An Interview with Alana Wilcox, Senior Editor, Coach House Books

 

By Brecken Hancock

After a brief look through the catalogues available on the Coach House website, dating back to Fall of 2009, I noticed that you publish, generally, a pretty balanced representation of women and men, and a count leads to an almost even split with 29 female authors/editors and 30 male authors/editors over the past four years or so. As Editorial Director for Coach House you are responsible for acquisitions, so I’m wondering how deliberate this gender balance is and how much gender plays a role in your selection process.

Well, phew. We did a count some time ago, too, and I was relieved to see our politics reflected in the list. Publishing decisions get made one book at a time: every manuscript is simply (or not so simply) a yes or a no. And so we’ve had seasons with more (sometimes ALL) men, and some with more (sometimes ALL) women. It’s hard to keep counts in mind when you’re in love with a particular manuscript.

It isn’t exactly an autocracy at Coach House, though: we have two poetry editors, Susan Holbrook and Jeramy Dodds, who make all the poetry decisions, and before them, Kevin Connolly. We have a non-fiction editor, Jason McBride. And even decisions that are ostensibly mine I make in consultation with the others here: Evan Munday, Leigh Nash, Heidi Waechtler.

I list these names because I think it’s important to point out the faith I have in them, and in myself, to have tastes and politics that are broad and inclusive, and to have a level of self-awareness. Feminism is so very deeply engrained in all of us that the subject almost never needs to be explicitly addressed; to me, this is the most successful kind of feminism, in which we’re past having to have the conversation since the politics are fully incorporated into everything we do.

And, so, I’m happy Coach House’s count works out pretty evenly; I would expect it to. You asked about deliberateness: if that split started to stray, you can be sure we’d notice and address it, but I’m pretty confident that trusting our personal politics will keep us on track.

The CWILA Count reveals that books by women aren’t getting reviewed as often as books by men. Did this count surprise you? Do you think this kind of discrepancy affects what books people are reading in Canada?

Yes, definitely, it affects what we read: you’re unlikely to seek out a book you don’t know exists. Traditional media is evincing less and less interest in talking about books, so there’s less and less space for diversity — which highlights the bias at work. Mercifully, we now have social media and blogs to fill in some of the gaps, but while there’s still a hierarchy of media (Globe & Mail trumps The Sudbury Star trumps Jane’s blog), the guys [sic] on “top” still speak more authoritatively for our culture.

As for surprise? Sadly, no. Not one bit. Nor am I surprised at the qualitative differences between reviews of men’s books and women’s books: I don’t have stats on this, but I’d wager that information on age, hair colour, marital status, etc. of the author appear with much greater frequency in reviews of women’s books. And I’m pretty sure no one has ever asked a man how it feels to be a male poet, while women get asked all the time how it feels to be a female poet — as though a woman is just an interloper on male terrain.

In the context of reviews and press for authors and books, Coach House’s News Reel reveals a lot of exciting activity in terms of awards, interviews, and readings. I know that Evan Munday is Coach House’s publicist, so perhaps this is more a question for him, but I’m wondering whether you feel there’s a struggle to find appropriate press for women’s books as compared to men’s.

An interview about gender politics seems like not the best place to speak for someone else, so I asked Evan! He confirmed what I thought: getting attention for fiction by women is not that difficult for Coach House, and sometimes easier than getting reviews for fiction by men. This is not the case for poetry, and especially first books of poetry. We both recalled a recent season in which we launched first poetry books by a man and a woman. The man’s book got dozens of reviews, the woman’s zero. But further along in their careers, it does seem to even out.

I think confidence and a certain sense of entitlement play a role here, on the parts of both the reviewer and the author. [Insert apology/caveat about gender essentialism in the rest of this paragraph. But seriously, in my experience with, well, a LOT of poets, it’s more often true than not true.] Male poets, even first-timers, often seem to have more of these qualities, which means they put their book out with a set of expectations and a assuredness that can be contagious; female poets sometimes send their books out into the world with a sense of trepidation and sometimes even apology, and that, too, can be contagious. And since many reviewers tend to be young (read: still willing to do a huge volume of work for not enough money, and possibly less aware of the dangers of reviewing in a fishbowl culture), it seems more likely that men will have the confidence to take up the task: after all, it takes a substantial amount of assuredness to feel like your opinion is worth something.

In an interview with George Murray for Open Book Toronto, you said that publishing is “the act of unsuccessfully shoehorning art into capitalism.” This statement made me wonder about the balance between publishing as a labour of love and the cold hard stats of book sales. Specifically, I’m interested in how much your personal politics can enter into your vision as Editorial Director. Obviously, the success of Coach House’s books is owing to your taste and your aesthetic, but do you also feel that you have to leave your politics at the door to some extent when you’re thinking about the capitalistic intent of publishing?

This is a tough question to answer, as that balancing act between art and money challenges us (and me personally) in a thousand ways, possibly the least of which is gender. We need to publish some books that sell enough to keep us in business, but that aspect doesn’t relate in many ways to gender: without looking at the actual numbers, I’d say that our top ten best-selling books overall are probably written by three men and seven women. And there’s nothing to validate any notion that a book by any given man will sell better than a book by any given women — especially if we focus on fiction.

Poetry, of course, would offer a different set of numbers. Again, without looking at numbers, I’d guess that probably seven of them are by men. Still, sales numbers are, sadly, so small for poetry that we would certainly never choose a book by a man over one by a woman for financial reasons.

I’d say, generally, that it’s more my tastes than my politics that I sometimes have to leave at the door, and I’m pretty sure the rest of the crew would agree. Sometimes we love a book but know that it’d cost a fortune to produce and would sell under a hundred copies, in which case we have to say no — it’d be unfair to our other authors to jeopardize the company this way.

It’s very interesting to me that book publication in Canada is an almost 50/50 split for books by women and books by men, but in the world of reviews we see a lag. Are publishers ahead of reviewers? Or is there another way to account for this difference in representation?

It makes sense to me that the split would be even in publishing: given that the population is nearly equally split, of course there are as many excellent manuscripts by women as by men. As I’ve said above, I think the mechanics of reviewing are a huge issue: who has the confidence to judge others’ work (and to suffer the consequences for it), and who has the time and inclination to do this thankless and underpaid work.

CWILA focuses strictly on gender as a marker, but there has been discussion on the listserve about other gaps in representation, including the underrepresentation in reviews of books by writers of colour. Again picking up on something you said in a previous interview, I’m curious about the ways in which publishing might be contextualized as a political act. When Thom Vernon asked, “Which stories aren’t being told?” you answered, “There are the obvious omissions within the canon, of course: CanLit tends to be pretty white, pretty straight, and very much still the domain of the privileged (financially, linguistically, geographically, etc.).” Do you think it’s in publishers’ hands to affect this imbalance?

Diversity is a difficult issue, and one that tortures me. I’ve certainly never counted this, but I’d guess that ninety percent of submissions to Coach House are by white folks. And, as a result, probably ninety percent of our list is too. Yuck. Our list focuses on more experimental work, which probably further whitens our submissions. But it’s not simply a matter of deciding to publish more writers of colour. Like I said about gender, each manuscript is a separate decision, and to be a yes it has to fit our list and be exceptional and be something we can publish well — I’m afraid that the background of the author hasn’t been a central question in our acquisitions process. We’re trying to address this, all of us, without being tokenism-y jerks. For me, it’s about figuring out how to find the time to be proactive about it: to seek out great work and solicit it. I hate that we, like most publishers, are so wildly understaffed that we can’t even keep up with the reactive work (responding to what lands our doorstep), not to mention finding time for outreach. But we’re trying to fix that.

And we do pretty well when it comes to sexuality: we’ve got a pretty substantial catalogue of work by GLBTQ writers. Kevin Connolly, speaking of his tenure at CH, says, “given that good writing is usually subtle, the sex lives of the poets in question rarely became the centrepiece of any of the manuscripts — I mean you’d have to look hard to see Sina Queyras, Jen Currin, or Susan Holbrook as lesbian writers, though it’s not hard at all to see them as great ones. So I guess sometimes a lack of bias appears as a bias, which, as you know, was always fine with me (and everyone else at CH).”

This work to diversify has to come in a stage even earlier than publishing, too. Not to pass the buck, but we need to talk about this at the level of creative writing programs and reading series, where writers are grown.

Russell Smith published an article in the Globe this past September claiming an “unlikely renaissance” in Canadian poetry. He mentions a couple of prominent “combative tastemakers” whom he identifies as “a new breed of stern, impatient editors [who are] reshaping our taste to something more highbrow and international.” Considering that the editors he names are exclusively male, I’m wondering whether you find that male editors, as compared with female editors, get more recognition in Canada as tastemakers. Further, do you agree that the “combative” spirit Smith admires is an important quality in an editor?

Newspapers measure the success of an article by the responses — ideally, cranky ones — to it. With thirteen comments, this one is a moderate success for a piece about poetry. But I think it’s important to remember that “combative” is generally a virtue for the media, even if those of us living in the world he discusses might prefer other qualities. Whether combativeness is a virtue in editing, I’m not sure. It’s nice to stick up for your authors in the outside world, for sure, but the process of editing relies on a more conciliatory approach, I’d say.

Again, there’s a distressing divergence in editorship between fiction and poetry. Probably two thirds of the fiction editors in Canada are women, myself included. The poetry editors? I can think of only a few women. So, there’s our first problem. And the men tend to make more noise, as Smith points out.

I noticed that you were addressed as a “smart cookie” in one of your interviews. I thought your response was graceful, answering the question at hand and then ending with, “Oh, and you mentioned cookies? Where? Sugar helps, I’m convinced.” How typical is it, in your experience, to have to fend off casual references to your gender in a professional context? Are there any particular barriers you’ve faced in the world of publishing due to being a woman?

There are a lot of women in publishing. At the big houses, the big cheeses are mostly male, but other than that, much of publishing is run by women. So, no, I haven’t found a lot of barriers. Sexism, yes, but mostly from authors and not other publishers. If I’m standing beside Evan, sometimes people assume he’s in charge. A shocking number of submissions are addressed to “Dear Sir(s).” And I’ve dealt with some pretty patronizing phone calls, etc. — it all seems adorably quaint and anachronistic, though I get my back up in a flash if there are any real stakes involved. Heidi fielded a telemarketing call the other day in which the person — a woman! — asked if she was allowed to make any decisions herself. We all laughed it off, but it’s gross. Still, I feel quite privileged to work in an industry that respects women — if anything, it’s a little ageist, but as I get older that’s starting to make sense too…

Brecken Hancock’s poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in CV2GrainArcThe Fiddlehead, and Studies in Canadian Literature. She has a chapbook forthcoming with above/ground press next month and her first full-length manuscript of poems, Broom Broom, is forthcoming with Coach House Books.

alana_wilcoxAlana Wilcox is the editorial director of Coach House Books, where she co-founded the uTOopia series. She also serves as the past chair of the Literary Press Group and is the author of a novel.

 

 

Published January 15, 2013

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