An Interview With Jessica Duffin Wolfe, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of the Toronto Review of Books

By Sadiqa de Meijer

First of all, congratulations on initiating a new quarterly! I’ve read that you founded the TRB not in response to any perceived lack in critical culture, but—straightforwardly enough—because you and your colleagues enjoy books and ideas. How has that vision evolved (or persisted) since the first issue?

Thanks! I do actually think we started it in response to a lack as you put it—or rather an opportunity to take a great city as a prompt for criticism. I’d been the reviews editor at Spacing Magazine, where I’d put together a collection of reviews of books about cities and Toronto for each issue. It was partly that experience of gathering Torontonians to talk about books that made me realize there was an editorial perspective on books and culture in this city waiting to be given its voice. That voice is still driving the publication.

If there was a real and concrete lack, it was in the holes left by closing bookstores, like my family’s store, Pages Books and Magazines, which presided over Queen West for thirty years. The store drew in people with abundant perspectives and appetites and created a space in the city for encounters caused by ideas. Such spaces are among the losses we face in watching independent bookstores recede. Another loss is the decreased visibility of books in everyday life.

While the Internet is in some sense responsible for these changes, reimagining the meaning and potential of literature through digital lenses is also utterly thrilling. The TRB began as, and continues to be, a project of translating something old, literary, and classic into a “digitally native” iteration—an effort to build something new from what we’re letting go. 

What should book reviews accomplish?

Sadly no one has time to read every book. Such a pity. But many of us would like to know about the books that we haven’t yet discovered. Sometimes a book review will cause you to add a book to your reading list, and then sometimes you will even read it.

Reviews do have this kind of advertising function, and that’s part of why the publishing industry has historically sustained review publications and book sections in newspapers by buying advertising. But advertising a book to a potential buyer isn’t the only function of a review. I think book reviews should expose what a book is trying to do, on its own terms. When thorough, that effort of description does often result in the reviewer offering a judgment on the book’s success, but I don’t think judgment is a requirement.

We publish a variety of “reviews.” I distinguish between functional short reviews that focus entirely on the book at hand, and longer “review essays” that may take a book as a starting point for a longer argument. We publish short reviews on our blog, and review essays in our issues.

What are your thoughts when you peruse the numbers of the CWILA count? Do you have a sense of how TRB would rate? 

These fairly depressing numbers are not at all surprising to me and in some ways confirm the more anecdotal feeling I have about how Canadian publications often operate. I wonder whether British Columbian and Québécois publications would do better overall (I would be interested in French-language numbers), since they sometimes seem more socially progressive than central Canadian culture mongers.

Next time—if you can—I would look at the gender of editors too, and I would also consider the ethnicity and physicality of both authors and editors. Sexism isn’t the only form of social discrimination at play in literary culture in Canada—and other forms of discrimination feed in to what feels like sexism. It seems to me that while it might be easier to succeed in this context if you’re a Caucasian man, it’s also helpful to be a tall Caucasian man without any disabilities. Physicality along with gender and ethnicity play a greater role in perceptions of status than we often admit (says I, a quite short woman).

As for how TRB would rate, I ran our numbers for 2012, and of seventy-four book reviews, forty percent were by women—so we’re around the middle of the pack in this ranking system. (Men reviewed women fourteen times, women reviewed men eight times, men reviewed men thirty-six times, and women reviewed women sixteen times.)

However, I really don’t think that simply looking at book reviews alone is a good way to measure how ethically we’re promoting literary gender equality. Whereas I’ve found that men are often more interested in writing traditional book reviews (of often male authors), I have many women writing on social practices of reading. Our 2012 pieces on a First Nations literary festival in Toronto, or on reading in Armenia, in Paris, and at Union Station were all written by women. These articles don’t make it into your numbers, but they reflect TRB’s record of publishing women and promoting women’s perspectives on literary culture. So maybe the book review shouldn’t be the only measure of the contributions to literary gender equality of a publication.

The matter of tone in reviews has also been part of the discussion around gender and representation. Sue Sinclair, in her introductory essay as CWILA Critic-in-Residence, envisions criticism in which “truthfulness and kindness can coexist.” As an editor, do you have expectations on the tone a review should strike? 

A review should be honest, humble, and attentive to the aims of the book at hand, whether or not it fulfills its own goals. I get annoyed when short reviews (I don’t mean “review essays”) don’t represent a book, but rather use the review as a coat hanger for unrelated musings. It’s not a genre for personal expression so much as an opportunity for respectful attention to someone else’s work. Refraining from writing anything you wouldn’t say to someone’s face—when you should be both honest and kind—is probably a good way to ensure graceful criticism. On this point, though, I often think of Seán Cullen’s quip at a recent PEN event, when he called Canada a “gentle club.” It’s true that in the “gentle club” of the Canadian literary community, honesty is sometimes sacrificed on the altar of congeniality.

When you assign reviews, what do you see as important in the relationship between a reviewer and book?

Interest! Expertise in the topic also helps. All of our contributions have so far been voluntary, so I would have a lot of trouble getting anyone to review a book they didn’t want to read. Being a reviews editor is a lot like being a bookseller. You need to be able to get a sense of your regular contributors as readers, and figure out what they might really like. If they’re excited to read the book, they likely won’t mind writing up a short review of it.

You’ve expressed your hope that Toronto’s “characteristic internationalism will infuse the TRB”¾what has that looked like in practice? Is it an objective that you pursue actively?

Yes. We don’t limit our authors to reviewing Canadian books. In addition to international reviews, we’ve published articles on bookstalls in Nairobi, on a literary festival in Port of Spain, on reading in Paris and Armenia, and we have a piece forthcoming on contemporary literary culture in Pakistan. In 2012, we collaborated with the Toronto Public Library on a Scarborough event about local Tamil literature, and thanks to our wonderful Poetry Editor Moez Surani, we published one of the first English translations of an emerging Chinese poet. We’re trying to go beyond showcasing only our own literary community in downtown Toronto.

How do you choose which books to review? When it comes to the list of authors, do proportional representations of gender, race, or other factors matter?

The TRB is community driven—so at the moment we tend to review what people ask to review, but proportional representation does concern me and will continue to be a goal as we grow.

Other editors have mentioned in these interviews that they receive far fewer review pitches from women reviewers—is that something you’ve noticed as well? If yes, what do you attribute that to?

Yes, that’s our experience at the TRB too. When this situation comes up, I often hear people sigh, and say that women don’t pitch as much because they are just more “inhibited” than men. Whether or not that’s the case—and if it is I think it’s totally a result of our culture—I think we should also be looking for ways in which women are prohibited from participating in these sorts of arenas because of how our systems work.

If you want to get published, it can help to feel comfortable hobnobbing, but it can also be more difficult for young women to develop those sorts of friendly relationships with more established and often male editors. Sometimes that’s because of perceptions that someone on either side is flirting, or might be, and it’s easier just to keep a distance. I tend to see more young male writers developing the sorts of friendships that ease the path to getting published in newspapers and magazines. For whatever reason they seem to feel more comfortable with that kind of networking relationship—and it’s possible that the editors in charge feel more comfortable promoting them and their work.

I recently spoke to a class at Ryerson on writing about the arts. Most of the students were women—the class was maybe eighty-five or ninety percent female. Despite a lot of prompting and encouragement from their professor, afterwards only one person, a man, came up to talk to me about writing for the TRB. I was very happy to speak with him—but I was sorry that no women also wanted to take that chance. Maybe they weren’t interested! But I know from my own experience as an undergrad that I likely would have felt totally uncomfortable taking that risk myself.

So my question is, how and why do (many) men feel entitled in this publishing arena? And, rather than assuming women are just innately inhibited, how can we use an understanding of men’s experience and perspectives to help more women to feel entitled too?


Photo by Yvonne Bambrick.

Jessica Duffin Wolfe is the Editor-in-Chief of The Toronto Review of Books, the founder of WIDEN (Workshops for Inter-Discipline Exchange & Novelty) and a doctoral candidate in English, Book History, and Print Culture at the University of Toronto.

Sadiqa de Meijer’s poetry, short stories, and personal essays have appeared in a range of literary journals and magazines, as well as in the Best of Canadian Poetry in English series, and in the anthology Villanelles.

Published on May 6, 2013

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