The 2014 Stella Count: Some thoughts on genre, size and creating change
The 2014 Stella Count reveals new information about the ways author and reviewer gender, book genre and review size affect book reviews in Australian publications. Stella Prize Manager Veronica Sullivan reflects on the process of changing the status quo.
The Stella Count was created due to a concern that books by women were underrepresented in the book review sections of major Australian publications – a concern that has, unfortunately, been borne out by its results. The methodology and approach of the annual Count, which was first conducted in 2012, are modelled on those of the successful VIDA Count in the US, which has done terrific work in promoting women in the literary world by highlighting gender disparities and challenging complacency.
Released earlier this month, the 2014 Stella Count is the first to collect information on the genres of books reviewed and size of reviews, combining this data with information about author gender to see how these elements interact and affect review coverage.
In terms of genre, there is a wide disparity across the board in nonfiction reviewing. Regardless of the overall gender ratio of books reviewed, every publication surveyed reviewed significantly more nonfiction books by men than by women.
At Australian Book Review, for example, 56% of all books reviewed were nonfiction, the authors of which were more than twice as likely to be male than female (38% of books reviewed by ABR were nonfiction books by men; 18% were nonfiction books by women).
The analysis of review sizes shows that while smaller reviews are often relatively evenly balanced between male and female authors, many publications appeared to favour medium and large reviews of books by men over those of books by women.
In the Weekend Australian, large reviews were three times as likely to cover books by male writers (15% male, 5% female), and medium reviews were twice as likely to do so (48% male, 23% female).
As was the case with the 2013 Stella Count results, the 2014 Count shows that male reviewers are far more likely to review books by men than they are books by women, while female reviewers have a more even split in the author genders they review. This is a difficult issue to address, because we don’t know how any given publication matches books to reviewers. It may be that the editor is more likely to assign a book by a man to a male reviewer; it may be that male reviewers are pitching or requesting to review books by men.
Often, reviewers and editors are not consciously aware of the gender biases reflected in their decisions, and nor do they intentionally perpetuate them. Their choices can be traced back to unconscious bias and the ways we are socialised from childhood to consider books by and about women as being for women only, while books by and about men are for everyone. This stereotype is harmful to all lovers of literature, including male readers, whose reading horizons are narrowed to only their own gender. This is why the Stella Prize Schools Program is so important: it seeks to address gendered reading habits early in life – before they become entrenched as unconscious biases – by encouraging young people to critically engage with their reading habits.
Beyond simply identifying and bemoaning these patterns of unconscious bias and disparities in review coverage, there are concrete actions that readers, editors and reviewers can undertake in order to promote positive change in Australian reviewing culture.
Reading consciously is important. Look at your own bookshelves, and think about what books you read, and why you read them. Ask yourself how many books by men and by women you read, and why and how you choose them.
Readers can subscribe to magazines and newspapers that publish more women, rather than to those that perpetuate gender disparities. Creating spaces for these conversations about gender to occur, and initiating them, is essential – write to editors and publications to encourage them to increase the representation of women in their pages.
In order for broader change to come about, it is crucial for editors whose publications have had less encouraging Stella Count results to actively engage with these issues and begin to address the gender disparities they may be complicit in maintaining. Editors can also consciously seek out a diverse range of contributors and authors, considering not only their gender, but also the representation of race, sexuality, age, disability, and other identities and voices from marginalised groups.
Book reviewers and literary critics could choose to set self-imposed limits on the books they will review, in the style of the ‘Year of Reading Women’ challenge. Several Australian critics who have set themselves private challenges: at least one well-regarded critic is only reviewing women this year; while another has decided to review major authors of both genders, and debut authors of both genders, but not to review midlist books by male authors. There are plenty of ways to approach this, but the most important thing is being conscious of the literary work we consume and write about.
Percentage of each publication’s reviews that were of books by women.
Overall, it’s difficult to draw conclusions about what the impact of the collection of the Stella Count has been so far. From year to year we observe the results fluctuate (see the above chart), and the gender ratio in some publications has worsened since the Count began. It will take many years before we’re able to identify whether those publications that have shown improvement represent evidence of lasting change and long-term trends, or are short-term blips.
Real cultural change is slow to come, but it’s hard to deny that the Stella Count has instigated and continues to drive a robust cultural conversation about Australian reviewing culture, and that Australian readers, authors, reviewers and editors are generally more aware of these issues than they were prior to the Stella Count’s existence. That alone is an encouraging shift.