An Interview with Bronwyn Drainie, Editor-in-Chief, The Literary Review of Canada

By Chelsea Novak

The LRC reviewed a total of 165 authors in 2012: 122 men (74 per cent) and 43 women (26 per cent). In terms of percentage, the numbers for 2011 and 2012 were the same, though more authors were reviewed overall in 2012. We found that overall in 2012, publications reviewed 57.5 per cent male authors, 42.3 per cent female authors, and 0.2 per cent genderqueer authors. How do you account for this gender discrepancy at The LRC, and do you think it will continue as a trend?

I think it’s important to recognize that the LRC has a mandate that is mainly the coverage of non-fiction and public policy books and essays—that’s our main area of coverage. Now, that doesn’t mean we don’t cover some fiction—we do two new fiction reviews per issue—but all the rest of our stuff is non-fiction. That means that the number that is really important to me is [the] one from the Governor General’s list [see CWILA’s numbers from last year]. If the men are writing 70 per cent of the non-fiction books that are published in Canada, it doesn’t seem strange to me at all that our number of books written by men that we review would be roughly in that same category, because we focus on non-fiction books.

Of the 134 books the LRC reviewed in 2012, 43 were reviewed by women (32 per cent) and 91 were reviewed by men (68 per cent). Last year, the LRC’s managing editor, Alistair Cheng, told us that women tend to turn down invitations to review more frequently than men do. Is this still the case? If so, why do you think women turn down these invitations more often?

Yes, it’s true that there are fewer female reviewers than the male reviewers, but a lot of the reason for that also has to do with the content of these books. Many of the books that we review come from university presses. They are books full of specialized information and knowledge in areas like economics, science, politics, political science—things of that nature—and therefore when you’re looking for reviewers for such books, you also comb through the same ranks as the people who write those books, and those tend to be overwhelmingly male. The reason for that is, you know, there was a time not all that long ago when the ranks of university professors were entirely male. Then, gradually, things started changing and improving, and there were more and more women in the ranks of university academics. Now they’re still in the minority in virtually every field, and in a number of the fields in particular that I mentioned, like economics and political science, and the sciences and engineering—areas like that—women are very much in the minority. Therefore, when you go looking for reviewers who understand the topic really well, you tend to find a lot more men than women in that situation. Is that right? Probably not. But I do believe that the changes in the gender composition of university faculties, as it proceeds slowly through the years, is going to be reflected more and more in non-fiction book reviewing, because there will be more women in those various areas of study that you can approach.

So that’s one point I would make about the reviewers. The other point I would make, and this is simply based on my own experience—ten years now, editing this magazine—is that when I do approach women to review things for us, much more often than with men, they turn me down. And they turn me down, usually, for reasons that have to do with time and timetables: “I’m just too busy”; “I’m overloaded”; “I can’t take on anything else.” That kind of a reason, and now this is just my own theory, but it seems to me that these fewer women that we talked about, who are in these interesting positions in the academy, are very much in demand. They’re in demand in their own universities to be on committees, to be on panels, to survey PhD candidates—things of that sort. Everyone wants women to be represented, and since there are fewer and fewer of them, more and more gets loaded on their shoulders than on the shoulders of all the men, who can kind of spread the work out, if you will. And therefore, when I come to them from outside the academy, and writing for our magazine is not going to earn them any brownie points within the university system, I understand that a lot of them are going to say, “No, I’m sorry. I’m too overloaded. I’m too busy. I can’t do it.” I don’t get that kind of response very often from the men that I approach. I’m not saying that all the men I approach say yes; lots of them turn me down, but they turn me down for different reasons. They turn me down because of something to do with the content of the book—it’s not quite on their subject or something like that—but I very, very seldom get from men, “I’m overloaded,” or a time-related reason for turning me down. So I think that’s very interesting. I think it just indicates that women in these positions, it’s an evolving roll that they are playing, and that as more and more and more of them join the ranks of the academy, they will be able to spread these extra-curricular chores out, including book reviewing.

Men who wrote reviews for the LRC in 2012 reviewed male authors 79 per cent of the time, and female authors only 21 per cent of the time, while women reviewed male authors 62 per cent of the time, and female authors only 38 per cent of the time. We’ve seen other publications shift their numbers from last year so that they’re reviewing more female authors, but they seem to have done so by getting men to review men most of the time, and women to review women. If you were to shift the numbers at the LRC, do you think you could do so without resorting to this kind of segregation?

In the first place, we don’t do that. I never even think really about the sex of the authors compared to the sex of the reviewers when we’re choosing reviewers for books; it’s just not part of the equation. We’re just looking for the best person we can find to review this book, and so we definitely don’t create artificial boundaries between men reviewing men, and women reviewing women—that would never even occur to us. As I say, these books are non-fiction books that require a lot of knowledge to be able to take them on.

Out of my own interest, I decided to look at our fiction reviewing because, even though we don’t do very much of it, I could look at it for a whole ten-year period. Because that’s a different situation. There, you are not looking for specialty. You’re not looking for people with a particular body of knowledge to be able to review the book correctly. You are looking for a certain sensibility that gets fiction and you’re looking for very good writing. You know, so those are different things you’re looking for. When I look at just our fiction reviews over the last ten years, I actually find that we [have] better numbers. Here, I’ve written them down. We’re using 41 per cent female reviewers for fiction, and we are reviewing 44 per cent female authors, so much higher figures for fiction because that specialized question doesn’t come into it. We’re just looking for good writers here and there’s almost as many of them we’re finding among the women as among the men. It would never really occur to us to say, “This is a book by a man; it’s got to be reviewed by a man,” and therefore I don’t see any need to change anything or any policy that we have.

What do you think are the challenges to ending gender discrepancy in literary reviews? 

I find that a very hard question to answer because, as I say, in the work we do, I would say we’re pretty gender blind. I don’t think we do exercise any kind of judgment one way or the other about gender. We’re just looking for the best quality and it seems to me that is what you want to just keep doing. You want to encourage more women to go into these interesting fields, that’s for sure, but believe me, I’m not getting requests from women, “Please, can I review this books for you?” I don’t get those very often. In fact, I don’t get them from men either. I very seldom get requests from people to review things. What I do get more, though—and this is interesting—is we run essays, free-standing essays, as well as book reviews, and I would say that even though the majority of them are ones where we come up with the ideas and then we go looking for the right people, we do get more writers getting in touch with us and saying, “I would like to write an essay about x, y, or z.” Now, of those people—I counted them up this morning—in the past six years, only 25 per cent of our essays [were] written by women. Now, that’s partly a combination of us going looking for the writers, and partly them pitching ideas to us. So what I’m saying is that, of the material that gets pitched to us, men are doing much more of the pitching. Much more. I very seldom get a pitch from a woman. Not never; we’ve had a few, but it’s rare. So what does that indicate? I’m not sure. That women need to be more forward about approaching editors if they have ideas that they think will work?

Ninety-six per cent of the books the LRC reviewed in 2012 were written by Canadians, but there was a small number of international books reviewed. Do you try to review a few international books during the year? How do you decide which international books to review, or what about an international book makes you decide to review it?

Our own mandate is Canadian published material. Now, that doesn’t mean we never cover a foreign book, but we would cover a foreign book or review a foreign book in conjunction with a Canadian book on a similar or related subject. We don’t do free-standing reviews of foreign books, no.

How important do you think book reviews are to the health of literary culture? And how big of an impact do you think reviews have on book sales?

That’s a really interesting question, and I don’t know the answer to it. I would like to believe that book reviews are very important, and they are to a certain small group of readers, who really like having a good sense about a book before they make a decision about whether they’re going to buy it or not. But when you look at the great panoply of books that are out there, the ones that are selling well are not books that have had interesting or in-depth reviews. They’re ones that have had great advertising campaigns where the publishers are willing to pay for very good placement in the bookstores—or a much more obvious kind of attraction to readers than a review, which is sort of hard work. You know, you’ve actually got to read that carefully to decide whether you want to buy the book or not, or borrow the book from the library. I think that very serious book reviewing will always be a minority-interest occupation, rather like listening to very serious jazz or great classical music or something. You know, it’s not the vast majority of the population [that] indulges in these things.

But just because it’s small numbers doesn’t mean that it’s not worthwhile. I think it’s extremely worthwhile, for example, for the writers. I think it’s very important for writers to get that kind of feedback about their books. I mean do you know how hard it is to write a book? I don’t know if you’ve ever written one, but boy, it’s a huge effort, and if you were to publish it and then not get any serious responses to what you’ve done, whether positive or negative, I think you’d be devastated. And that’s why I’m concerned about the shrinking of book review sections and the elimination of book review pages from a lot of daily newspapers around North America. It’s really a shame; I feel that that needs to be there. But if we’re talking about impact on sales, I doubt that it has very much.


Bronwyn DrainieBronwyn Drainie has been a journalist and documentary producer for CBC Radio,
a columnist and book reviewer for The Globe and Mail and Quill & Quire, and for
the past ten years has been the editor of the Literary Review of Canada (LRC).

Chelsea Novak is the Interim Executive Director for CWILA and a former managing editor of Geist magazine. Her work has been published by Quill & Quire, Vancouver Observer, Geist, Front & Centre, Other Voices, and Blood Ink, and she is a regular contributor to Paper Droids.

Published July 5, 2013

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