful guide to being a "Great Reviewer". 

I do wonder if men have more confidence in putting their views forwards. At the risk of generalising I think most men I know wouldn’t see being called opinionated as insulting whereas perhaps some women would see that as a negative? Amongst people I know "in real life" there are several film bloggers and several music bloggers, only one of whom is female. Does that mean anything?

I feel a little hesitant when I review books. I feel unqualified to offer my opinion as anything other than an amateur and despite being paid to review it has genuinely never occurred to me to offer a review to anywhere that has not asked. I used to imagine that as I am rather opinionated I would be unafraid to write the truth. Turns out that I hate the thought of offending anyone. If I read a book I loathe I prefer to keep it to myself. Or rant to friends. It goes against the grain to be so coy, my *thing* is truth. If I think a book badly written, poorly plotted and so on I tend to think, oh, it's utter shit but someone spent time writing that and I wouldn't want to upset them. What's up with that? The younger me would scoff at this soggy old me. I even went so far as to set up an anonymous blog so that I could be honest secretly, but couldn't even commit to that.

I have written gently negative reviews. Once an editor asked me to change one saying that they preferred to show more support for new writers, and a couple of times a different editor asked me to make a review more positive. Yesterday I read a brilliant review by Steve Finbow at Bookmunch. What a terrible review, how refreshing to read. I could never. Is that a gender thing or an individual thing?

I did once write a review here on my blog in which I stated that a particular book was such dreary toss I couldn't comprehend how it was published. The author turned out to be good friends with a group of my online writing pals. I felt embarrassed and a little silly. Why? 

I'm wary of gender based assumptions but I believe that more women read men than men read women. Certainly in the bookshop a female customer is often more receptive to being shown recommendations from either gender than some men are. Does that translate to men not taking female reviewers seriously? Then we're back looking at the whole industry which does not revere its serious women writers in the same way it does its men. Those literary heavyweights are always blokes, aren’t they? McEwan, Amis, Rushdie, DeLillo, Roth et al. 

Leyla Sanai reviews for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday:

"I do think some men are, perhaps subconsciously, more dismissive of female opinions and female novelists. There was an interesting thread in a book forum I used to belong to where people discussed the male: female ratio of the books they read. I was one of the few who had pretty much a 1: 1 ratio, I seem to recall, and I still do - not because I consciously strive to seek out books by women but because I can't imagine not wanting to read books by women. It's always myopic to generalise but I think some male readers - and reviewers - aren't much attracted to books that aren't dynamically plot-based, or don't play with language or meta-fiction or explore 'great' philosophical themes in life - sex, death, and so on. This has always amazed me: while many female novelists may not ostensibly tackle these major themes, many of them are just as (if not more) insightful in their writing about everyday life: family dynamics, relationships, parenthood, ageing parents, love, hate, and so on. 

That sounds like a gross generalisation because of course many women don't write about these themes, and many men do, but I suppose people tend to write more about what they have direct experience of, and like it or lump it, many women do experience more of the interior of family life than many men, who have traditionally worked away from home. I just don't understand how any reader, male or female, could fail to be blown away by the writing of authors like Maggie O'Farrell, Tessa Hadley, Julie Orringer, Rose Tremain, Hilary Mantel. It's funny how the latter two only seemed to gain major acclaim when they tackled more 'male' themes - yet their books have always had that richness and depth, the insights, the wit and fabulous prose."

I suspect that a woman is expected by some to only be competent in reviewing women's books. Dismissed. Like Leyla, I read a mix - it's what appeals, what's good, etc, not based on gender of author. My favourite writer is a woman. That does not mean I'm not blown away by wonderful male writing too. Everything Leyla says rings true except my choice of strong literary women would differ from hers, showing what wealth of talent and variety of styles are available because...guess what...each woman is an individual.

Leyla Sanai says "Some (but not by all means all) men tend to dismiss any novel based around family life as 'women's fiction'. Of course there are many women who don't like 'domestic' fiction, and that's absolutely fair enough too. Personally, I get uneasy about categories: I used the term 'domestic' fiction in a Hadley review recently but made sure to use inverted commas because I was being semi-ironic - although her plotlines have been criticised by some reviewers as being too small in scope, I think what's important is the writing, and whether a writer can bring a subject to life and make reading a joy. I have read some very poor family/relationship orientated fiction as well as much great stuff, just as I have read many brilliant novels based around intricate plots/adventure/action. Categorising is the enemy; some men won't read books by women because they think 'mothersandbabies/singlegirllookingforlove'. And that's just so myopic. Personally, I wouldn't read half of the stuff on bestseller lists in Smiths, and they probably include as much lightweight chicklit/'domfic' as they do inane action thrillers like Dan Brown. What I was trying to say is that I don't judge books on the gender of their author, nor on subject matter, but on the quality of the writing and the ability of the author to be intelligent, insightful, perceptive, smart, funny and original, and to bring characters and situations to life so that I'm completely immersed.

Some writers can make ironing hilarious, others render murder tedious."


True, yes?


I suppose what is important is that opinions are expressed with spark and integrity. We need to be honest in reviews to inspire trust. I do think we need a variety of voices, male and female, so that we have a choice of reviews. It's good to hear dissenting voices if there is a reason for that dissent but if it's just ego wank it's pointless. 

Thoughts?


Edit: Thanks to Jane Bradley for this pertinent link to an article she wrote at For Books Sake.


14 comments:

Valerie O'Riordan said...

Hey Sara,

I've written some pretty unfavourable reviews on Bookmunch myself over the years - once I had an author send me a very huffy email, demanding I read his book again. I won't shy away from saying that I think a book is bad, but I'd always substantiate my views as much as possible with reference to the text, so it couldn't be read entirely as 'narky girl had a go at unfortunate little book'. I certainly slated this year's Booker winner when it was still on the longlist, and I'll stand by that! :-)

My limit would be that I'd probably refuse to review a book by somebody I knew, even if I only knew them fairly tangentially - ie., on twitter, perhaps - because I'd feel my objectivity there would be skewed. If I didn't like the book, I'd feel bad about saying so, and I'd hate to give a fake-glossy review. But otherwise, it's no holds barred, because I hate the idea of things only getting reviewed favourably - reviews are meant to guide us, right? So that should also include guiding us away from some texts, if the reviewer thinks the book is flawed/dull/etc.

Am I the only sarky female reviewer out there? I doubt it. I hope not.

Jane Bradley said...

Thanks for this post - interesting reading!

Hope you don't mind me linking, but I shared some stats in my write-up of the Novel Women event at the ICA on this topic - seems like most of your suspicions are backed up by the numbers!
http://forbookssake.net/2011/02/18/novel-women-at-the-ica-2/

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Important stuff - I am fascinated to hear you say how you felt when you reviewed... and I wonder if a bloke would care (or admit he cares) at all what effects his words will have on the writer/sales/whatever. Maybe that's a women thing?

I review, occasionally. I am honest, and back up opinion with fact, so its not just 'I hate this' or 'I like this'- but yes, feel bad to have to say I find someone's hard work is not quite...

Interesting, the 'pushy' comments - and even more interesting, but not surprising, that those comments came from women. We are taught to not be pushy. other women don't like it if we are, still. How often do you hear of writers 'She 's such a self-publicist...' (meant negatively )- as opposed to 'He's so good at marketing himself'... (meant positively, one suspects.)

Will things ever even out? nah. Not until there is only one gender, probably called Middlesex.

Sara Crowley said...

Hey Valerie,
It's a cool thing that you are reviewing. Honest opinions that can be backed up thoughtfully and knowledgeably, as yours are, are aces.

Also, I've changed as I've got older. I was a mouthy bitch when I was younger, and proud of it. Now I still try to retain that honesty and truth in what I do and say but I am more aware of how my words could potentially affect someone. I think my blog is as honest as possible, and in my day to day life I am, but is there really any benefit to me slicing through someone's words and saying how shit I think they are? Not sure. So I tend to just not mention the books I dislike. Does that make my blog too vanilla? Or does it mean that I am selective in what I post here?

I get some choice in the books I review elsewhere, but not always, consequently I have had to review absolute guff, and my paid reviews are edited in a way my unpaid reviews aren’t. I have never given a "fake-glossy review" but I have omitted criticism. Not that comfortable that I have, but there ya go. I have found my way around the issue by writing along the lines of "Fans of frothy fiction will probably enjoy this ... " etcetera. and hoping it's clear that I am *not* a fan of such.


Jane,
thank you for your comment, and the fascinating, albeit depressing, link, which I am going to edit into my post for others to read.

Vanessa,
Loving the middlesex line!
Yes, I think you're right, there are so many of these messed up dual ways of thinking. Much of what are perceived as admirable/acceptable traits in a man are still STILL!!!! frowned upon in a woman - and BY WOMEN TOO! Fucks sake.

Valerie O'Riordan said...

Good points!

I should add that I don't review anything on my own blog - occasionally I mention something I've loved, and that's about it, and if people want something reviewing, I send them to Bookmunch and never guarantee that it'll be me doing the reviewing. So if your blog is vanilla, mine's much more so. I prefer to review with my special reviewing hat on, so to speak; not my own private hat. (Maybe I need more hats.)

And probably the fact that I don't do any paid reviewing helps - what I like about Bookmunch is that there's no editorial slant, and I reckon with paid work, there probably is often some sort of political agenda, however mild, and that's totally bound to alter your relationship with the review and the book. (Not that I'd turn down any paid review work! But I'm sure it makes things more awkward at times.) I didn't mean to imply that *you* write fake-glossy reviews - just that I bet they;re out there. And I also add the "Fans of frothy fiction will probably enjoy this ... " caveat, because the day I think my opinion is the be-all, is the day they ought to stop letting me review things.

I'm luck in that I usually get to pick my own titles (out of a limited list) and I'll do a quick google first to see if it's something I'm likely to enjoy, so I tend to go into it expecting a good read, as I've preselected the title to a certain extent. So when I then actively dislike it, I often feel that somehow the marketing for the book is targetting readers who like the same sorts of books that I like, and hence I want to address that in the review, if that makes sense...

The thing Vanessa says - about dissing somebody's hard work - that's true, of course, but that's where the 'it's not for me but you might like it if you like XYZ' bit comes in - and the odd time I've had something so dire that I've felt I'd much rather the author subsequently hated me than a reader bought it and thought I was daft for liking the drivel! That could be just me and my own hubris, though ;-)

Martha said...

I think it's OK to be honest in reviews, as long as it's objective and professional. We write stories, we put them out, and readers have mixed thoughts -- that's life. Endless saccharin gets a bit false, so I'm up for keeping it real. Balanced, constructive and real. And only about the book/work. Not about the author.

Rachel Fenton said...

I think only women can make empathy (ie caring if a writer is upset by their review) a neagative.

I'm sure men believe they were born to be heard/read, women have to learn to raise their voices without shouting one another down in the process.

I will say if I don't like something - why not? If I don't like someone's writing I can still respect the author. I think balance is needed - not insult throwing - and that the writer, any writer, will benefit from an intellectual investment in their work at whatever outcome. Even bad press is better than no one discussing the book, surely? And the fact that I've read a work means I thought highly enough of the author in the first place to even pick up their book.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’m a little disappointed to find this as a subject for discussion, not that it’s not a valid one, but that issues of gender are still such a big deal. I can’t say I’ve noticed a predominance of male writers or reviewers but that’s possibly because I’m not looking for it. Now the issue has been raised and I do think about it I can think of a goodly number of reviews I’ve read recently online and also in newspapers where the reviewers have been female. The same goes for authors. I get sent ARCs to read and many are by women although I would probably have to agree that I end up reading more males than females but I wouldn’t say I have a particular bias. Actually that’s not true. Most of my early reading was dominated by heavyweight males and I’m frankly keen to redress the balance.

I can’t speak for men in general because I don’t think of myself as a typical male. That said when I think of my list of all time greats I’m embarrassed by the lack of women on it. This has more to do with the fact I’m not as well read as I should be at my age I fear because I’m sure people like Atwood and Lessing would deserve serious consideration but I’ve not read fiction by either lady; I must fix that, I really must.

As for writing a bad review, so far I’ve avoided that. I’m not afraid to point out a book’s weaknesses (and I once had a poet’s daughter e-mail me and complain about my treatment of her father) but if I hate a book I’d rather not review it at all rather than trying to argue my point. I passed recently on Notes from Underground because I simply didn’t connect with the book and I didn’t want to spend ages arguing a point that would have no effect whatsoever on the book’s sales. The book of poetry I didn’t like was a real burden to me and I ended up spending days on end doing research to back up my arguments; I didn’t enjoy writing the review and was upset when I got the e-mail. That said I still stand by what I wrote; I would have just rather not have written it.

emmasyrup said...

I review for Amazon Vine, and I'm not afraid to say mean things about a book because I only pick things I hope I'll enjoy. My meanest (not most negative, but most petty) review is probably http://amzn.to/e2MId3 As you've said though, I would find it very hard to review something by someone I know.

I read slightly more female authors than male, but hardly ever domestic dramas, which I can't bear. My weakness is sci-fi/fantasy, which is not necessarily superior to traditional women's fiction, but which I find much more interesting. Still, I can find value in nearly every genre except misery memoirs.

Sara Crowley said...

Valerie - yes, it does seem that paid reviewing changes things somewhat. I've had a few private comments saying that negative reviews have been rejected by other people's paid gigs, which makes me feel a little better.

Hi Martha - thanks for stopping by. I try very hard to never be saccharine - I'm kinda sure I *never* have been at all. I agree that a balanced, honest review is what we should all be aiming for, though like Rachel says "only women can make empathy (ie caring if a writer is upset by their review) a neagative."

Rachel - unfortunately the fact that I've read a book does not mean I have thought highly enough of the author to do so. I can get sent all sorts of random!

Jim - agree, agree, agree :) And yes, please do read Atwood and Lessing! Thank you for your thoughtful, sensible comments.

Emma - I liked your review. You pointed out exactly what didn't work for you in a way that doesn’t seem petty, more truthful. Sci-fi/fantasy is so not my area. I sit (as it seems to me to be) dominated by male writers and therefore male reviewers? The clichéd sci-fi reader is a young male - in your opinion is that true, and if so, would they give a review written by a woman as much weight as one written by a male?

Louise Halvardsson said...

I so agree with your thoughts about not wanting to offend the author ... I used to review every single book I read on Amazon but stopped because I felt bad when giving 3 stars or less. And being a writer myself there's always the risk of meeting those writers I've reviewed whether it's online or in real life, and your story confirms that ... Now I only review books in a private word document for my own records, more to remind myself of what I've read and why I like it or don't like it.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Thought it might be appropriate to add in today's paper review content...Saturday's Times reviews:


Fiction.
'A Man of Parts' by David Lodge- a fiction about the life of H G Wells. Reviewed by Salley Vickers. ('It is the sense of vulnerability that impresses...')

'The Free World', debut novel by David Bezmozgis. Reviewed by Melissa Katsoulis. ('One of the most assured new Jewish writers of the century so far.'

'King of the Badgers' by Philip Hensher. Reviewed byMargaret Reynolds. ('Uncomfortably cynical....a bleak vision')

Non-fiction.
'Afghantsy' by Roderick Braithwaite- Russia's futile war in Aghanistan. Review by Michael Binyon. Binyon gives a content review - does not pass opinion.

'Inflight Science' - a guide to the world from your airplane window, by Brian Clegg. Reviewed by Tom Whipple. Content review mostly... Clegg does say he feels slightly patronised, but that he is grateful for that, as presumption of ignorance is the natural state of scientific method....

'Tiger,Tiger' by Margaux Fragoso. 'Romance' memoir very explicit, by victim of paedophile. Review by Julie Myerson. Content review mostly - then 'loud, and beautiful'.


Fiction reviews by women. 'Serious' non fic books reviewed by men. Paedo memoir, reviewed by a woman. Mind you, it would have been a bit off to have a bloke doing this one, somehow....



(word verification: MENNIZ)

Caroline Gerardo said...

A hard line between being honest and carrying a sword. What you said about as you get older, your opinions still exist but perhaps you tone down the fire power.
I know you are correct, men are different.
love your work

Sara Crowley said...

Louise - yup, it's difficult to think of coming face to face with someone whose work you've trashed. I think we have a habit of casual vitriol in conversation with friends "Oh that film is shit, that actor is a tosser, the writing is moronic" etc. that shouldn’t be put in a permanent form maybe.

Vanessa - HA @ menniz.

Caroline - Thanks for commenting.You're right when you say it's about toning down your fire power. Spot on!

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