Readers: Here is our first guest post. It is from Kerry Clare. Kerry reads and writes in Toronto, where she lives with her husband and daughter. Her essays, short stories and book reviews have appeared in The New Quarterly, The National Post, The Globe & Mail, Canadian Notes & Queries, Prairie Fire, Quill & Quire, Today’s Parent, and other fine places. She writes about books and reading at her blog Pickle Me This, and is editor at 49thShelf.com. Her essay “Love is a Let-Down” was nominated for a 2011 National Magazine Award, and appeared in Best Canadian Essays 2011.
For years, I’ve been counting the pitiful numbers of female bylines in Canadian magazines and newspapers, dropping subscriptions in despair, so when the CWILA numbers were made public last spring, the numbers didn’t surprise me. If anything, I was delighted—finally here was quantifiable evidence that I wasn’t crazy or paranoid, that something was amiss. And I was also deluded enough to imagine that the next step would be simple, to suppose that now everyone knew what the problem was that things would start to change.
What surprised me about the CWILA numbers was reaction to them, the hostility they aroused and, even worse, the vehement disregard. “What about the context?” critics kept demanding in blog comments, which I found baffling. How can anyone argue with a pie-chart? Why would somebody try to justify such hideous inequity?
Then I realized: the CWILA numbers had always been there, long before they were baked into pies, but editors—those with the power to do something about them—just hadn’t cared. And many still don’t. To be fair, I have sympathy for editors. Editors these days occupy a precarious position, juggling competing crises in the day-to-day running of their publications, and it is understandable that throwing another challenge into the mix might seem impossible.
Something that else that gave me sympathy: angry blog comments kept referring to women writers not pitching stories, to women writers approached who never followed-up on writing opportunities, to wishy-washy women writers who weren’t responding to calls, but were sitting at home at their keyboards pounding out angry blog posts about the failure of fortune to magically appear in their inboxes.
I was sympathetic because these editors were describing me. I’ve been lucky to have the good fortune of writing and reviewing opportunities appear in my inbox, but I’d often been reluctant to follow-up. I was intimidated by the boys-club atmosphere of a few publications, didn’t think I’d fit in, figured these editors mustn’t really want my work anyway. I’m a self-taught reviewer with a background in book blogging (well, in addition to two English degrees) and was never sure if I was up to the assignments editors had approached me with. I’d also never pitched a book review in my life, but then I didn’t even know that pitching book reviews was a thing that writers did, so I’m not sure that end of things was my entirely my fault.
I realized that it was within my power to do something about the CWILA numbers after all, that I could do my part to stop being part of the problem. I would have to be brave, which had always seemed like the hardest thing, but then somehow after VIDA and CWILA, it didn’t. Partly because I was part of something larger than just myself. I’d also benefited from and been bolstered by support and mentorships from other women writers, and it was reflexive to be brave with these women on my side.
So in the past six months, I’ve pitched reviews. I’ve spread myself thin. When calls for reviewers come up on the CWILA listserv, I’ve responded. I continued to do the brave things I’ve been learning to do for awhile now—to speak my mind, call out injustice, to support women’s writing by being the most thoughtful and critical reader I know how to be, and spreading the word about the books I love best (and this is a essential contribution to our critical culture that any writer can make, whether she is a critic or otherwise). No one can say that the problem of the CWILA numbers lies with me anymore, and I’m glad.
In a sense, I’ve come to know both sides of the coin. For the past nine months, I’ve been editing a book of essays by women writers. In my continuing effort to not be the part of the problem, I’ve tried to ensure my list of writers is diverse, and representative of the world beyond the bubble I inhabit which is populated mostly by people like me. And it’s been hard. It feels awkward to seek out writers based upon their sexuality, age, or skin colour. I know there will still be critics who won’t think I’ve done enough. It would be so much easier just to suppose that great writing is all I should be focussing on but great writing isn’t enough. It is also arrogant to suppose that great writing can’t necessarily be found beyond my own circles, that if I make a point of going beyond these circles that I’m going to find anything less. It is shameful to suggest that the responsibility for my book’s contributors being fair and representative is anyone’s but mine.
Here is another thing: nearly every one of my 25 contributors, who range from emerging writers to those with careers half a century long, has submitted her brilliant piece to me with a proviso: I’m not sure if this is what you’re looking for, she writes. I know it needs a lot of work. I totally understand if you decide not to go with it. I really appreciate the opportunity anyway.
As there are as many kinds of women as there are women, I will not purport this to be a womanly phenomenon, and perhaps if I were working with male writers, they would send notes just the same, but I still can’t stop thinking about how this could be used an another example of women’s deficiency, pointed to as the cause instead of another symptom. It’s obvious to me that it’s the climate illuminated by the CWILA numbers that has made women apologetic, wary, reluctant to step up. If less than a quarter of stories in print ever read like yours, then why would you ever suppose you have a right to appear on a page? I would like to hear a single solution from an editor that’s not that women have to change.
The pies weren’t all bad. Quill & Quire and This Magazine are two larger magazines whose charts were pretty even, undermining the argument of anybody who claims that women writers and reviewers aren’t out there ready to write. So really, there are no good excuses left.
I’m doing my part, and I’m not the only one.
Editors, with all due respect, the rest is up to you.