By Savanna Scott Leslie
In our count this year, CWILA found that 42 per cent of all National Post book reviews in 2012 discussed books authored by women, up from 33 per cent in 2011. Since we published the 2011 CWILA numbers, the number of female authors increased to 49 per cent. Did the 2011 numbers affect your selection?
I’d be lying if I said that CWILA, and last year’s count, hasn’t affected the National Post’s Books Section. I was on my honeymoon when the numbers came out, and I remember pacing around our hotel room, looking at my iPhone in disgust, and disbelief, at the results and the subsequent debate on Facebook and Twitter. It felt like a personal attack. Which is ridiculous, of course. I knew my numbers were bad, but dragging them into the light, kicking and screaming, was exactly what needed to happen. No longer could I pretend I didn’t know what the numbers were, even though I always had a sneaking suspicion they were out of whack. And that’s not to dismiss my section pre-CWILA. I still think it was far and away the best books section in Canada. It just could have—should have—been even better.
Last year, you told CWILA you think that editors should pay attention to the gender of authors when choosing books to review, but that the gender of reviewers does not matter. The Books Section’s women reviewers increased from 24 per cent overall in 2011 to 37 per cent overall in 2012, with women representing 40 per cent of reviewers since we published the 2011 CWILA numbers. Why?
As I said last year, I was appalled by the numbers—especially when it comes to the number of women writing for me—but not all that surprised. I said—and it’s still true—that the vast majority of pitches I receive are from men. In the past, I think I sort of shrugged and thought, “Well, there’s nothing I can do about it.” But it’s my job to do something about it. So I made it a priority to reach out to women writers I admire, even if they’d never pitched me before. Sometimes all you have to do is ask.
When I told CWILA that the gender of the reviewer doesn’t matter, I didn’t mean in terms of the count—of course, we should strive for parity. I just meant that I don’t care if it’s a man or a woman who’s writing the review, as long as it’s good.
When you spoke with CWILA last year, you said that only about 10 per cent of the pitches you receive come from female reviewers. Has that changed, and do you think the literary culture in Canada overall welcomes women?
Well, as I just said, the vast majority of pitches I receive are from men. I remember having an email exchange with a writer about a month or so after last year’s CWILA numbers were published, expressing my frustration that I’d received only a handful of pitches from women since the numbers were posted. That’s when I decided I couldn’t just wait around for things to change. I don’t know why a gap still exists. I sometimes think that women are more hesitant to pitch me because the National Post is a historically conservative paper, with a readership that skews male, but I hope people realize my section is its own beast. I want to say the literary culture “welcomes” women, but last year’s CWILA numbers made it clear something was wrong. I bristle at the word “welcomes,” though, because it suggests there’s a spot for everyone, that everybody is invited inside. There isn’t room. You have to be good, you have to be determined, and you have to be able to withstand rejection. There are people (men and women) who pitch me once, and, if I say no, never try again. If you truly want to be a part of the conversation, you have to keep shouting.
As of May 18, 51 per cent of National Post book reviews from 2013 discuss books authored by women, and 48 per cent of the reviewers are female. Do you think reviewers and publishers in Canada should aim for this even balance between female and male authors and reviewers?
My goal, more than anything else, is to produce a lively section. But it’s become clear to me that having a mix of voices—and I’m not just talking about gender, but age, race, sexuality, and geography—guarantees a lively section. A section that is entirely dudes writing about other dudes—and we’ve been guilty of this in the past—is usually pretty boring.
CWILA also counted the number of Canadian- and non-Canadian-authored books reviewed in 2012, and we found that 71 per cent of your Books Section’s reviews assessed books written by Canadians. How important do you think it is to review mostly Canadian-authored books? How do you decide which international books to review?
I’ve always given priority to Canadian titles. The number of pages devoted to books coverage in Canada is abysmal, so I feel a responsibility to use whatever space I have to feature Canadian authors. And it’s not charity—they deserve it. Despite shrinking book sections, despite lower advances, despite the struggles of (some) Canadian publishers, the quality of work in this country is as high as it’s ever been. I feel very fortunate to be in the position I’m in at this moment—it’s exciting.
When it comes to foreign titles, I consider just about any book if the pitch is good.
Today, it’s easier than ever to access book reviews online that are written and posted by casual readers. Why should book readers continue to read professionally published reviews?
Listen, I’ll often scan the Amazon.ca reviews before ordering a book, just to see if a consensus emerges, so I’m not about to slag people who post their thoughts there or on Goodreads. You want to write about a book you just read? Amazing. But there’s a huge difference between that and what our section prints. On Amazon, for instance, you’ll often find a lot of one-star or five-star reviews. It’s “This is the best book ever” or “This book should be burned.” We allow for nuance, for reflection. And, for the most part, our reviews are written by authors, journalists, full-time critics—people who are, in essence, professional readers. If you’re interested in books you SHOULD read us, but I’m not going to tell anyone they MUST read us—that we’re the only way to find out if a book has any merit. But I think we’re one of the best ways.
Mark Medley is the National Post’s Books Editor and co-edits the paper’s books blog, The Afterword. He has written for publications across Canada, including The Walrus, Toronto Life, the Globe and Mail, This Magazine, Descant, Spacing, and Taddle Creek. He currently sits on PEN Canada’s Board of Directors and serves on the Advisory Committee of The Humber School for Writers. He lives in Toronto.
Savanna Scott Leslie is a freelance editor with diverse web and print experience. She has a BA in philosophy and Russian literature from the University of Toronto and studies publishing at Ryerson University. She lives in Guelph, Ontario.
Published July 5, 2013