When Women Count

By Evelyne Ledoux-Beaugrand, translated by Bronwyn Haslam

Lire l’essai originale française par Evelyne Ledoux-Beaugrand ici.

fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners. Often the attachment is scarcely perceptible […]. But when the web is pulled askew, hooked up at the edge, torn in the middle, one remembers that these webs are not spun in mid-air by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human beings, and are attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

As I write these lines at the end of the summer of 2014, it would be hard for me to think about the (quantitative) critical reception of women’s writing, and that of trans- and genderqueer-identifying persons, without mentioning David Gilmore’s unfortunate remarks, which sparked a major debate at this time last year. Invited to comment on the contents of his library, he ends up discussing his teaching at the University of Toronto and his choice of works on the syllabus:

I’m not interested in teaching books by women. Virginia Woolf is the only writer that interests me as a woman writer, so I do teach one of her short stories. But once again, when I was given this job I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love. Unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women. Except for Virginia Woolf. […] Usually at the beginning of the semester a hand shoots up and someone asks why there aren’t any women writers in the course. I say I don’t love women writers enough to teach them, if you want women writers go down the hall. What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth.[1]

Gilmore adds, as if for the sake of summarizing his already clear thoughts, “I teach only the best.”

Ironically, “Shelf Esteem” is the framework for Gilmore’s comments to Emily M. Keeler (“Shelf Esteem” is a column on Hazlitt, Random House of Canada’s new web platform). I say “ironically” because the exercise proposed under this heading offers a remarkable kinship to the wanderings of the narrator and protagonist created by Virginia Woolf—the only woman to find favour in David Gilmore’s eyes—across various libraries and other places, both real and imaginary, where knowledge is collected and stored. If Woolf specifies from the start that the I to whom she gives voice in this essay is fictional, this I “[being] only a convenient term for somebody who has no real being,”[2] its fictional dimension renders the story she tells no less material: “Fiction must stick to facts, and the truer the facts the better the fiction — so we are told.”[3] What facts are related by Woolf’s fiction, now nearly a century old, and what echoes does it find in the present—the present that CWILA’s 2013 numbers report on and the present—is it the same or is it radically different?—that resonates so strongly in Gilmore’s words?

The numbers that lie before us come to us from CWILA’s annual exercise and are the occasion to reflect on questions of representativeness, of parity, and of symbolic value through the prism of the verb “to count,” its derivatives, and the expressions it’s found in. It is vastly polysemic. In its verbal form, “to count” refers as much to notions of expectation, hope, inclusion, and visibility as it does to mathematics. To count is both to include data in a group and to express confidence in something or someone. As a substantive, the “count” designates a kind of measure, good or bad, and, among other things, the act of illuminating a state, a phenomenon, or a situation.[4] To count, to count numerically, or to take account of a situation, notably by writing an account of it, are quite different actions that nonetheless approach the value they express, if only implicitly: as a general rule, only the objects or the beings that count are counted, that is to say, those objects or beings to which we grant enough value for them to enter language, be that written, spoken, or arithmetic. “Only the best,” as Gilmore affirms to justify the absence of women and sexual minorities from his literary count, the latter often assimilated in the imaginary as a form of femininity, or at least as a diminished masculinity that excludes them from the “real guy-guys” club.

The path of fiction is Woolf’s occasion to make visible some of the mechanisms and material intermediaries through which ideas of value and of genius acquire their substance. The facts that the fiction of A Room of One’s Own adheres to are either directly or indirectly linked to questions of value and to the symbolic stakes of the trivial and the common—all of those things that literature for a long time hardly felt the need take account of: everyday trifles; the thickness of the soup of some and the thinness of the plain gravy soup of others; the gravel on which some walk while others have the privilege of taking the turf; the pecuniary and literary inheritances nipped in the bud, their legators too busy having “thirteen children by a minister of the church”[5] to even think of gathering a nest egg to pass on to the following generations. To these tasks that spin the web of genius and great art to form its masked opposite, as it were, women, more than men, have given place in their writing. It is true that, as Sandrina Joseph affirms, “long held back from public life and its conditions, those women who practiced writing addressed by necessity what they themselves knew best: the everyday, the intimate, the arcana of domestic life, the humbleness of everyday objects, the vulnerability of the present moment.”[6]

This manner of considering the lived, the familiar, the everyday, all that traditionally belongs to the domain of the small and the negligible, as being worthy of (literary) mention, to make the “insignificant” significant such that it finally counts and that we learn to count it, falls within an attempt to restore balance to an age-old symbolic division unfavourable to all that belongs to the feminine. The “work [consisting] of asserting the small and the intimate”[7] seems to have borne fruit, at least in part. By means of drawing from the sensory and sensual experience of a body with a woman’s socio-symbolic position in the world, and to shed light on the continuum between life at its most prosaic and theory’s most abstract ideas and systems, women authors and thinkers of the past 40 years have been able to rework an axiology that put the “second sex” in the background, confined to the back room of the literary institution or to its margins unless her work one of the exceptions that confirms the rule.[8] We have for proof the general interest in literary practices long identified as feminine: autobiographical and intimate writing, fiction-theory, and autobiographical essays, among others. We can also optimistically view the relatively small gap between the number of reviews of women’s and men’s writing—an optimism due in part to the fact that, for practical reasons, it is impossible to compare the annual totals of reviews with the annual totals of Canadian publications.

Yet, starting from the very simple observation that half of the world is female and that this half now thinks and writes as much as the other, it would be irresponsible to minimize this gap.[9] Not only does it persist, but when we compare the numbers from 2013 with those of 2012, we observe that it has even grown over the past year.[10] It’s undeniable that female authors and thinkers, as a result of both the feminist movement and a collective discussion, have settled accounts with a Western tradition in which the value of women has long been held to their role as a bargaining chip. They have sought to measure their exclusion and effacement from posterity and to identify its mechanisms, including ad feminam[11] criticism that fits all books with a female signature on a Procrustean bed. Unlike Woolf, who considered how the trivial dimensions of everyday life secretly work to give substance to great works without questioning the very idea of a great work—which she envisions based on classical aesthetic criteria historically favourable to what’s associated with the masculine—these authors and thinkers set themselves the task of revising the criteria—contingent, cultural, and thus fluctuating—by which the worth of works are measured.

To count is also sometimes to learn to question the measure by which we judge what counts and to propose a new arithmetic. It would be naïve to believe that they (we) have for once and for all settled our accounts with this symbolic heritage whose roots go all the way back to Ancient Greece. It seems that this work hasn’t been enough for women—for their work and their thoughts—to now be as taken into account in the same way as those of men.

Does this mean that “To write: I am a woman” is today still “full of consequences,” as Nicole Brossard put it in L’Amèr in 1977?[12] The numbers measuring critical reception lead one to think that there are indeed consequences to writing as a woman. One must understand “to write as a woman” in the strict sense, that is to say, in signing one’s name and identifying the author as a certain gendered sex, rather than as a reference to a writing that explicitly revisits themes and forms long attributed to the feminine. Of course, these consequences are not the same as those suggested by the phrase Brossard wrote at a pivotal moment in the arrival of women’s writing and are a far cry from the consequences of taking on a female identity as an author in the eras visited by the narrator of A Room of One’s Own. Criticized by Woolf with all the mordancy and subtleness for which she is known, the time when women’s access to places where knowledge is collected and disseminated was strictly regulated, and thereby complicated, is—happily!—over, at least here.[13]

Or is it really? The emergence over the course of the last decades of women’s literary criticism and writings that aim to “dispel[…] the invisibility of Woman whose sense and whose presence we intuit in ourselves as a motif of identity,”[14] for the sake of affirming and advancing the feminine able to resist the erasure of gender in the pseudo-universality of great literature, has certainly contributed to a quasi-parity of women in the literary institution. Outside of the specialized field of women’s literature (with considerable popularity in Quebec and Canada) and in literary criticism in general, “power issues woven into the literary text and the institution”[15] are not yet entirely taken into account. We are, in other words, still far from counting, as CWILA’s annual count shows.

We must add to this the cautionary note heard in the work of historians of women’s literature. They teach us that a (quasi-) parity in literary production and reception does not guarantee that this parity passes into posterity. Posterity is constructed through a skimming off that puts many works, particularly women’s, through the mill without much consideration. Christine Planté and Audrey Lasserre in France, and Chantal Savoie[16] in Québec, arrive at a similar observation: the vitality of women’s literary and cultural production in a given era does not guarantee their visibility in literary history. The sentiment that there is an abundance or even an overabundance of women’s writing,[17] refuted by the numbers which indicate parity at best, finds no echo in literary anthologies and histories. The women who “existed”[18] and who wrote, perhaps less than men but in a non-negligible quantity, barely pass into history: “if quantitative diversity and parity are together an issue of some importance … quantitative diversity and parity are far from guaranteeing an equal critical or historiographic treatment.”[19] Yet according to Planté, the simple fact of women’s existence justifies accounting for them in literary history, insofar as “any incomplete knowledge is a weak, unsatisfying knowledge, which tends to reconstruct a false image of reality—here of literature.”[20] The critical review, if it does not alone assure the longevity of a work, nevertheless constitutes the “the first gateway that can lead the work all the way to the level of consecration.”[21] And when they remain silent on one of many constituents of literary production, they tend to renew a partial and thus false image of the world, a world composed of equal parts men and women, and where trans and genderqueer people also live, think, and create.[22]

Numbers lined up on a page can seem as trivial as the quality of the soup Woolf discusses. They tell us nothing about the work, its originality or its qualities, and quite literally make the work banal by listing it in a larger group in which it is but one component. Nor is it rare to see the quality argument crop up to put an end to debates on quantity, and in particular, to the arrival at an equal count. It is evident that the numbers can’t do justice to the works, no more than a review is necessarily the sign of a favourable reception. The critical review nevertheless attests to a text’s inscription in a symbolic system, to its being taken up and recognized, even if this happens in the negative. The numbers tell us with eloquence which voices count, and with them, which visions are authorized to define the world. The big picture that these numbers draw up indicates implicitly the mechanisms that create a work’s transcendence.

In placing Gilmore’s comments in the introduction of this piece, I do not wish to give him too much undeserved credit. I would very much like to see the flagrant (hetero)sexism for which Gilmore makes himself the spokesperson as something grotesque, exaggerated, incommensurate with the place that learning institutions and the media give to women’s writing. It would then be only an anachronism, a leftover of the patent sexism belonging to another era, a vestige of the time when Woolf noted the disproportion between the discourse of women and the discourse held about them. Yet his comments are like a magnifying glass for a persistent phenomenon in which “the feminine remains a repulsive polar figure”[23] and it is in this context that one must, in all clarity, consider his statement. Between Woolf’s reflection and Gilmore’s “only the best” nearly a century and several waves of feminism have passed, and women have gradually taken up a place which, without being equal, remains considerable in institutions that were once reserved to men and a few exceptional female figures. Yet, the numbers of 2013 have me say that if women know how to count and that we now have to count with them, there is still work to be done if we want women to really count.

ELedoux-Beaugrand-photosmallEvelyne Ledoux-Beaugrand’s research focuses on French and Francophone literatures. She defended in 2010 at University of Montreal a doctoral dissertation that was recently published into a book: Imaginaires de la filiation. Héritage et mélancolie dans la littérature contemporaine des femmes (Montreal: Éditions XYZ, 2013). She is the author of several articles on contemporary women’s writing in French. Since a couple of years, she lives in Ghent (Belgium), where she works as a postdoctoral research fellow on the legacy on the Holocaust in contemporary literature and art.

 

 

 

bhaslam aug2014Bronwyn Haslam lives and works in Montreal. She holds an MA in literature from the Université de Montréal and undergraduate degrees from the University of Calgary. Her poems and translations have previously appeared in The Capilano ReviewMatrixAufgabe, and Dandelion.


[1] This interview, published on September 25th, 2013, can be found at the following address: <http://penguinrandomhouse.ca/hazlitt/blog/david-gilmour-building-strong-stomachs>. There, one can also read the complete unedited transcript of Gilmour and Emily M. Keeler’s exchange, posted online after the author complained that he was quoted out of context. Before or after editing, his comments remain the same.

[2] Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (Orlando, Harcourt, 2005 [1927]), 4.

[3] Ibid., 16.

[4] One can identify other phrases with the verb to count, such as to count on someone or something, to take into account, or to account for (as in a report) and expressions containing the noun, like to settle accounts or to give an account of something or someone.

Translator’s note: in Ledoux-Beaugrand’s French, the play with compter (to count) is more evident as “compte” is both “count” and “account” (most often as “comptes”): i.e. prendre en compte (take into account) and regler des comptes (settle accounts). Play is also lost when Ledoux-Beaugrand speaks of un compte-rendu (in English, most directly “a report” but also “a review”) and of rendre compte (“to report,” or in the pronominal form se rendre compte, “to realize”).

[5] Woolf, 21.

[6] Sandrina Joseph, “Dans les moindres détails. La fiction de Louise Dupré,” Voix et Images 34, no 2 (2009): 73. (My translation)

[7] Ibid.

[8] A relegation to the margins reiterated in Gilmore’s comments: “If you want women writers go down the hall.”

[9] If CWILA’s numbers do not allow us to truly account for a male-female parity in literary production by comparing the total numbers of books published in a year with the total number of books reviewed, because no Canadian institution has taken on the mission of surveying the total number of works published over the course of a year, the Quebec government’s statistics aim to draw the sociodemographic portrait and measure the conditions of writers in the province. These show that women are still today less present on the literary scene than in the general population: “In 2010, the literary profession is estimated to be 1510 writers in Quebec, including 825 men (55%) and 685 women (45%). The proportion of women is lesser than that observed in the active population in general (47%) […] and in the cultural professions in Quebec (52%)” (Marie-Hélène Provençal “Les écrivains québécois: un apercu statistique” Optique Culture 3 (May 2011) <http://www.stat.gouv.qc.ca/statistiques/culture/bulletins/optique-culture-03.pdf>). This smaller representation seems to be coupled with a quantitatively smaller reception.

[10] Is this due to the inclusion of Québécois newspapers and magazine for the first time this year? Le Devoir, Lettres Québécoises, Liberté and Nuit Blanche do not, on their own, make up all of the places for reviews in French in Québec. Their symbolic weight is nevertheless sufficiently important for us to seriously consider the small space that women’s texts take up in them, as authors and as critics.

[11] According to Elaine Showalter’s expression (Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 73.)

[12] Nicole Brossard, L’Amèr (Montréal: Éditions Typo, 1988), 43. [My translation. The original reads “Écrire: je suis une femme est plein de conséquences.”]

[13] I notice that I am pausing (too) briefly over the reception of texts written by trans and genderqueer writers and the weight of their voices in critical space. This is not due to a lesser interest and it is far from my intent to set the feminist approach in opposition to the approaches of gays and lesbians or queer and trans persons. To my mind, they remain indissociable from a masculine domination and must be seen in solidarity. However, the historical perspective I’m adopting here leads me to focus my reflection on those who are identified as and who self-identify as women. As Woolf’s oft-cited essay attests, the relative exclusion of the writings of half of humanity from literary history and institutions has for a long time now been the subject of an ongoing criticism. It is later, in the wake of the recognition of the rights of homosexuals and in the development of queer thought, that a similar criticism emerged for sexual minorities. Added to this is the fact that in the data compiled, the number of writings published or reviewed by trans and queer people is so slim that it is more difficult to draw up a portrait of the situation and to measure the reception of their work and their production of critical texts.

[14] Nicole Brossard, The Aerial Letter, trans. Marlene Wildeman (Toronto, The Women’s Press, 1988), p 141.

[15] Lori Saint-Martin, Contre-voix. Essais de critique au féminin (Montréal: Nuit Blanche éditeur, 1997), 10.

[16] Among others, see Christine Planté, “La place des femmes dans l’histoire littéraire : annexe, ou point de départ d’une relecture critique ?” [“Women’s place in literary history: an appendix, or a starting point for a critical revision?”] Revue d’histoire littéraire de France 103, no 3 (2003): 655-668; Audrey Lasserre, “Les femmes du XXe siècle ont-elles une histoire littéraire ?” [ “Do Twentieth-Century Women Have a Literary History?”], Cahiers du CERACC, no. 4 (December 2009): 38-54 and “La volonté de savoir” [“Will to Knowledge”], in “Y a-t-il une histoire littéraire des femmes ?” Fabula LhtT (April 2010) [and here -KM]; Chantal Savoie, “Pour une sociopoétique historique des pratiques littéraires des femmes” [“Towards a historical sociopoetics of women’s literary practices”], Texte, revue de critique et de théorie littéraire 45-46 (2009): 195-211.

[17] Christine Planté reports how Bonald, at the beginning of the 19th century, denounced the invasion of the French literary scene by a “a growing number of bluestockings” (Planté, 659). Closer to home and in a somewhat different register, David Homel recently explained on LeMonde.fr the difficulty of exporting Québécois literature into France by its being too “feminine.” Ideas of an overrepresentation of women and of their literary insignificance meet in his argument: “It’s an especially feminine literature, and for good reason. The vast majority of readers are women: up to 80% of book purchases are made by women, according to Montreal booksellers. And in Quebec, as elsewhere, we like to read about ourselves. A liberally romanticized historical fiction or an intergenerational saga that stages courageous women in another era will undoubtedly make the cash registers sing because the women readers that show up at bookstores ask for stories of […] a woman reader.” <http://www.lemonde.fr/festival/article/2014/07/24/la-litterature-quebecoise-n-est-pas-un-produit-d-exportation_4459715_4415198.html>)

[18] Planté, 659.

[19] Lasserre, 39-40.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Isabelle Boisclair, Ouvrir la voie/x – Le processus constitutif d’un sous-champ littéraire féministe au Québec (1960-1990) (Montréal: Nota Bene, 2004), 211.

[22] Here I’m leaving out questions of colour and cultural belonging because the compiled numbers do not permit taking them into account. These dimensions are no less important for it, especially in the perspective of a balanced and fair representation of the world.

[23] Laserre, 38.

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