An Interview with Carole Gerson

By Savanna Scott Leslie

In Canadian Women in Print, 1750–1918,[1] you note that renewed interest in early Canadian women writers has led to “one of our favourite cultural myths”—that Canadian literature has always embraced women writers. Why did this notion of a women-dominated Canadian literature develop, and how widespread is this myth today?

I think that this myth developed because we Canadians like to think of ourselves as “nice,” and one aspect of niceness is to be kind to marginalized social and cultural entities. We consider ourselves nicer than Americans because we don’t carry guns and we believe in Medicare; as well, we like to think that we are more accepting of people of colour and that generally we are more egalitarian. Hence, when we see several female stars (in literature, film, music, broadcasting, politics, or whatever), we tend to generalize the visibility of a few to signify equality or even majority, regardless of what the numbers tell us. I think of this in relation to the “dancing dog” phenomenon, adapted from the well-known quotation by Samuel Johnson that “a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” Dancing dogs appear to be more numerous than they really are, and tokenism often prevails over equality.

It is easy to get caught up in this pattern. If you look at a list of authors in an anthology or a list of winners of a literary prize and see some female names, you may think at first that you’re seeing equality or even majority—until you count the names, and realize that what initially appeared to be 50% is actually closer to 25%. As Margaret Atwood once quipped, “Whether the glass is two-thirds empty or one-third full depends upon how thirsty you are.”[2]

How has this misconception affected reviewers’ attention to women’s works?

Reviewers (and other commentators) help perpetuate a kind of star system. They continually refer to the extraordinary success of a small number of women (e.g. Isabella Crawford and Susanna Moodie in the nineteenth century; Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence, Alice Munro, Gabrielle Roy, and Anne Hébert in the twentieth) without recognizing the imbalance that underlies this practice of highlighting the few at the expense of the many.

You also explain that even successful writers like L.M. Montgomery and Winnifred Eaton had to look to the United States and the United Kingdom to publish their works. Has Canada become much more supportive of its women writers since the nineteenth century?

This begins as a question of numbers. The population of Canada has historically been about one-tenth that of the US, and very few English-language Canadian writers (regardless of gender) have ever been able to make a decent living from their writing without tapping into the huge American market. The ways that gender factors into the question of how Canada supports its writers are subtle. In the past, men have been more likely to have full-time day jobs to pay the rent, whereas women were more likely to be at home with children; hence early reviews of Alice Munro and Margaret Laurence described them as “housewives,” whereas their male peers were validated as journalists or professors or whatever. As well, when you look at the careers of mid-twentieth-century women writers, you see that ongoing support is crucial for development. It seems to me that there are more instances of women than of men writing an award-winning novel that didn’t give rise to a viable career. Gwethalyn Graham’s Earth and High Heaven (1944) was an unprecedented success in Canada and the US and remains an amazing book for its era, yet her career foundered, in part from a lack of sufficient support.[3]

You further note that from the classical period through to the nineteenth century, the book had been more masculine than other media like periodicals and newspapers. Why were these latter formats more inviting to women contributors—or at least less uninviting?

It has always been the case that publishers are reluctant to take risks on books that might not sell. Well into the twentieth century, a very high proportion of Canadian books, including those from recognized publishers, were subsidized by their authors. This was this case with writing on many topics, not just literary work. As women generally had less cash, they were disadvantaged in being able to pay for the production of their books; nonetheless, some were quite successful in raising funds by subscription, a common practice that involved getting people to commit to buying the volume before it appeared (men did this as well, of course). On the other hand, regional periodicals and newspapers were often grateful for content and therefore happy to publish local writers, sometimes including a high proportion of women. A few generations ago, there was a vast network of small-scale newspapers and periodicals catering to local communities. While few writers were paid much (if anything) for their poems or stories, there was a rich regional print culture that encouraged amateur authorship.

You explain in Canadian Women in Print that women’s participation and recognition in pre-Confederation literature “cast a sliver-thin shadow,” and that most of their works were excluded from the category of “serious” literature. Has the literary canon continued to exclude women-dominated genres? Do you see the canon becoming more elastic?

This is a complex issue. My comment about the “sliver-thin shadow” was based on the absence of women from a great many genres, including those that are not usually categorized as literary. Today, the presence of women writers in such areas as science, religion, and technical topics is still slender, because these areas themselves remain dominated by men. Recent interest in life writing (autobiography, journals, letters, memoirs, et cetera) and travel writing has certainly brought more women into the literary canon, from the past as well as in the present. However, one of the most substantial woman-dominated genres is children’s literature, and the predominance of women in that field does little to enhance its canonical status. It’s still the case that “a man’s book is a book. A woman’s book is a woman`s book,” in the words of Christiane Rochefort.[4]

You write that white social reformers of the nineteenth century did little to challenge Canada’s racism, and that more recent criticism of writers of colour like Mary Ann Shadd and E. Pauline Johnson have been “overdetermined by race.” Have you seen changes in this critical response to Canada’s early women writers of colour throughout your career?

Since the later decades of the twentieth century, the recuperative impulse to recognize under-acknowledged women writers has included Aboriginal women and women of colour. We are deeply indebted to the research of George Elliott Clarke in identifying early black writers (of both genders) associated with Canada. Mary Ann Shadd is now receiving a lot of attention in the US (where she spent most of her life) and in Canada (where she lived for 12 years) as the first black female editor and publisher in North America. Most of her writing was motivated by issues of race, and her pamphlet, A Plea for Emigration, is now back in print. I use the term “overdetermined by race” in relation to Pauline Johnson, whose aspirations were shaped by the British literary tradition in which she was raised. From the 1880s until her death in 1913, she wrote some very striking and important poetry and prose (fiction and non-fiction) about the situation of Native people in Canada. But she also wrote nature poetry that relates more closely to the aesthetics of her era than to her Mohawk heritage, and some remarkably erotic love poetry that reverses the male gaze more boldly than any other poetry by women of her time. While critics recognize her role as an Aboriginal writer, her other work still attracts surprisingly little notice.

Historically, you write that women in Canada wrote “very little impersonal non-fiction,” and of course they faced significant hurdles in academia. Canadian Women in Print shows that their writing focused on their personal experiences. Has this widespread doubt of women’s credibility relented much in academia and scholarly publishing?

I like to believe that there is very little gender bias in scholarly publishing. Most academic journals and conferences have “blind” review systems wherein the referee doesn’t know the name of the author of the piece under assessment. Book manuscripts are different and the reviewer (in my experience) does know the name of the author. I would surmise that the proportion of female writers in academic fields is directly proportional to the number of female specialists—at least, that’s how it should be. This is less the case with general non-fiction. If you look at the historical list of winners of the Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-fiction, you will see that women have been more likely to win for personal books, than for more “objective” work. However, writers like Charlotte Gray and Margaret MacMillan are normalizing the notion that women can write effective biographies of men and outstanding historical accounts of male-dominated events. 

Alongside your monographs, you’ve also published a wealth of reviews. How important have receiving and writing reviews been in your career?

Reviewing is important because it brings attention to writers and to books. Not only were there more newspapers in Canada in the past, but there was also a lot more reviewing of Canadian books in the press and on the radio during the middle decades of the twentieth century. Some newspaper reviews were obviously written up in a hurry and cite extensively from publishers’ promotional materials, but many others were based on careful attention to books and authors. However, reviewing is also time-consuming. In the academic world, while we all crave good reviews, we often begrudge the time they require and the fact that reviews count for relatively little credit (in comparison with peer-reviewed publications) when we come up for our regular reviews. On a more optimistic note, I think that the recent proliferation of writers’ festivals, which bring writers and readers into direct contact, compensates in many ways for the decline of formal reviews in print and broadcasting. The majority of the audience at these events is usually female, and women are also the major buyers of literary and mainstream books, mature women in particular. As the baby-boomers reach retirement and have more time to read, this can only be good news for the creators of books.

 

Gerson photoCarole Gerson is a professor in the Department of English at Simon Fraser University and was a co-editor of the multi-volume project History of the Book in Canada. Her focus on women writers has resulted in many articles that include well-known authors such as L.M. Montgomery and Susanna Moodie, as well as studies of the canonization of Canadian women writers that concern more obscure figures. With historian Veronica Strong-Boag, she has issued two books on Pauline Johnson. Her recent book, Canadian Women in Print, 1750–1918 (2010), which applies principles of print culture analysis to a wide range of early authors, received the Gabrielle Roy Prize for Canadian criticism.

 

 

Savanna Scott Leslie is a freelance editor with diverse web and print experience. She has a BA in philosophy and Russian literature from the University of Toronto and studies publishing at Ryerson University. She lives in Guelph, Ontario.

Published on December 20, 2013


[1] Gerson, Canadian Women in Print 1750–1918 (Waterloo, Wilfrid University Press, 2010).

[2] Atwood, Introduction, New Oxford Book of Canadian Poetry (Toronto, OUP, 1983) xxix.

[3] See Barbara Meadowcroft, Gwethalyn Graham: A Liberated Woman in a Conventional Age (Toronto: Women’s Press 2008), 141–45. Earth and High Heaven was Graham’s second award-winning book; her first novel, Swiss Sonata (1938), won the Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction.

[4] Christiane Rochefort “Are Women Still Monsters?” extracted in New French Feminisms. Ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivon (New York: Schocken Books, 1981), 181.

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