By Savanna Scott Leslie
Thanks again for agreeing to answer some questions for CWILA.
A little context off the top: we are a general interest magazine. As such, literary criticism is a very limited part of what we do. My role at the magazine is to edit journalism pieces and some of the cultural pieces. I handle most of our writing about books, but I do not select or edit our fiction or our poetry (Nick Mount and Michael Lista do that). Also, we no longer run our twice-annual roundup of capsule book reviews. Instead, we are now covering books (with author profiles, essays, and book reviews) in longer form. This means that the number of books we review/cover is smaller than in the past, but (I hope) our coverage is deeper and more thoughtful.
All of which is to say that in answering some of your questions, I am speaking about what we did in the past, not what we are currently doing. Some of the information you have about our book coverage is no longer applicable to our current direction/vision.
When you spoke with CWILA last year, you explained that you consider diversity when you assign reviews but that you don’t keep a quota or figure in mind. In our 2012 CWILA count, we found that The Walrus’s reviews of books written by women increased from 23 per cent in 2011 to 56 per cent in 2012. Did your approach change in 2012?
I’m gratified to hear that we are doing better in terms of gender parity, but I don’t think our approach changed dramatically between 2011 and 2012. That said, I do think we are having more frequent, regular discussions about how to broaden and diversify the pool of writers who we work with in all sections of the magazine; and how to broaden what we cover in our culture section. I’m sure that that consciousness/awareness did contribute to the increase of coverage of books by women.
CWILA found that The Walrus’s female reviewers increased from 17 per cent in 2011 to 50 per cent in 2012. We also noticed that 89 per cent of female reviewers wrote about books authored by women, and 78 per cent of male reviewers wrote about books authored by men. Why are most reviewers assigned books by authors of their own gender?
In part it’s a function of what our reviewers want to review. I had an interesting experience not long ago when I was assigning one of our last Walrus Reads features (which is a collection of six or seven short reviews). I had a list of the books I wanted to have reviewed, and it included books by both men and women. When I presented it to a few of the reviewers and asked them what they were interested in reviewing, the male reviewers selected books by men and women reviewers chose books by women.
Approximately how many of your pitches for reviews come from women?
I get very few pitches from people to review books. We have a very long lead time when it comes to assigning, so our reviews tend to be the result of commissioning rather than pitches.
This year, CWILA also counted the number of Canadian titles reviewed in Canada compared to international titles. In 2012, 100 per cent of The Walrus’s reviews assessed Canadian titles, and you explained last year that The Walrus’s purview is to review books by Canadians only, except on rare occasions. How do you decide whether to review an international title?
We would only review an international title if it was about Canada, or connected to Canada in some way.
You told CWILA last year that The Walrus follows no official process or protocol when it comes to diversity in its book reviews. How do you balance quality with diversity?
I don’t agree with the suggestion that quality and diversity are two opposing goals that need to be balanced. In fact, I think that having as diverse a pool of writers as possible would inevitably and invariably lead to higher quality overall. My feeling is that when you only draw from a small pool of people, you miss out on incredible talent.
Do you think the literary culture in Canada overall encourages diversity?
This is a tough one to answer. I’m not sure what you mean by the term “literary culture.” I think my answer would be different depending on what aspect of the culture you’re talking about, whether it’s the publishing industry, whether it’s literary criticism, whether it’s book prizes, whether it’s non-fiction versus fiction and so on; whether you’re talking about diversity strictly of gender, or of race and class and sexual orientation and so on; whether you’re talking about specific genres (speculative fiction, literary fiction, memoirs, graphic novels, and so on). I wish I could be more helpful, but I don’t think I can answer this with precision or authority.
Rachel Giese has been a senior editor at The Walrus since 2010. Prior to this, she was a columnist for the Toronto Star, a host and producer at CityTV’s BookTelevision, a writer and editor at CBC.ca’s Arts Online, a senior editor at Chatelaine, and a journalism instructor at Ryerson University.
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 July 5, 2013