A lack of parity isn’t the LRB’s only problem

A couple of weeks ago I tweeted that I might need to rethink my support for the London Review of Books; not only in light of their poor record on gender parity – one shared by many publications – but because of their apparent disdain for the notion that active steps should be taken to correct the imbalance. Having just read Elizabeth Day’s piece on the LRB in today’s Observer, I find myself having to rethink my rethink.

I now have the impression that 75-year-old LRB editor and co-founder Mary-Kay Wilmers is less a reactionary anti-feminist than a woman who has already seen so much change over her lifetime, has already been so much a part of – in many ways, so emblematic of – those changes, that she is perhaps a bit bemused at the anger and impatience of younger contemporaries. An Oxford graduate who was told by the then equivalent of the careers office to train for secretarial roles, she has for the past 22 years edited what many regard as the world’s best literary magazine. You don’t gain that kind of stature by accepting crap about your own supposed inadequacy, but you also don’t achieve that kind of recognition by willfully upturning establishment applecarts.

The LRB has maintained a standard of lengthy, thoughtful, well-argued (and well compensated) articles that have largely disappeared from the mass media. It does not seek to avoid controversy, and has in fact earned a reputation as a venue in which contentious opinions are voiced; but neither does it pander to the current vogue for poorly considered groupthink and knee-jerk outrage. Despite a significant amount of free online content and a fairly consistent Twitter feed, it is in many ways the antithesis of the kind of intellectual morass into which social media conversations so often descend. This is why I like it. But this is also, I suspect, why it has found itself criticised for being in its own way moribund.

The coterie of intelligent, articulate, highly literate contributors who make it the success that it is are – no doubt for historical reasons – largely male. They appear also to be very insular. They know each other. They know they can count on each other. They know they need to expand their talent pool, but they don’t know who else can be counted on, and they’re scared of risking that which they have already achieved.

Fear is not an excuse, but it is an explanation.

The challenge of achieving parity at the LRB – a challenge which Wilmer should, I stress, be meeting head on, no matter how tough she and her colleagues find it – strikes me as not unlike the situation facing the newly appointed managing editor of a venerable SFF genre publication, with whom I recently had a conversation. Said publication has gender parity statistics even worse than the LRB’s. There too the problem appears to be less a matter of active sexism than institutional inertia: the (mostly male) commissioning editors in the various departments have had the same pool of reliable (mostly male) contributors for decades. They are used to dealing with what that pool produces; it is content which, in tone, focus and quality, they understand and are comfortable with. Moreover, they don’t really know anybody else. They don’t quite know how to go about expanding their circle of editorial acquaintance. And they definitely don’t know how to suddenly start saying ‘No’ to those reliable contributors – and friends – of a lifetime in order to make space for a broader, deeper, more diverse and more evenly gendered talent pool.

When told this, I sputtered that being able to turn down regressive, repetitive work in favour of something new, adventurous and exciting is fundamentally part of an editor’s job. Few would disagree (and the editor I spoke to is committed to achieving parity, no matter how many toes have to be stepped on). But editors are people, and like people everywhere, the entrenched crew with the poor record are nervous about change. They don’t want to upset their own applecarts. And they are scared of hurting people’s feelings. That’s unquestionably a failing in editorial terms, but it’s also a very human response. It shouldn’t be accommodated – not in this context – but it does merit some degree of compassion. And I wonder if something very similar isn’t going on in the rarefied atmosphere of the LRB’s editorial meetings. After all, they too are full of humans.

So I’m feeling slightly more kindly towards them than I was when I tweeted that tweet. But I’m also now far more concerned about the future of the LRB because, ironically, they appear to have a further problem that the tiny subscription-supported genre publication doesn’t. For all their acclaim and relatively high circulation figures, Day’s article also reveals that ‘the most successful literary publication in Europe’ doesn’t break even, let alone actually make any money. That high level of quality and commensurately high level of compensation to writers is supported by generous infusions of cash from the family trust fund of Wilmers herself – a trust to which the LRB is already £27million in debt.

That makes it not a viable business, but a labour of love; one that is not likely to be sustainable beyond Wilmers’ tenure, or at any rate once the money runs out. Important though the parity imbalance is, resolving it isn’t likely to have much of an impact on the financial one. And if the end of the story is the failure of the LRB as an institution – even if by then it’s a meticulously equitable institution – because it can’t work out how to make such a high-quality publication financially sustainable, then I’m not sure what, in the long term, will have been gained.

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  • Stephanie Saulter

    I love stories.
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