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The Stella Count: Judging Books By Who Is On The Cover

Last week saw the release of the Stella Count, the first official compilation of statistics around book reviewing in Australia, with the aim of showing how many of the reviewed books in major newspapers and literary magazines were written by men, and how many by women.

The Stella Count – created by the Stella Prize in conjunction with Books+Publishing – was itself based and modelled on a similar compilation by VIDA, an organisation that was founded on the need of addressing how female writers in the US were critically received, particularly across the publications that dominate book reviewing.

VIDA has now had three counts, all showing a fairly strong imbalance favouring male authors over female in those reviewed. The Stella Count similarly showed a clear picture that across the thirteen major reviewing publications, only two – Good Weekend and Books+Publishing – showed a majority percentage to female authors. The other eleven publications ranged from a slight preference to male authors (57% Daily Telegraph), to an overwhelming dominance (80% Australian Financial Review). This is despite the small field – reflective somewhat of Australia’s population against the US – and that the count does exclude other worthy reviewing publications, perhaps with the aim of acknowledging the dominant mainstream view, rather than a more specialised one.

Regardless, the picture is clear: in Australia, more male authors are reviewed than female authors.

So what does this mean? What do we do, now that we definitively know something that perhaps we suspected all along?

As has been written about elsewhere with the VIDA counts, the stats are limiting. While the Stella Count does show a clear picture of the reviewed authors breakdown, VIDA go further by examining the breakdowns of bylines and reviewers as well, to illustrate the representation of gender across a broader spectrum in book publications. In some cases, the percentage of female reviewers is even less than that of female authors, pointing to another issue that literary editors need to acknowledge.

Still, the statistics about reviewed books are only beneficial as an illustration of book publishing if they are simpatico. If the statistics from the Stella Count reflect the percentages of male authors published in Australia to female authors, then they can be used as such.

If more men are published than women in Australia, then the stats are merely representative of that. However, it is not particularly easy to find statistics of all published books in Australia in 2012, and then the breakdown of those statistics into author gender.

On the other hand, if more women are published than men, then the Stella Count is even more damning. What it would show then is a misrepresentation of a minority into a majority through book reviews, which then creates a different picture of authors, of books and of reading in the minds of Australian readers. Certainly this is information worth knowing.

But it doesn’t stop there. If we consider that perhaps the reviews are correct and more male authors are published than female authors, then do we lay this at the feet of publishers? Perhaps. But what if the percentage of male authors published against female authors is representative of submissions to publishers by prospective writers?

Furthermore, it doesn’t all have to be about gender. If anything is required from book reviews, and reviewing publications, it’s that we need a fair representation of the books that are available. It would additionally be prudent to acknowledge if particular genres are more likely to be reviewed than others, and if this too is reflective of publishing – and writing – practice. One could even then examine the gender of authors fluctuating across different genres (more male authors in, say, horror fiction vs. more female authors in romance fiction). But if, for example, more reviews are written on literary fiction than other more heavily published genres, then what does that say about what we think is worth reviewing?

A full picture is needed. The Stella Count is useful only if it is representative. At this stage, that is unclear, and it feels more like a very small tip of a very large iceberg. A comprehensive analysis of authors, publishing, reviewing and reading is necessary for a full understanding and appreciation of the industry. If there is a strong and entrenched gender bias in book reviewing, then we need to consider what this says about us as a country, and as a reading population.

Do more men write?

Do more men review?

Do we expect that writing is a male profession and therefore manufacture it in the reviews?

Do we only consider certain types of writing worthy of reviews?

Do we think men should write one thing and women another?

The Stella Count is a worthy start, that tells us a lot at first glance, but also shows just how little we really do know, or have easily accessible. It would be glorious to not have to examine the gender of authors, to not be in a world where we still think it a dominant feature of the writing and of the story that the book was written by a man or a woman. But perhaps too many of us as readers, writers and reviewers need to consider how much we really judge books by what – and who – is on the cover.


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