An Interview with Laura Moss, Reviews Editor, Canadian Literature

  1. How do you assign reviews? Do you have a running list of reviewers to whom you give assignments? Can writers pitch to you? How does it work?

The journal publishes reviews in English and French on Canadian fiction, non-fiction, literary criticism, poetry, drama, and young adult fiction. There are currently three book review editors at the journal—me and Judy Brown in English and Joël Castonguay-Bélanger in French. The editor of the journal, Margery Fee, also works with us on reviews. We are all faculty at UBC and we work at Canadian Literature on top of our regular teaching and research loads. We share in the ordering of books, soliciting reviewers, and editing reviews. On average we publish reviews of 300 books a year. (2011 was an unusually small year because of three special issues). Books come to us two ways: we order them from publisher’s catalogues or we receive them from publishers unsolicited. We also order the books long listed for most literary prizes. (Insert whole discussion of the problems of literary celebrity, the sometimes dubious cultural capital of awards and prizes, and large worries about functioning within the economy of prestige here).

All reviews at Canadian Literature are solicited by the reviews editors. Unsolicited reviews are never accepted so there is no self-selection of reviewer and text. We do not accept pitches. However, we do welcome notices of interest from qualified reviewers who might want to do a review in the future and then we assign these reviewers books in their areas of stated interest. Otherwise, we try to find specialist readers and keep a running list. Our reviewers are both academics (graduate students and faculty) and creative writers. As an academic journal, however, we don’t pay for reviews so they tend more often to be done by academics who likely consider it to be part of the job.

For most reviews we bundle three books together based on theme, genre, region, or subject matter. The reviews range from 750 to 2500 words. Importantly, it sometimes takes us three or four requests to get someone to agree to do a review. After four unsuccessful requests we generally abandon the bundle for review. It is infinitely easier to find a reviewer for a novel by an award-winning author than a first book of short stories or poetry.

2. Do you think about such parameters as gender, race or sexual identification when picking which books will be reviewed? Do you think that an editor should pay attention to the gender of authors when choosing or assigning books?

I can only speak for myself here but I do consider gender, race, genre, and geographical diversity in my choice of which books to order. As a journal, we try to review books from a range of writers working in a variety of forms and on diverse subjects from across the country.  We define Canadian Literature as literature written by Canadians (by birth or by choice) rather than by theme, topic, or genre.   In the big picture, we take the national (not nationalist) scope of the journal’s name seriously and try to choose a range of books that reasonably reflect the demographics of Canada and literary production in Canada. We make sure we review books from large and small presses as well. Kegedonce Press, Zed Books, Talonbooks, TSAR, and Harbour Publishing, for example, produce different kinds of books than M&S or Harper Collins and we try to pay attention to them all.

I don’t think the gender of the author should be the determining factor in deciding on whether to review a book but I do think it is one factor that ought to be considered when ordering books for possible review. I still make my final decisions by opening the books and reading what is on the page.

3. Would you expect that the numbers of authors by gender and books reviewed by gender would be better at an academic journal than at a national privately-funded newspaper? Do you think that you and/or Canadian Literature have any more or less responsibility to the politics of representation?

I can’t speak comparatively because we are just such different venues. Speaking from an academic publication, though, I can say that we are well aware of the politics of representation. Many people who study Canadian Literature study it in terms of issues of gender and race (while others study it in terms of form, or the environment, or history, or…). There is no question that literary criticism and theories of gender, race, sexuality, multiculturalism, and class over the past thirty years have had an impact on academic reviewing. We talk about the theories in the classroom and we often bring them into our reading practices.

4. What does the Canadian Literature pay its reviewers per review?

The reviewer receives the books, offprints, and a line on the CV, but no financial compensation.

5. In my introductory essay I mention Lorraine Weir’s study of Canadian Literature between 1959-1987 in which she reports a significant gender gap in numbers of reviews and articles written by women and men under the editorship of George Woodcock and W.H. New. Scholar Peggy Kelly has said that “when women have control of the material resources necessary for literary production, their published work reflects their numbers.” She was referring to anthologies of Canadian poetry published from 1920-1950, but it seems to me that her comment might apply in any era. What are your thoughts on a possible causality between the gender of editors (those in charge) and representation of gender (those they publish)?

I certainly suspect that there is a link between an awareness of gender issues and the gender balance of books reviewed. I would not go so far as to call it a causality though.

In light of Lorraine Weir’s article, I am heartened to see that now at the same journal, in English reviews from 2011, we are exactly even in the number of books reviewed by men and women (76 each). In French, however, we reviewed men’s books over women’s books 20:9 and had 3:4 ratio of male (12) to female reviewers (16).  I also checked the gender distribution in the articles and opinions sections of the journal for 2011. We published 19 articles and opinions by women and 17 by men and we had three female guest editors and two male guest editors work with the journal editor Margery Fee.

One thing I was surprised by when I counted the Canadian Literature numbers for CWILA was how many more women review for us than men. In English, we had 80 books reviewed by women and 53 books reviewed by men. I had no idea that this was the case.  I don’t know if it is because the two primary English reviews editors are women though.  I think that it is more likely because reviews are seen as service for academics and often women do proportionately more service than their male colleagues. Reviewing for Canadian Literature is a voluntary activity that realistically counts for little on academic merit scales. It is not high-prestige publication because reviews are not blind peer-reviewed, like articles, which is (at least at the moment) considered to be the highest form of publication short of a book. Our discipline prizes the book—we study them and we write them. English literature scholars are expected to produce books for promotion and tenure. Yet if Canadian literary and especially critical texts aren’t reviewed in Canadian Literature, they sometimes are not reviewed at all. The preference for books and articles means that reviews are now seen as lesser publications, or at least not as strategic a use of time, ironically leading to the neglect of book reviews. My favourite example of this came last fall when someone turned down our request to write a book review because he was too busy and, in the same email, asked why we hadn’t reviewed his latest book.

If reviewing is about literary citizenship (about being a part of a creative and critical community), as I think it is, then I strongly feel that we need to have reviews “count” for more in a scholarly context (i.e. university and college systems of acknowledgement and credit) as well as in a wider cultural context. If they were seen as more valuable contributions to scholarship and the literary community, then perhaps we would have an easier time getting reviewers and we might have a closer gender balance among those who agree to review for us.

The fact that our reviews get over a thousand hits a day on our website (canlit.ca) and get printed in the journal and distributed internationally means that they achieve a good degree of visibility, and so visibility isn’t enough of a driving factor in our case. It is still unpaid and possibly under-valued labour.  I appreciate that those who review for us are generous with their time and knowledge. I would just like more academics to feel that it is less optional and more absolutely fundamental to what we do in the literary arts in Canada to engage in constructive ongoing conversations about literature, literary theory, art, and culture in the review format.

6.  What are your thoughts on fixing the numbers we know of (i.e. VIDA, Zed and now CWILA) by forming stronger critical communities among women that support women’s books, careers, etc.?

I think that the awareness raised by the CWILA count is an excellent place to start. I hope that this opens a conversation about gender imbalances and the gender gap in Canadian literary reception. I also think that the CWILA Critic-in-Residence program is a wonderful idea.

The disparity in the numbers goes beyond reviews though. Really, they are the tip of the iceberg. Other questions come up. What role do prizes play? Who decides?  With often limited resources, what books do publishers promote? What is more likely to get reviewed, a hardcover book that the publisher has invested in or a softcover with little promotional material? Who gets the hardcover? Probably the person whose last book was well-reviewed.  It is a circle. It is not just a question of how many books are published but also by whom and in what form. Production and distribution have an effect on reception.

7. We’ve heard a lot from writers in this on-going discussion at CWILA who have focused on the gender gap in the national literary landscape from their perspectives as published authors. Have any of the comments rung true for you as a female academic working in the Canadian university system?

Absolutely.

Published on June 10, 2012

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