“Does everybody live in north London?” Mary Kay-Wilmers asks herself…
Photograph by Kake Pugh
From The Guardian:
The magazine goes to press on Friday night and the staff are often there into the early hours. Until recently, they ordered in supper from a local Indian restaurant much favoured by Wilmers. But she went on holiday a few weeks ago and returned to find that her staff had staged a silent coup and were getting their food from Ottolenghi instead. She doesn’t like it as much. “Perhaps,” she says, fiddling with the hem of her silk blouse, “it’s just because I think, ‘How dare they!'”
She’s joking. I think.
One of the criticisms levelled at the LRB is that it can occasionally seem cosseted from the real world, run by an exclusive coterie of literary-minded north Londoners who don’t have to worry about anything so vulgar as the bottom line. Wilmers is an established part of the liberal-leaning Primrose Hill intelligentsia: she was married to the film director Stephen Frears (the couple divorced in the 70s and have two sons, Sam and Will) and used to live next door to the biographer Claire Tomalin and her husband, the writer Michael Frayn. The playwright Jonathan Miller was down the road. Her best friend from Oxford (where she read modern languages) is Alan Bennett.
When I put this to her, Wilmers blinks. “Does everybody live in north London?” she asks herself, before going through a mental checklist of contributors and staff. “John Lanchester doesn’t,” she announces triumphantly. Spice says that most of their readers come from N and NW postcodes. Anywhere else?
“Clapham,” he replies briskly.
But the LRB‘s tendency to pluck writers from the same limited pool of contributors has a more serious knock-on effect: they have consistently struggled to publish as many women as men, for instance. In 2013, they used 43 female book reviewers compared to 195 male, according to figures compiled by the American literary organisation Vida. The Paris Review, by contrast, achieved a 50/50 parity of men and women, while the New York Times book review published 725 women and 894 men. It is not just the review pages: over its history, the LRB has published 82% of articles by men and just 18% by women.
The issue was recently aired in a discussion on Open Book on Radio 4. The LRB declined to participate and issued a rather imperious statement claiming that the inequality in their pages was regrettable but reflected a wider discrimination in an imperfect world. The statement included a quote from Wilmers, given in a 2001 interview on the same subject: “I think women find it difficult to do their jobs, look after their children, cook dinner and write pieces,” Wilmers said at the time. “They just can’t get it done. And men can… They’re not so frightened of asserting themselves. And they’re not so anxious to please.”
Listeners were duly enraged by the intimation that female writers were too busy scrubbing dishes to use their critical faculties. When I ask Wilmers about the episode, she visibly braces. “Obviously, over the years I’ve been discriminated against plenty,” she says. “It started when I finished university and was told to go and learn to write shorthand by the Oxford ‘head of women’s appointments’. So, obviously, I know what it’s like. I know what the problem is. And all I can say is that we hope to do better, we hope to get more female reviewers, blah blah blah.”
But how exactly do they hope to do better? “Well, we hope we will find more women writers. We will look for more women.” She glances anxiously towards the closed door that leads into the office and starts mouthing to me that she’s been told not to say anything by her colleagues and they don’t want her stirring it all up again. And yet, being of a naturally honest disposition, Wilmers can’t help herself.