MOURNING ABSENCE, FIGHTING ABSENCE: FROM LITERARY MANSPREADING TOWARD CULTURAL PARITY

By Lori Saint-Martin

Université du Québec à Montréal

Lisez la version française de l’essai.

The final weeks of 2015 saw one horror after another: the election of a man who boasted of repeatedly groping women without their permission (“when you’re a star, they let you do it”), the decision not to press charges against the police officers in Val d’Or who allegedly assaulted and raped aboriginal women over a period of many years, waves of sexual assaults on university campuses across the country, the rush by famous authors to support one of their own—without a word of concern for the women involved—regarding the reasons for his firing from a prestigious creative writing department, and the news that Canada is now 25th in the UN ranking on gender equality, down from first place in 1995. Faced with such widespread, often life-threatening, violence, other issues seem to pall. When women’s bodily safety and integrity are being constantly threatened, should we even worry about whether their books get their fair share of coverage in Canadian newspapers and magazines?

As a feminist literary scholar and translator and a creative writer, I sometimes feel other causes, like fighting against rape and physical abuse, are more serious than defending women artists. But a recent scandal around an old story offers a reminder of how physical and symbolic violence are inseparable.

In a 2013 interview, uncovered in late 2015, Bernardo Bertolucci returned to a famous sex scene in Last Tango in Paris, which was in fact a scene of anal rape, relating how he and the male star, Marlon Brando, conspired to inflict “humiliation and rage” on an unsuspecting Maria Schneider so that she would feel those emotions directly rather than acting; to create, “one must be absolutely free”, mused the director. And so what if the nineteen-year-old actress—the woman Bertolucci did not trust to act her part—spent much of her later life depressed and suicidal? Her co-star was treated very differently: his humiliation—intimidated by full frontal nudity, Brando was not able to keep an erection—was edited from the film. This case, which unfortunately is far from unique, shows how men’s voices silence women’s, how the art we so value, like the creative freedom great men claim so passionately, are too often obtained by sacrificing women, violating their physical and mental integrity.

Although very different in nature, all the events mentioned above—including inequalities in the field of culture, such as the lesser presence of books by women[1] in many newspapers and magazines—have a common thread: the violent erasure of women’s voices and experience. Underlying them all is the unspoken conviction that what happens to women (especially poor or “minority” women) is of little interest or importance. Women’s stories fall on a deaf ear, their words are not considered convincing or credible, their consent is not needed, their fate is not a cause for concern, their public presence is not legitimate and needs to be curtailed, punished, or simply erased. Too often, public space remains dangerous and/or inaccessible for women today. We need to mourn for the dead, the violated, the erased, for the women who are not there; we need to fight to make their lives and bodies visible, their voices audible, their work valued and discussed.

Let me be clear: of course I don’t think that not reviewing women’s books is somehow the same as raping or killing them. And yet, for an author, silence means symbolic erasure. Think of literary history: other than a few famous names, all pre-twentieth-century women have been eliminated from the canon. There is a ladder of literary remembrance, a career pathway that begins with being reviewed and winning literary awards, then being taught and legitimized by academic criticism, and ultimately being enshrined in literary history. And if women don’t even reach the first rung on that ladder, what are their hopes of rising any higher? This, too, is violence against women.

We’ve all seen pictures of manspreading on mass transit. Men (mostly white, highly-educated, culturally privileged men) do their spreading in the arts as well, where they take up far more than their fair share of public space. The past year has seen protests by women in many countries and fields of culture. For example, according to figures provided by the Québec group of women filmmakers Réalisatrices équitables, a mere 10% to 19% of funding, depending on the organization, went to films by women directors between 2009 and 2014. A report from the Coalition pour l’égalité homme femme en culture (Coalition for Gender Equity in Culture), made public in 2016, shows that in most fields of cultural production, from video games and theatre to television and the visual arts, women are under-represented, under-funded, and otherwise marginalized: more space, more productions, more funding, more attention go to work by men. And everywhere men spread, women shrink: into the background, into obscurity, into oblivion. Of course, many women face additional forms of exclusion due to “race”, ethnicity, social and economic inequality, sexual orientation, age, and other factors: for example, all five of the most-reviewed women authors of 2015, according to the CWILA Count, were white. Non-binary authors are nearly absent. And the work that is not reviewed, not made visible, might as well not exist. Erasure is symbolic violence: work by women simply disappears. It is also material violence: women as citizens, creative artists, audiences, and taxpayers are denied the recognition and the cultural diversity they deserve. Books and authors that are read, reviewed, rewarded by prizes and awards, are given new life; silence kills.

Manspreading is alive and well. But there is good news, too. The Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA) figures from this year suggest some progress toward an equitable book review culture in Canada, showing more women reviewing books and, in many publications, more books written by women being reviewed. After a look at this year’s Count, I will discuss the paradox of innocence that still prevails and sometimes prevents us from “seeing” inequities in coverage; I will argue that we need to learn to see what is not there. I will take a closer look at the relationship between the sex of reviewers and the sex of the writers whose books they cover, suggesting that female reviewers are much more democratic than their male counterparts. Drawing on a study I carried out in the fall of 2015, in which I compared six newspapers of reference from five countries[2], I will put the CWILA figures into perspective and look at some other elements not included in the Count, such as the use of author photographs and feature articles. Tongue in cheek, I will offer tips on how writers might improve or compromise their chances of being reviewed. Finally, I will suggest ways of working toward greater cultural parity.

A SMALL STEP FORWARD: 2015 FIGURES
Doing the counting and then making the results known to the public is hard, thankless work. It is also vital. And it can make change happen. The evidence gathered by Réalisatrices équitables was so convincing—and the organization was able to have its findings so widely reported—that both the National Film Board and Telefilm Canada have announced policy changes geared to fostering gender parity.

The 2015 CWILA Count also shows some cause for optimism. Probably the best news of the year is that women are reviewing books in greater numbers than in the past, making the conversation broader and more inclusive. Canada-wide, we reached gender parity as measured by the split between male and female reviewers (48%-49%), which is cause for rejoicing. However, there is a clear cultural difference here. While in English-language publications, very slightly over half of all reviews counted in 2015 (55%) carried a female byline, compared to 42% for male reviewers[3], French-language media did not perform as well: only 29% of books were reviewed by women versus 67% by men. Reviewers choose what they find interesting and important; for men, as we will see, that usually means books by and about men. Conversely, the recent increase in the number of female-authored reviews also accounts, at least in part, for a greater visibility of books written by women, a point I will return to below.

Whose books are being covered by the media? Overall, 40% of all books reviewed in 2015 were written by women, 52% by men, and 7.5% by mixed-gender co-authors, compared to 39.5%, 53% and 7% in 2014, with books by non-binary authors nearly absent from most publications. In other words, things stood still. Even though the past few years have seen many publications working toward a better gender balance—some are actually reviewing more books by women—, men still come out well ahead.

My perspective is no doubt coloured by my location in Montreal: the Québec publications covered by the Count are generally well below the national average. The Count in French is fairly new to CWILA, and the advocacy efforts on behalf of women authors in English Canada (nourished by the work of VIDA, which has influenced journalistic practice at the New York Times and elsewhere) have not yet reached us to the same extent. Though socially progressive in many areas (such as subsidized day care and parental leave), Quebec is more like France culturally. The best way to feel better about even the worst Canadian figures is to take a look at the Spanish-language papers I studied, El País (Spain) and Clarín (Argentina), or at literary magazines from France. The October 2016 issue of Le magazine littéraire devoted an incredible 91% of its total coverage to male authors. That same month, Lire allotted 70.9 % of its coverage to books by men; if we set aside the fourteen-page spread on J.K. Rowling, only 3.6% of the magazine reviewed work by women! This figure points to an unconscious ceiling on the total space allotted to women: if one gets a large feature, there is no room for the others.

FIGHTING THE PARADOX OF INNOCENCE
The CWILA Count is important because we need to shatter the paradox of innocence that still prevails. As I have been compiling my own figures on book review culture over the last two or three years and discussing the results with those around me, I’ve been told repeatedly—by people who speak with great confidence but absolutely no proof—that current media coverage is well-balanced and perhaps even unduly favours women. They usually give an example or two of highly-mediatized female writers and conclude (especially if they are white males) by saying that if you’re a white male author, nobody is interested in you any more. I have heard variations on this theme so often that I have to wonder why, beyond wishful thinking or bad faith, many people seem to sincerely believe it. We are talking about a deeply-rooted gender bias, upheld by what I call the paradox of innocence. No publication will admit to a bias in favour of male authors, and yet the figures generally show that it exists. Nobody is doing it—and yet it’s widespread. Nobody means for it to happen—and yet it happens all the time.

An example: as I write this, in December 2016, Zadie Smith is everywhere, which is wonderful in itself but will probably mean many publications will feel they “don’t need another black woman writer” for a while. We recall what is unusual: months from now, just because it is rare to see a minority woman so widely featured, people will remember Smith was there. But since white male authors are seen as the standard, the fact that last week’s featured author was a white male does not seem to preclude next week’s being one too.

Another obvious reason why people don’t believe that coverage is slanted is simply that they don’t do the math: they take the editorial choices made on faith and assume that all is well. We all trust our paper or literary magazine and are unwilling to believe it’s unfair or biased. And the confusion between “male” and “universal” is so well-established that we simply don’t compare the numbers: we don’t “see” all the men who are there, but we “see” the women. While a quick leaf through the section or magazine would suggest balanced coverage (as long as there are one or two large photos of a female author, we have the feeling that all is well), the actual numbers often tell a very different story. This is simply cultural bias at work. Similarly, white readers may not notice if almost all the authors reviewed, male and female, are white; the presence of even one black author is highly visible in a white-dominated review section, subtly suggesting that equity has been achieved. And if we take as a given that media coverage is unbiased, what is not there is, by definition, minor or unimportant; what is not there doesn’t really exist. The absence of women is self-reinforcing: if they’re not there, it’s because their work is not important; if it’s not important, there’s no reason to complain about its absence. Exclusion fosters exclusion, so the more women are silenced, the less their silencing is seen, and what is actually blatant manspreading becomes the norm.

The CWILA Count and other similar ventures are essential because of a widespread idea—rarely borne out by the figures—that equality has already been achieved. Isabelle Hayeur, who coordinated the Coalition for Gender Equity in Culture’s report on the presence of women in various cultural spheres, reported general surprise with the figures: “We didn’t think the situation would be nearly as bad at it turned out to be. We often feel equality has been achieved because a few female cultural figures are widely present and visible in the media. We tend to feel there’s not really much of a problem. But a closer look reveals huge gender discrepancies in almost all fields of culture.”

How do newspapers and magazines discourage readers from taking that “closer look”? A popular strategy of publications that have come under fire is to make one or two visible concessions—to include one or two large photographs of female writers, for example—, giving the false impression that substantial change has occurred. For example, in the past year or two, Le Monde des livres (Paris) has been featuring women much more often on the front and back pages of the book section, the most prestigious spots[4], without increasing the total percentage of books by women reviewed. Just as isolated cases like Angela Merkel’s can be used to counter arguments about women’s lack of political power, a few women writers—mostly white and culturally privileged—do receive prominent media coverage, eclipsing the overall lack of parity: my research showed that in the fall of 2015, about 29% of books reviewed in Le Monde were by women. Finally, many men—and also many women—consciously or unconsciously believe that books by men are more important and that “real” writers are men: on the subway, in politics, in the press, women don’t expect half the available space and therefore settle for less.

Again, what is important is what we see; what we see is what is important. Major authors are major because they are good, and not because they are men, we are told. Bias reinforces bias and makes it invisible. Erasure, once again, is violence. How can we learn to see what is simply not there?

WHEN COUNTING DOESN’T COUNT
Once, figures in hand, I was able to debunk the myth that women’s books “are all over the place”, a new argument appeared. Finally, those figures don’t mean anything, I was told. The argument now shifted ground: since men publish far more books than women do, current coverage is perfectly fair or perhaps even skewed toward books by women. Does this sound familiar? While it is difficult to obtain figures on the gender split in books published (and you can be sure that the person who makes that argument doesn’t have them either), most author associations have as many female members as male, if not more: for example, 55% of the members of UNEQ (Union des écrivaines et écrivains québécois) are women. In 2015, the Stella Count in Australia showed that although women make up approximately two-thirds of the author population, 11 out of the 13 publications measured devoted only between 17% and 44% of their coverage to books by women. Such a glaring injustice points to a widespread bias in favour of men’s books and a shocking lack of interest in, if not hostility towards, writing by women. The same kind of bias, though sometimes less obvious, holds in many Canadian publications.

In any case, the sheer quantity of books published is such that no newspaper or magazine can cover them all, and surely none would claim that the books reviewed are a statistically representative sample. The stated aim of most publications is simply to review “the best books” or “the most important books” or perhaps “the books our readers want to read about”. And by some recurring mystery, those books are largely by and about white, middle-class, culturally privileged men.

WOMEN REVIEWERS AND GENDER EQUITY
Despite deeply-rooted resistance, Canadian book review culture is slowly becoming more equitable, in many individual publications and in the national average. Why might this be happening? The act of counting itself, and making the results public, is a powerful force for change, and CWILA deserves our praise and gratitude for making the Count happen. Being held publicly accountable does change editorial practices over time.

Editorial choices are not made in a vacuum: both a publication’s overall policy and the selections made by individual reviewers work to include certain voices and silence others. The CWILA figures suggest that the single most influential way to make book review culture more equitable is to diversify the pool of reviewers to include more women and non-binary/minority reviewers. The Count allows us to see what interests reviewers and which authors they feel deserve their time and energy.

Overall, in 2015, male reviewers devoted 64% of their reviews to books by men and 27% to books by women. In other words, they were 2.37 times more likely to review a book by a man than a book by a woman[5]. Female reviewers showed much greater interest in books by women than their male counterparts did (53% of their reviews, or twice the male average); if not for women reviewers, books by women would nearly disappear from most publications. Still, women reviewers were far from favouring women to the extent that male reviewers favoured men; women devoted a full 40% of their reviews to books by men.

This imbalance is the single best indicator that a powerful boy’s club still exists in review culture. Clearly, men are much more interested in, more committed to defending, and more anxious to promote books by other men; they have little time and energy to spare for women writers. Although people who believe in the existence of a feminist plot might claim the opposite is true, women reviewers are much less gender-biased than their male counterpoints: more balanced in their coverage, more varied in their interests, more equitable in their choices. In other words, as reviewers, they are more open-minded and more democratic than men are, covering a large number of books by both sexes. Just as girls will read and enjoy books with heroes of either sex while boys often insist on books with a male hero, women reviewers have a much greater openness to plurality, what we could call a higher index of biculturality than their male counterparts.

Unfortunately, the gender equity practised by female reviewers works against female writers: there is no girls’ club to offset the effects of what is clearly a boys’ club promoting books by men. Even if men and women write the same number of reviews, the male bias toward books by other men—two-thirds of their reviews—will skew the figures to favour men. The system of men reviewing books by men while ignoring books by women is still entrenched.

WHAT ELSE MATTERS?
Absolute figures on the numbers of articles published do not tell the whole story of male bias in book review culture. Every newspaper has its own way of granting cultural prestige. Certain writers are marked as more important, usually by giving them prime space or extra space: the front or back page, a double-page spread, or more than one article (a review plus an interview or a profile, for example). Clearly, arguments about the relative number of books published by men and women cannot be used here; the idea of “who is important” is not statistical. It is based on a series of subjective judgments, partly conscious (articles devoted to a prize-winning book or author, for example), partly unconscious. In all six of the world papers I looked at, these judgments massively favoured men.

Size and position matter, and the front page of the book section is usually the most-coveted spot. In my fall 2015 sample, nearly two-thirds (62.5%) of the books reviewed on the front page of The New York Times (62.5%)[6] and Le Monde (63.6%) were by men. In Le Devoir, nearly three-quarters (71.4%) of its featured authors were men. And while The Globe & Mail stacked up better in terms of numbers of books by women reviewed, a full 86% of all its featured authors were men. Out of the 8 front pages of the book review section of Le Devoir devoted to an author (as opposed to a theme) between October 1-2 and December 3-4 2016, seven (87.5%) featured a book by a man. The single female author to appear on the cover was Leïla Slimani, who had just won France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt. (Slimani is the 12th woman out of 113 writers to receive it since its creation in 1903; since 2000, it has gone to a woman only 17.6% of the time.) Obviously, men’s books are not seven times more numerous or seven times better than women’s; only gender bias can account for such a huge discrepancy. Additionally, 8 of the 10 featured articles were written by a man, a fact which both accounts for the prominence of male authors and increases the prestige of male journalists in a self-reinforcing circle.

Pictures tell their own story. In my 2015 sample, the frequency of photographs of women authors in The Globe & Mail (39.5% of all author photos were of women) was close to the frequency of articles about their books (43% of reviews were devoted to books by women), while Le Devoir published proportionately more pictures of women (41.5% of total photos) compared to reviews of their books (34%). In addition, in my 2016 sample from Le Devoir, a disproportionate number of the female authors photographed were young, attractive, slim, well-dressed, and well-groomed, while men were featured, even on the cover, regardless of their age, looks, and body shape. The average age of the seven male authors whose work is featured on the cover is 62. Leïla Slimani is a beautiful woman of 35.

Pictures of women other than authors are used decoratively: in Le Devoir, the front-cover review of a book by a male writer about the colour red was illustrated with a photo of two smiling female student protestors in camisoles and tight jeans. While I applaud the use of a picture that shows women as political and social activists, I cannot help feeling that their age and attractiveness had something do to with the choice. Obviously, I am not suggesting that the young female writers depicted were not also talented, or that they were selected only for their looks; I am only saying that as a group, the women whose photos were run were much younger and more attractive than the males, creating one more hurdle for women writers who don’t fit that image.

Overall, the use of women as “decorative” elements would suggest that the same double standard is in play in the world of literature as in the rest of society: women are valued—and granted prestige and visibility—for their youth and beauty rather than only their experience and talent, a double standard which means more pressure for them and more requirements to meet. While men of 80 and more are regularly featured, the women depicted are usually decades younger, relegating most older female writers to invisibility. In all the publications I have studied, I have not seen a single picture of a woman writer who appears as neglected or as devastated by age as the men who fill the pages of our newspapers and magazines.

The back page of Le Monde des livres, which features a full-page article with a large author photograph, is a perfect example. Between September 2 and December 23, 2016, only 31,25% of the space was devoted to women. In addition, 4 out of the 5 women featured are 50 and under (the exception is Elfriede Jelinek, 70, a Nobel Prize winner), while 10 of the 11 men featured are over 50[7]. At 91, the oldest man is 21 years older than the oldest woman. Out of the 5 youngest people featured, 4 are women; 9 of the 10 oldest are men. Put yet another way, 91% of the people over 50 to rate the back page (10 out of 11) are men. Good luck for women with white hair! Men’s value rises as they age, while women’s plummets.

In addition to the number of pictures, the relative amount of photo space (size of each photo) allotted to male and female authors is another significant measurement. In Le Devoir, the proportion is similar to the relative number of pictures: the female-male split as a proportion of the total space was 40/60. Interestingly, The Globe & Mail, much closer to gender parity in many ways, allotted a full 75% of total photo space to male authors, who literally dwarfed their female counterparts. Though a larger author photo can mean fewer words devoted to the book, male authors were also given more overall space, so their importance was doubly highlighted.

SO YOU WANT TO HAVE YOUR BOOK REVIEWED?
Many books go unreviewed, but as an author, there are ways you can improve your odds. Start by being a man. Though being a man is not enough, it certainly gives you an edge. It also helps to be white, heterosexual, well-educated, and culturally privileged. You can be dead or alive, it doesn’t really matter: if you are dead, you are either a classic or you are due to be rediscovered. It doesn’t matter what you look like, either: you can be old, lumpy, scruffy, or unkempt and they will still review your books and run your picture. It also helps to have a substantial reputation already, so if you are a man, again, you probably have an edge. Newspapers and magazines devote large amounts of space to the already-canonized by commemorating various anniversaries (births, deaths, publication of famous works), a practice that massively favours the (male) status quo. Once again, coverage breeds coverage (“we just have to run a feature on the 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland”).

Being a man is also more or less a prerequisite if you want to qualify as a “contemporary giant”. With very few exceptions—the rare women who are already established or have just received a major award—the must-reviews are also men: Michel Houellebecq, Jonathan Franzen, Karl Ove Knausgaard and Ta-Nehisi Coates, for instance. A high (or low) point was reached in 2015 when Knausgaard was given an unprecedented four pages to write about Houellebecq’s Submission in The New York Times Book Review, celebrating and reinforcing both the French author’s primacy and his own[8]. So the already-lionized, both classic and contemporary, are men. And so, often, are the up-and-coming. The Québec edition of the Huffington Post recently recommended “Ten Books to Read before 2016 Ends”, nine of which were written by a man.

If you failed to play your cards right and are not a man, what can you do to get your book reviewed anyway? If you are a woman and you are already dead, everyone has almost certainly forgotten about you[9], so you don’t stand a chance. If you are alive, the best way to get the critics’ attention is to write about a man, or about men in general, or about so-called general topics that are primarily of interest to or affect men. For example, in 2015, in France, biographies of Roland Barthes and Sigmund Freud by Tiphaine Samoyault and Élisabeth Roudinesco were widely reviewed. If you write fiction, male central characters will generate more interest than female characters. If you are young, slim, and beautiful, as we saw above, they are much more likely to run a picture of you, and then they will have to review your book as well.

Conversely, if you do not want your work to be reviewed in the mainstream press[10], write about a woman or about women in general or about “minorities” of any kind, especially sexual and gender minorities; write about feminism, lesbian or any other “radical” or “special interest” topic. A very different, but equally effective way of escaping critical interest is to write “commercial fiction”, which most publications have defined in such a way as to exclude certain categories identified with women (romance novels) while including others deemed more “universal” or “serious” (crime fiction, thrillers). A book about one’s prostate or erections is universal (see Philip Roth); a book about one’s ovaries or menstrual periods is “for women only”. A love story by a man is a love story; a love story by a woman is chick lit. A book about men’s problems is a probing social drama; a book about women’s problems is chick lit. A book about fathers and sons, or even about mothers and sons, is universal; a book about mothers and daughters is probably also chick lit.

Even today, women writers face the eternal confusion between the male and the universal: as the language itself suggests, “big books”, “powerful books”, “masterly” books, “seminal”[11] books, are written by men, about men, primarily for other men. If you are a woman, that club is basically closed to you from the outset.

WOMEN COUNTING, WOMEN MATTERING
More seriously, here are a few suggestions for those who want to work toward cultural parity in book reviews (and in other cultural fields):

  • Count women to make women (and minorities) count: compile figures and make them known in print and online;
  • Write to the editors and challenge the paradox of innocence, ask why women’s books are not being reviewed and encourage the publication to change;
  • Keep the pressure on: over time, it works;
  • Join or donate to or volunteer with CWILA or other organizations for fair representation;
  • Talk to those around you, and especially to those who have direct or indirect influence (editors, journalists, academics, booksellers, librarians);
  • Subscribe to and otherwise encourage periodicals that do feature work by women;
  • Write reviews yourself, making books by women (especially the least culturally-privileged) and non-binary authors your priority;
  • Once you get a foot in the door, recommend other women or fair-minded male reviewers;
  • Don’t be afraid to give praise where praise is due: words like “excellent”, “brilliant”, or “masterly” are less often used for books by women;
  • Buy (when possible), borrow, lend, read, recommend, and write about books by women, especially those who are marginalized or unrecognized, as well as books about women and feminist books;
  • Speak up for underrepresented writers of all kinds;
  • Create a book club and read books by women and minorities;
  • Argue for gender, racial, and other forms of equity and make feminism a positive word.

CONCLUSION: TOWARD CULTURAL PARITY
What would cultural parity look like? It would mean reviewing relatively equal proportions of books by men and women, not only for merely numerical reasons, but also to ensure greater social equity. It would also mean making book review culture more inclusive in general: less white, less male, more open to diversity, committed to covering a broader range of authors, opinions, debates, and literary genres. Think how much more rich and stimulating it would be! If democracy is defined as a conversation, where are the missing voices and how can we allow them to be heard?

Reviews in newspapers and magazines tell us what we “should” be reading, who is important, what counts, which books matter today and for the ages. Cultural parity would mean recognizing how much our idea of “what is important” is strongly biased not only in favour of men, but also in favour of white people, heterosexuals, the highly-educated and culturally privileged, authors from “developed” countries or living in the West and writing in dominant languages as well as those who publish with large, prestigious publishing houses.

Every day, the cultural powers determine what is important and what is not, deciding which voices count, which writers deserve to live on into posterity. Newspapers and magazines do not simply reflect “what is out there”; they make and break reputations, and they uphold the male status quo. If you make the front page of the major papers, you are a step closer to winning awards and getting that writing grant or that big advance. Though we are not dealing with a deliberate plot (“Hey, guys, let’s not talk about any books by women this year!”), conscious and unconscious mechanisms ensure that cultural manspreading continues.

A book review section creates a small, compact world: it is attractively laid out, convincing, and seemingly complete. We see what is there and assume that’s all there is; it takes a real effort to “see” the absences, the exclusions, the silencing, the lost voices. Cultural parity would mean seeing those absences and filling the gaps. It would mean counting and measuring and making the necessary changes. It would mean collectively taking women’s cultural productions—including their writing—as seriously as we take men’s. Erasure is violent, though no visible trace of the violence remains. As Daphne Marlatt wrote in Ana Historic, “It’s women imagining all that women could be that brings us into the world”. We need to keep imagining. We need to write, read, review, invent; we need to see what is not yet there or has been ignored, and make it real and visible. We need to mourn for what is not there; we need to fight for it.

 

[1] For the sake of statistical convenience, I will refer here to the male-female binary as if it summed up the totality of gender identities; in the publications CWILA covered, very few reviewers define themselves outside of those two possibilities or review books by non-binary authors.

[2] Forthcoming in 2017 in M. Buscatto, M. Leontsini, D. Naudier (eds.), Gender in Arts Criticism / Du genre dans la critique d’arts, Paris, Éditions des Archives Contemporaines.

[3] Where the figures do not total 100%, see the Count itself for the other categories used.

[4] Men still dominate those pages: between September 2 and December 23, 2016 (the December 30 issue did not include a full book section), women were allotted 12 of the 33 front and back pages (one back page featured an ad instead of an article), or 36.36%.

[5] The figure was similar in Australia, as the Stella Count shows: men generally reviewed books by men two to three times more often than they did books by women. http://thestellaprize.com.au/the-count/2015-stella-count/. My own research reveals similar results.

[6] Additionally, 69.2% of cover reviews carried a male byline, again granting men more prestige. Not a single male-authored book featured on the front page was given to a female reviewer, and only one male reviewer covered a book by a female.

[7] The average age is 50.2 for women (45.25 if we remove the outlier, the only woman over 50) and 66.64 for men (70.4 if we remove the outlier, a man of 29).

[8] Karl Ove Knausgaard, “Michel Houellebecq’s Submission”, The New York Times Book Review, November 2, 2015. In the first paragraph of the article, Knausgaard declares that “one cannot be said to be keeping abreast of contemporary literature without reading his work.” It is rare to read a similar statement about a female writer, especially from a man.

[9] In my sample of Le Monde des livres from Fall 2016, 3 covers were devoted to classic authors, all men.

[10] As the CWILA Count shows, a number of specialized literary publications review far more books by women than the mainstream press.

[11] “Seminal” means “of, relating to, or consisting of seed or semen”. Again, by definition, the great is also male.

 

Credit: photo by Ariane Gibeau

Lori Saint-Martin is a writer (one novel and three books of short fiction), a literary translator from English (with Paul Gagné, she has translated nearly a hundred works of fiction and non-fiction) and Spanish, a literary critic (a dozen books on women’s writing in Québec, family relationships in literature, men’s magazines, etc.) and a professor of literature and women’s studies at the Department of Literary Studies, Université du Québec à Montréal. She is currently researching how books by women are reviewed in six newspapers of reference: Le Devoir, The Globe & Mail, The New York Times, Le Monde (France), El País (Spain) and Clarín (Argentina).

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