The CWILA Numbers 2012: An Introduction

By Gillian Jerome

 

“A big, empty, silent nothing sits at the centre of our literary discourse.”

—novelist Madeleine Thien, “On Transparency”, National Post, March, 2013

 

In May 2013, author and Globe and Mail columnist Russell Smith presented a list of literary “copouts” he claims writers use to blame others for the decline in literary book sales and media coverage devoted to the arts. Of primary importance on Smith’s list is the copout used by female writers who claim that the literary system holds them at a disadvantage due to the power and influence of “male book-review editors and prize juries.”

Smith then recounts the controversy surrounding an interview with novelist Claire Messud, in which she was asked a question that she suggested would not have been asked of a male author. Smith rounds off the discussion by suggesting that because Messud’s interviewer was, in fact, female, the question of gender bias was absurd or akin to writers creating an imaginary cabal that is, in truth, an invention of female writers who desperately need to explain away poor book sales or a bad literary review.

Smith, who wrote another Globe and Mail column on gender issues in literary culture entitled “The Truth About Publishing: It’s Full of Hotties,”[1] is a careful storyteller. The point of interest lies less in the content of his anecdotes than in the reason his anecdotes are being told at all. In its simplest form Smith’s commentary on gender is this: claims of gender bias are copouts and x, y and z anecdotes prove that this is so. But while anecdotes may momentarily sway us or even silence us, statistics, properly collected and properly interpreted, can teach us.

A count of book reviews tells us about patterns of recognition and representational justice in our literary culture. Such a count, coupled with a broader analysis (i.e. the discursive essays and interviews on this website), stands to tell us a great deal not only about how power is distributed within our literary culture but how we might work to make our conversations about books in Canada better.

In last year’s count of book reviews by gender, we discovered troubling statistics that revealed an undeniable gender bias in Canadian literature, one that overwhelmingly favoured male authors. CWILA is now working to close the gender gap but also to evaluate and improve Canadian literary discourse.

We called for editors, and the publications they work for, to observe the gendered trends revealed by CWILA’s count and asked them to take stock of their choices. At the same time we called for more women to enter the critical sphere by engaging editors and publishing more critical work.

The results of this year’s count show that editors, writers and critics—to varying extents—have responded to our call. In one year, we can see many publications with significant changes in the number of published reviews of books written by women, most notably The Walrus (23% to 56%), Canadian Notes and Queries (25% to 46%), Fiddlehead (29% to 58%), Geist (38% to 49%) and the National Post (33% to 42%).

And we are happy to report another improvement: more women are entering the critical sphere by reviewing books. We discovered a 10% leap—48% up from 38% in 2011—in the total number of book reviews authored by women. We hope that these encouraging new statistics will endure and improve over time.

There is still more work to do. The 2012 numbers also reveal some stubborn gender disparities. We found that 28% of books reviewed at the Literary Review of Canada were written by women; 36% at Arc; 29% at Rabble; 38% at the Globe and Mail; and 40% at the Winnipeg Free Press. The total number of female-authored reviews was 21% at the Antigonish Review, 32% at the LRC, 32% at CNQ, 37% at the Winnipeg Free Press, 37% the National Post and 38% at the Globe and Mail.

Running a publication that isn’t sexist, argued the editors at the American and British literary publications, Tin House and Granta, isn’t rocket science. And so, particular editors of the Canadian literary outlets that we counted might pause to think about how to solicit more work from female reviewers and how to commission more reviews of books by women, especially women who write from feminist perspectives. As Kathyrn Heyman recently pointed out in her very funny blog post about the absence of women writers in the London Review of Books, it’s not as if there aren’t enough female writers, critics and scholars to choose from.

Most tellingly, despite the increasing presence of women in the critical sphere, and the increased attention paid to women’s books at some magazines and newspapers, men still dominate reviewing culture by reviewing each other’s books 70% of the time, while women review male-authored and female-authored books more equally.

While CWILA’s impact can be measured, in part, by seeing change in the numbers that we first reported on, the solution won’t come by simply counting reviews. The solution won’t come by correcting statistics. Yes, counting and correcting need to be pursued. Yes, we’re working to close the gender gap and we’re already seeing positive change; but more change is needed and we must ask why. Why are women still being reviewed less? Why are women still writing fewer reviews? Why are women in virtually every public domain still less inclined to speak up?

Toronto writer Phoebe Wang argued in the Town Crier, a blog published on-line by the Puritan Review magazine, that for years she had avoided writing book reviews out of fear of offending other writers. Despite years of work in literary analysis and two literature degrees, she wrote, “I did not believe I had anything of critical value to contribute. I wonder now if this attitude stemmed from the slim numbers of ethnic minorities, Asians and Canadian women whose reviews appeared in the magazines and newspapers I pored over.”

The reasons that writers like Phoebe Wang hesitate to take up public positions are complex. But it seems to me that reticence to enter the critical sphere has to do with power. It has to do with how much power a writer already has, by virtue of her writing skills, individual background and training, and how much she has access to, whether by mentorship, financial support, networks of writers, publishers, editors—as well her sense of entitlement to power, which is determined, in part, by her gender, race, sexuality and class. When Phoebe Wang looks at the Canadian literary scene refracted by the literary magazines she reads, what does she see?  In a literary culture dominated by white men, she sees a gap. She sees presence but also absence: names and bodies that aren’t there. And these absences, argues Wang, are internalized. For her, they manifest in silence.[2]

To put this succinctly: Canadian critical discourse still doesn’t reflect the diversity of the writers making literature in Canada, nor does it equal the calibre of our literature. We need to address these disparities. But in order to understand why these disparities exist, we might return to the very premise upon which the CWILA review count is founded and ask: why do book reviews matter? What role do reviews play in our literary discourse? And what role do they play in our literary culture as a whole?  

Considering the current state of the Canadian literary economy—the diminished print space for book reviews, the takeover of retail space by companies like Chapters Indigo, the disappearance of large Canadian-owned presses like Douglas and McIntyre, McClelland & Stewart, Key Porter, Fenn and Stoddart[3], and a literary marketplace in which prizes like the Amazon First Novel Award, the Griffin Poetry Prize or the Scotiabank Giller Prize[4] for fiction have enormous influence not only on book sales but on what Canadians read—some have argued that book reviews hardly matter anymore.

It seems to me that if we take literary culture seriously in this country, then the opposite is true: book reviews matter now more than ever. As writers and publishers (large and small) fight to deal with dwindling revenues, we see increased struggle for capital that creates a system in which emphasis shifts too far away from the work itself—the books and critical conversations about books that are vital to any nation’s, including Canada’s, intellectual and cultural identity. Because of the increasingly corporatized literary discourse, we have to strengthen what remains of our critical culture. If we too easily dismiss the relevance of book reviews, then we grow increasingly—and perhaps dangerously—comfortable with a literary culture in which future discussions will be even more dependent on the perennial shouts and murmurs that pop up around the handful of glitzy and lucrative literary prizes. [5]

While space for books has shrunk at The Globe and Mail over the years, and its literary supplement has been discontinued, it’s not the case that space for literary critique has diminished across the board. On-line critical culture in Canada is expanding and offering more platforms for book reviews and critical essays. But those platforms, both American and Canadian, still pay poorly.[6] A 5,000-word book review about a Canadian book was published at the American on-line news magazine Salon and its author, who asked for his name not to be published, was paid $150 for it. He estimates that it took him 45 hours to write, at an hourly wage of $3.33. That kind of wage, a common one among the literary outlets who actually pay writers, says a lot about the exploitation that affects not only the livelihoods of many writers and critics, but also critical conversations about books.

In Producing Canadian Literature: Authors Speak on the Literary Marketplace, a collection of interviews with Canadian writers conducted by Smaro Kamboureli and Kit Dobson, the novelist, poet and scholar Larissa Lai called for “even just one, high-quality, widely-circulated review publication in Canada like The New York Review of Books.

“The situation is so touch-and-go with The Globe and Mail or Quill and Quire. Reviewing is not a respected or remunerated practice, so few people do it well. Which means that a writer’s real contributions to the society in which we live get undermined, misread, or ignored much more often than they get taken up and put into action.”

Lai expands upon her comment with a more detailed analysis during her new interview with CWILA in which she argues that, “literary discourse is in a deplorable state, partly because those who control the major venues seldom showcase the full diversity of writing that is done in this country, and partly because literary culture is so massively underresourced.”

“For indeed,” writes Lai, “a functioning democracy requires an engaged, thinking populace. If the people don’t read and don’t think, then any choices they make are just market choices—Coke or Pepsi. In particular, the citizens of a democracy need good critical skills so that they can wisely weigh options when options are offered, and also so that they can think outside the spin that marketers and/or pundits might offer on ideas, issues, and yes, even products. Part of the job of reviewers and critics is to model those skills.  I think a big part of the reason Canadian democracy is in such dire straits is that writers and critics do not do these things enough. The reason they don’t is that they are not resourced to.”

The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argued that the historical shift toward the centrality of the economy is one of the fundamental characteristics of modern life. What writers often call the “literary community” or “literary scene”, that is, all of the relationships and exchanges between editors, writers, publishers, booksellers, agents, scholars and readers, is what Bourdieu called the “literary field”. In order to understand how people behave, he argues, it’s important to understand the power relations among them and how these relations are characterized by exchanges of different kinds of capital, whether financial, social or cultural.

In The Rules of Art: the Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field, Bourdieu describes how cultural capital acts as “a means of social distinction” among artists and involves itself in “the reproduction of advantage and disadvantage”[7]. He argues that the literary field (a subset of the broader artistic field) is interconnected with other fields like business, entertainment, government and education. The literary field is deeply embedded in social life. In literary life, various players, such as writers, critics, publishers, patrons and sponsors struggle, by various negotiations and confrontations, to secure a desirable position in the field, and advantage over others.

How exactly do book reviews function as capital within the literary field? What’s interesting about Bourdieu’s analysis is not that it suggests the obvious, that book reviews count as capital exchanged within the literary field, but that it focusses on the ways in which recognition, privilege, prestige and power are distributed and exchanged—or withheld—within artistic communities. In reviews, critics make aesthetic judgements about texts, they argue over ideas, they attempt to place a book within a literary context, but they also, potentially, persuade a reader to read or purchase a book—or not. If we look at the kinds of reviews that are prized in our literary discourse, the “take-downs”, or vicious reviews, often reveal a critic evaluating a book not just in literary critical terms but in aggressively critical terms. Such reviews serve to establish or fortify a critic’s reputation in the field, not through their service to the reading public, but through their attempt to put authors ‘down’ – to situate them lower in the field than the critic her or himself.[8] But the concern isn’t limited to nasty reviews.

Bourdieu’s field theory and his thoughts on the artistic field in particular, have prompted me to consider how individual “players”—a writer or critic, and their coteries—function to empower and/or oppress others. If a particular Canadian writer or critic has multiple positions—as, for example, publisher, editor, columnist, critic, juror, lecturer and/or writer—that are, even if poorly paid, prestigious ones, and if he or she is connected to a larger network of powerful players and rising literary stars—then Bourdieu’s view predicts that power will become concentrated in such a “player’s” hands and in their networks. The overarching concern is how deeply these power relations of the literary field determine which books are published, read and reviewed, what kind of language is used in book reviews, and how such systems of recognition and exclusion shape Canadian literary and critical culture and serve to either expand or limit its emancipatory potential.

At the beginning of May, Jon Paul Fiorentino wrote an article about silence and sexism in the literary community for the Huffington Post. “There are so many reasons a literary community remains silent when faced with the unpleasant business of sexism or misogyny,” he wrote. “Many writers fear the repercussions of speaking out because many of the people who get away with both blatant and subtle forms of [sexist] writing are also in positions of relative power in the literary community. Some of them hold editorships; some of them write an astonishing number of book reviews.”

Fiorentino’s essay went viral. Some Canadian poets and poet-critics, quite predictably, attacked Fiorentino personally but many applauded him for his clear, bold statements about the kinds of gendered power relations that many literary “players” prefer to ignore.

What Fiorentino’s short article didn’t address are the larger systemic values and practices that sustain the sexism of those “in positions of relative power”. That sexism not only keeps some women silent about issues of sexism in the literary community, but prevents them from even joining the kinds of critical conversations about books that we need them to participate in. The reticence of some women to participate in the critical sphere also has to do with the kind of backlash that women face when they do exercise their power by speaking up. It doesn’t matter whether they are running for public office, or writing a feminist tv show or advocating for Indigenous rights, or reporting a rape.

Or writing a novel. Or a book review.  Or conducting a gender count of Canadian book reviews.

It’s been a year since we published our first count of book reviews by gender and in that year, some of us who have spoken up publicly against gender imbalances in Canadian literary culture have received notes of personal attack from members of the literary community who were upset and clearly threatened by our attempts to move the literary discourse in Canada to a place of gender parity. We even received a note from a male feminist who wanted to support us but said that he was honestly worried that our efforts might be so successful that his forthcoming book might have a lesser chance of being reviewed.

What seems to be at play is not always the strength or integrity of the discourse but power, or, more correctly, the perception of power.

In Masculine Domination, his last book, Bourdieu argued that men’s dominance is so deeply rooted socially and historically in our culture, within human behavior, bodies and the unconscious, that we all struggle to fully perceive it. This explains, in part, why it’s so difficult to transform.[9] Despite extraordinary gains in particular areas, we shouldn’t be surprised, for the reasons Bourdieu suggests, to witness regressions to a disturbing level of sexism that we thought we’d progressed past. [10]

Bourdieu contends that masculine domination remains a feature of this culture simply because it is so deeply rooted. A symptom of its deep-rootedness, I believe, is that Russell Smith, a columnist at one of our national newspapers, could maintain, in the face of hard statistics, that gender discrimination isn’t a problem in literary culture. The results of this year’s count show that things are improving, but that discrimination is a problem. Still.

Novelist Madeleine Thien, in her National Post commentary “On Transparency” argued passionately for more transparency and integrity in our critical conversations about books. She also challenged all of us engage in intelligent critique in which we debate ideas, argue, and listen to what the other has to say. Her statement—“a big, empty, silent nothing sits at the centre of our literary discourse”—has stayed with me.

The kind of literary discourse that we imagine we deserve is that one we are responsible for creating. Whatever sits at the centre of our literary discourse is the sum of what we’ve created. And whatever, or whoever, exists at its peripheries, is a matter worth addressing in our public conversations about the literary arts.

—Gillian Jerome, July 2013

 

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Gillian Jerome‘s first book of non-fiction Hope In Shadows, Stories and Photographs from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (with Brad Cran) won the 2008 City of Vancouver Book Award and was shortlisted for a BC Book Prize. Her first book of poems, Red Nest (Nightwood), won the ReLit Prize for Poetry in 2010 and was shortlisted for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize in 2010. She teaches literature at UBC and edits poetry at EVENT magazine.


[1] June 23, 2010, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/the-truth-about-publishing-its-full-of-hotties/article4322712/. Apparently, anti-feminist click-baiting is a successful marketing trend for newspapers and magazines.

[2] Many Canadian feminist writers and scholars have written about silence in literary communities. Erin Wunker addresses the pernicious silences in literary culture in her article “Silent Witnesses” forthcoming in Quill and Quire. The problem of ‘being silenced’ is felt acutely by those who are racialized. In her CWILA interview, writer and scholar Larissa Lai addresses how racism marginalizes and silences writers of colour.

[3] This year we kept track of the publishers who published the books we counted and determined the percentage of books published by Canadian versus non-Canadian presses, as well as the percentage of books published by small press versus big press Canadian publishers. See Laura Moss’ essay for a more detailed analysis of those findings.

[4] The Governor General’s Award for Literature has been co-sponsored by The Bank of Montreal since 1988. Source: Gillian Roberts, Prizing Literature: The Celebration and Circulation of National Culture, University of Toronto Press, 2011.

[5] James English has written an excellent analysis of literary prizes in his book The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards and the Circulation of Cultural Value (Harvard University Press, 2005). English doesn’t address Canadian literary prizes but Geist columnist and novelist Stephen Henighan does in his critique of the Giller Prize, as does British scholar Gillian Roberts, who, in her book Prizing Literature: The Celebration and Circulation of National Culture critiques the commercial aspects of the Governor General’s Award for Literature, the Giller Prize and Canada Reads, the CBC’s book competition that celebrates Canadian books by creating a panel of celebrity judges who debate the merits of a collection of books (published at any point in Canadian literary history) and declare a winner through a process of elimination akin to the one used in the reality tv show Survivor.  “If the national literary prizes constitute attempts to popularize the literature upon which they confer cultural value,” writes Roberts, “Canada Reads is clearest in its efforts to do so. Where the Scotiabank Giller populates its gala dinner with Canadian entertainment celebrities, incorporating them into the prize ceremony, Canada Reads’ format and its selection of celebrities as judges more obviously connects the project with the popular.”

[6] Those of us in Canada who desire space for longer, more critically engaged reviews, might take stock of the pay rates at our literary venues: the Globe and Mail pays between $200 and $500 per review, the National Post pays $300 per review, The Walrus pays $1 a word and the Quill and Quire pays $110. The proliferation of on-line literary magazines in the U.S., sites like The Millions, The Rumpus, McSweeney’s Believer, n+1, LARB, Tin House, has generated more space for more comprehensive, longer critical essays and book reviews, and so I had assumed that they pay their writers more than the Canadian outlets do, but most of them don’t. (Thanks to Natalie Walschots for collecting this data on pay rates.) More space for literary reviews, blog posts and essays has opened up at on-line Canadian magazines like Lemonhound, rabble.ca, The Puritan, Salty Ink, and individual blogs run by critics like Kerry Clare at Pickle Me This, Stephen W. Beattie at That Shakespearean Rag, J.C. Sutcliffe at Slightly Bookist, Stewart Cole at The Urge and others.

[7] These phrases are taken directly from Michael Grenfell and Cheryl Hardy who, in their book “Art Rules: Pierre Bourdieu and the Visual Arts,” analyze Bourdieu’s theoretical work on the visual arts quite compellingly (Berg Publishers, 2007).

[8] I would like to make a very clear distinction between a book review in which a reviewer criticizes a book intelligently and thoughtfully versus a “take-down” in which the reviewer offers unnecessarily nasty critique of the book and/or its author.

[9] Bourdieu has been criticized by feminist theorists for an analysis that focuses on womens’ complicity in masculine domination.  Bourdieu responds to this criticism in the preface to English translation of Masculine Domination (Stanford University Press, 2002): “To call on women to engage in political action that breaks with the temptation of the introverted revolt of small mutual support groups—however necessary these groups may be in the vicissitudes of everyday struggles, in the home, the factory or the office—does not mean as one might think and fear, inviting them to subscribe without a struggle to the ordinary forms and norms of political struggle, at the risk of findings themselves annexed or swallowed up by movements alien to their own preoccupations and interests. It expresses the wish that they will work—with the social movement itself, and supported by the organizations that have sprung form revolt against symbolic domination, of which along with the homosexuals, they are one of the main victims—to invent and impose forms of collective organization and action and effective weapons, especially symbolic ones, capable of shaking the political and legal institutions which play a part in perpetuating their subordination.”

[10] Much of the Canadian feminist scholarship on gendered representation in Canadian literary culture—whether in literary anthologies, university course syllabi, literary prizes, readings series and juries, or literary festivals—suggests that gender discrimination is a problem that is historically consistent. In her article “Anthologies and the Canon of Early Canadian Women Writers” (University of Ottawa Press, 1989) SFU feminist scholar Carole Gerson studied 60 Canadian literary anthologies and found that the ones published between 1864 and 1935 show an average total of 30% women authors; anthologies published between 1942 and 1970 show an average total of 20.5% women authors and anthologies published between 1971 and 1986 show an average total of 22.4% women authors.

Canadian literary anthologies have excluded women writers in historically consistent patterns since Edward Hartley Dewart edited Selections from Canadian Poets (Lovell Litho and Publications, 1864) and included only 24% female authors, despite the fact that colonial women were producing 40% of the literature.

Despite the popular cultural myth that women writers “enjoy remarkable prominence in English Canada”, Gerson argued that in Canada it’s common practice to “confer stardom on one or two representative women writers…while neglecting the rest.” She illustrated her point about the marginalization of women writers in the Canadian literary canon by describing the early 1970s anthology The Evolution of Canadian Literature in English: 1914-1945 that published the work of eighteen writers, three of whom were women: Mazo de la Roche, Dorothy Livesay and Anne Marriott. An interesting fact about the anthology is that its cover consists of a painting by Emily Carr who won a Governor General’s award for Klee Wyck in 1941 and whose work does not appear in the anthology.

In 1985, scholar Anne Innis Dagg in The 50% Solution: Why Should Women Pay for Men’s Culture? (Otter Press, 1986) counted book reviews by gender in five national literary outlets and found that at the now defunct Saturday Night, 18% of books reviewed were written by women while 23% of reviewers were women; at Books in Canada, 38% of books reviewed were written by women while 35% of reviewers were women; at the Toronto Sunday Star, from March to December of 1985, 27% of books reviewed were written by women and 29% of reviewers were women; at the Kitchener Waterloo Record 29% of books reviewed were written by women while 22% of reviewers were women and in the Saturday edition of the Globe and Mail, 27% of books reviewed were written by women while 27% of reviewers were women. She also listed a gendered count of 35 Canadian literary anthologies frequently used between 1913 and 1980 and reported that 25% of the 1935 contributors were women, while only 10% of these anthologies were edited by women.

Sharon Nelson wrote a very comprehensive analysis of gender discrimination in Canadian literary culture called “Bemused, Branded and Belittled: Women and Writing in Canada” [Fireweed, No. 15 (Winter, 1982): 64-103.]. Instead of summarizing it critically, we aim to soon republish the essay in its entirety on the CWILA website.

In his book You Must Work Harder to Write Poetry of Excellence: Crafts Discourse and the Common Reader in Canadian Poetry Book Reviews (BookThug 2012), poet-scholar Donato Mancini analyzes the rhetoric of Canadian poetry reviews published since 1961 and argues that while Canadian poetries and poetics have diversified enormously since that period, the language and privileged ideology of the poetry review hasn’t changed very much at all, resulting in conservative ideological and aesthetic positioning.

He argues that most poetry critics, regardless of their aesthetic affinities, write to an imagined reader who resembles a white, middle-class, male reader, an average “Canadian Joe Poetry”, and that this has implications, not only for whose work is addressed but how it is addressed. While his study focuses on poetry book reviews, it’s relevant to anyone interested in how books have been critically received in Canadian book reviews.

Published July 5, 2013

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  • Carrie

    pssst… the link to the Claire Messud interview is missing a colon in the address so the link doesn’t work properly…. and I’ve read the interview 3 times now and I still can’t find where she says that the question wouldn’t be asked of a male author, which is what this article states. She says “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that?” but she doesn’t actually say that the question wouldn’t be asked of a male author. Unless she does and I missed it? Please point it out to me if I’m missing it!

  • Gillian Jerome

    Carrie, thanks for pointing this out. I used the wrong speaking verb and switched “said” to “suggested” because you are correct. Want to join CWILA and proofread with us?

    • Carrie

      I felt like such a jerk for being so public in pointing out errors. Thank you for being so gracious about it Gillian. CWILA is definitely next on my list for volunteering – right now I am supporting you vicariously through my work with the literary journal Room, and once I get my head above water (am painfully under- or unemployed, depending on the day) I will be in touch.

      • Gillian Jerome

        Carrie,

        You’re not a jerk; you’re a skilled proofreader!

        Don’t let the membership fee deter you from joining CWILA. We offer a sliding fee scale (including zero) for those who are under-employed.

        GJ

  • Rina

    Great piece. We need to connect women working in every art form to share our research. The evidence is compelling. Time for a national conference, I think.

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