The CWILA Numbers: An Introduction by Gillian Jerome

“What is commonly called literary history is actually a record of choices.”

Louise Berkinow, The World Split Open: Four Centuries of Women Poets in England and America 1552-1950

“In fact, I think that redefining literary criticism has nothing to do with criticism. It has to do with changes in reality, changes in our way of perceiving reality. It has to do with our desire to make space for what we value the most as individuals, as individuals wanting society to change itself in such a way that we can breathe in it. Redefining criticism has to do with what is going on in literature and what is going on in literature is going on in reality, which is to say, how we feel about it. Feeling so strange about it, we make it exist differently.”

Nicole Brossard, “Redefining Literary Criticism” in Fluid Arguments

Editors and reviewers make choices.  That’s their job.  And for better or worse the choices they make matter deeply, not only to the public trajectory of individual authors and books, but also, and more importantly, to the quality and tone of our national conversation about the arts.  Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA) was founded in the spring of 2012 with the aim of taking stock of certain crucial features of this conversation, in particular, what has felt for many women to be the gendered register of its tone.

The complaint of gender imbalance in our critical discourse is, of course, not a new one.  The 1980s, for any of us who remember them—and perhaps most urgently for those of us who do not—brimmed with heated debate on this topic, and produced considerable eyebrow-raising scholarship [1]. And yet today, the subject is still no dead horse.  The American organization VIDA has just published a 2011 accounting of reviews of books by men and women respectively, and it shows little change from the numbers for 2010.  Startling gender gaps remain in book reviews in the American and British literary press.  Sina Queyras has responded to the American VIDA count in “The Gatekeepers and the Glass Ceiling,” as has Natalie Walschots in her essay, “Closing the Gap: Reviewing Canadian Books of Poetry by Women.” While the latter piece has provoked a good deal of dialogue on the internet, this dialogue has often devolved into irritable retrenchments of position, failing, more often than not, to attend with mutual respect and introspection to the gravity and urgency of others’ messages.

With the hope of fostering a culture in which an informed and balanced exchange of ideas may take place, we at CWILA sat down recently to take a dispassionate look, through the lens of gender, at the choices our editors and reviewers have made over the past twelve months in an array of literary publications in Canada. The results of this research are assembled here.  Specifically, we first surveyed the pool from which reviewers had to draw by consulting the titles submitted to the Governor General’s Literary Awards [2]; then noted all the book reviews in each of fourteen national literary publications, and then counted how many were written by women and how many were written by men; we also looked at how many reviews were written about books written by women and men respectively.

We aimed to include in this count as many high-profile, nationally circulated literary publications as possible, paying special attention to our two national newspapers, whose column space devoted to literature is arguably the most limited, and therefore the most coveted [3]. Because we are a group of professionals without funding, we knew that we couldn’t count every literary outlet and so we sent emails asking smaller journals to send their data to us. So far only three of a dozen publications have responded to our call for data, but we hope to hear from more over the coming months.

We chose the remaining twelve publications based on an assortment of criteria, including our perceptions of their relative impacts on the national conversation about books, our physical access to UBC archives and special collections, as well as availability on-line. We made a spreadsheet for each publication in which we recorded every review published that year by book title, author’s name and gender, reviewer’s name and gender. We recorded and counted authors and translators as well as multiple authors for a given book and marked their genders. We also devised formulas within each spreadsheet for measuring gendered relationships between author and reviewer and, finally, sought the expertise of UBC statistician Fred Cutler to discuss how best to present our data.

As you will see, the data is discouraging to anyone concerned with gender equity in the literary arts. While there are certainly happy exceptions—and there is no doubt much uncounted evidence still to consider—our initial findings suggest that many of our most prominent national literary publications reflect marked gender disparities.  We found that 23% of books reviewed at the Walrus were written by women; 25% at Canadian Notes and Queries; 28% at the Literary Review of Canada; 29% at the Fiddlehead; 33 % at the National Post; 38% at GEIST and 40% at the Globe and Mail and BRICK literary journal. At the National Post, 16% of 2011 book reviews were written by adult women [4]; 17% at The Walrus; 24% at the Literary Review of Canada; 28% at BRICK; 29% at Canadian Notes and Queries; 32% at the Fiddlehead, 36% at the Globe and Mail and 40% at GEIST. 

Numbers are stark and simple measures and can therefore be disproportionately troubling; they can also reflect flawed methodology or a skewed research hypothesis. We wondered at first if it was possible that our data merely reflected an imbalance in the actual numbers of men and women writing books in Canada, for example.  And yet when we gathered all the author names and book titles from lists of submissions to the Governor General’s Awards for Literature for 2011, we found that publishers nominated books by women and men in near equal numbers in 2011 with 513 books by men nominated and 523 books by women nominated. In 2011 itself, 5% more books by women were nominated. Since there is often a lag, especially in the smaller periodicals, between publication date and review date, and because the Canada Council makes it easy by posting complete records of submission lists from 2000 to 2011 on-line, we checked back for three years from 2009 to 2011, and we found that Canadian publishers are, on a three-year average, nominating books by women and men in equal numbers [5]. According to this list, between 2009 and 2011, 1482 books by men were nominated while 1463 books by women were nominated; the difference is approximately 1%.

Aware that pie charts and graphs alone cannot adequately represent the nature of choices made about books reviewed by the national press, we gathered details about protocols, processes and pay rates from editors of all 14 publications. And with the aim of contextualizing our data within a larger, more anecdotal conversation, we interviewed a wide array of Canadian editors and writers to ask them about their choices and practices in reviewing books. We also sought the expertise of Mount Saint Vincent ethnographer Lorri Neilsen Glenn who has offered a sociological overview: she has situated the data within larger conversations about women, language and writing. We at CWILA want to make clear to our readers that these are initial, provisional findings, and while we’ve done our very best to be accurate, we welcome feedback and corrections as well as any offers of assistance to count reviews by gender at individual publications over a longer period so that numbers can be examined in aggregate. We would especially welcome assistance in gathering data for francophone authors and review venues. Any new data presented to us will be checked and posted to the site at a later date.

Over 70 Canadian women poets, novelists, essayists and scholars have collectively brought CWILA into being.  Our conversations have responded to the template set by VIDA and other key critical discussions by Canadian scholars Carole Gerson, Peggy Kelly, Lorraine Weir, Pauline Butling and American scholars Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young.  The numbers have helped clarify our mandate: to close the gender gap in our review culture by encouraging more women to take visible roles in the community and by asking our existing editors and reviewers, male and female alike, to attend more closely to the gendered nature of the choices they make.  Our first step towards meeting this mandate has been the establishment of a CWILA residency that pays a Canadian female or genderqueer writer a $2000 stipend to be our critic-in-residence for a calendar year. Please consider making a donation to that fund here. We are interested not only in ways in which we can foster and support stronger critical communities of women, but also in how we can assist in developing greater critical awareness of all marginalized voices.

The CWILA Numbers 2011 make clear that if we hope to foster a culture in which women’s intellectual contributions are valued as much as men’s, more critical attention must be paid to books written by women.  While this strongly suggests that editors, as well as the publications they work for, would benefit from taking stock of their own numbers, the data also suggests that not enough women are writing reviews.  If we hope to redress these dispiriting numbers, we must encourage more women to enter the critical sphere.  Whether by writing essays, reviews, blogs or by using our positions as editors to enable more representative critical conversations, we must step forward and make our choices count on the record.

I would like to thank the following individuals for their invaluable assistance in our efforts so far: UBC statistician Fred Cutler, Mount Saint Vincent ethnographer Lorri Neilsen Glenn, poet Brad Cran who designed our logo and built the CWILA website, Canadian Literature reviews editor Laura Moss, who generously took time out to assemble her journal’s data, as did Nikki Reimer and Liz Bachinsky at EVENT magazine and Leah Horlick at PRISM. Sina Queyras, whose feminist blog Lemon Hound is one of our country’s strongest feminist critical venues, offered crucial advice at various stages of this project. Daphne Marlatt, Lorna Crozier, Suzanne Buffam, Jane Munro, Rita Wong, Sandy Shreve, Larissa Lai and Jan Zwicky supported our work generously with their wisdom and political experience. Laurie D. Graham, Brad Cran, Sue Sinclair, Jen Farrell, Melissa Bull, Sonnet L’Abbé, Nick Thran, Jane Munro, Brecken Hancock, Helen Guri, Susan Steudel and Susan Gillis proofed interviews and spreadsheets; Katia Grubisic, Linda Besner and Natalie Walschots contacted editors; Sue Sinclair, Heather Jessup, Sue Goyette, Danielle Janess and Natalie Walschots prepared press materials. Alex Leslie, Laura Moss, Nikki Reimer, Melanie Siebert, Jan Zwicky, Liz Bachinsky, Kim Minkus, Danielle Janess, Sherryda Warrener, Dina del Bucchia, Alice Burdick, Mandy Catron, Elee Krajilii-Gardiner and Daryn Wright spent hours inputting data into Excel spreadsheets—without them, we’d have no CWILA Count.

This labour-intensive project has been made possible by discussion filled with love, imagination, deep intelligence, political engagement, wisdom, collegiality and friendship, and from which all kinds of collective action has alreadysprung.

–Gillian Jerome, Vancouver, BC, May 2012


[1] In her 1987 essay, “‘Maps and Tales’: the progress of Canadian Literature, 1959-1987,” Lorraine Weir pointed out significant gender gaps in book reviews and articles published in the academic journal Canadian Literature. Between 1959 and 1977, under editor George Woodcock, female reviewers wrote 19% of reviews and 21% of books reviewed were written by women. Between 1977 and 1987, under editor W.H. New, the numbers improved: female reviewers wrote 37% of reviews and 36% of books reviewed were written by women. In a 1982 League of Canadian Poets archival booklet, Stats, Memos and Memory, 1982, Cathy Ford and Sharon H. Nelson reported inequalities in gender representation in English-language Canada Council-funded reading programs, English departments, and literature anthologies. In her case study of the canonization process of English Canadian poetry, “Anthologies and the Canonization Process: A Case Study in the English Canadian Literary Field, 1920-1950”, Peggy Kelly discovered writing by women was underrepresented in scholarly poetry anthologies of that period: women’s writing occupied 4% to 34% of the total number of pages. In the 1943 and 1948 editions of A.J.M. Smith’s canonical anthology, Book of Canadian Poetry, for example, Kelly found that 21% to 27% of the writers included were female and their work occupied 14% to 16% of the texts’ pages. The backdrop against which to set Kelly’s statistics is provided by Carole Gerson’s research on Canadian women’s writing from the early colonial era to the first half of the 20th century. In her essay, “Anthologies and the Canon of Early Canadian Women Writers”, Gerson writes, “In English Canada, from the beginnings to 1950, women have represented 40 per cent of the authors of books of fiction and 37 per cent of the authors of books of poetry.” I have not been able to discover data for 1950–2000 on the numbers of women authors whose books formed the pools from which reviewers chose, and so it cannot be claimed that Weir’s study demonstrates that it is reviewing practices that demonstrate a gender bias. Weir’s essay and Ford’s and Nelson’s booklet are, nonetheless, the historical context that is available for the CWILA count. And by them we may hope to measure progress of a general sort.

[2] The lists of submissions to the Governor General’s Literary Awards are extensive, but not fully comprehensive, lists of books published in a given year. They offer a pool of excellent books in multiple genres from which to consider our findings. We are working with the Library and Archives Canada to create a comprehensive list of all books published in 2011 in poetry, fiction, non-fiction, drama, translation, young adult and children’s literature.

[3] Anyone who wishes to interrogate or refine this methodology is warmly encouraged to participate in the conversation started here.

[4] We counted 288 book reviews published in 2011 in the National Post. While 218 were written by males, and 70 by females, the numbers shift when reviews written by children and teenagers are considered. Boys and male teens wrote 12 reviews while girls and female teens wrote 24, which accounts for 8% of total reviews. Reviews written by men account for 72% of total reviews.

[5] Non-fiction is strikingly dominated by men, and the writing of children’s books, by women. According to the 2009-2011 lists of books submitted to the Governor General’s Awards for Literature, men wrote 70% of all published and submitted books of non-fiction while women wrote 70% of all books for children during that three-year period.

Published June 10, 2012

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  • http://www.theknittygrittyhomestead.blogspot.com/ Stephanie K.

    Thanks for sending the link. This is vitally important work, and encourages me in my pursuits as a mother and a teacher, in terms of facilitating critical discussions about the storybooks we read. It starts early! I’ll share this with many friends.

  • Jill Boettger

    This is such a valuable resource, and such an important conversation to continue. I will pass it on and on and on. Such a big thank you to all involved.

  • Marleneprodgers

    Thank you so much, Gillian and colleagues!  This is such important information, and I’ll share it as widely as I can, and keep encouraging the young girls in my life to read, write and talk about books!

  • Karen Connelly

    What a discovery I’ve made with this website, and organization. What wonderful work–and I’ve just scanned the first long essay. Back from Kurdistan, Iraq this morning and thinking so much about what it means in a MidEast context for women to have their own voiced; yes, history itself is a record of choices . . . thank you all for your dedication, intelligence, and hard work!

    • Gillian Jerome

       Thanks, Karen. GJ

  • Susan Olding

    Thank you so much for taking the initiative to get this organization up and running. Much needed and much appreciated – may the conversation go forward! 

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  • Alex Hickey

    I was chatting with my mom this morning and she suggested that I take a look at your site. I work as a singer-songwriter and am often stymied in that sphere, too, by the bias against women. Especially women who do not accept (or who are not eligible for) the role of being mostly ornamental. I love the work that you are doing here to bring awareness to current gaps in literary criticism. I believe we need something similar in the music world. Thank you for your work; it lifts my heart.

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