By Adèle Barclay
Usually the end of the critic’s tenure corresponds with data from The Count. From 2011 to 2015, CWILA annually accumulated and analyzed data regarding the review of books in Canadian newspapers and magazines. The Count looks at the gender gap in review culture: i.e. how many publications actually run reviews of women’s writing. Ultimately, The Count serves to help advocate for equitable review culture.
But CWILA’s Count is currently on hiatus. The volunteer hours required for this large-scale project are many, and CWILA presently doesn’t have the resources. Also, there’s the need to rework data collection to investigate more dynamics within literary culture—indeed there are a lot of variables in literary culture we need to tackle in addition to gender. Despite the dearth of data this year, CWILA and many feminist activists, writers, and scholars have been busy undertaking many other kinds of work in public and private roles. It has been a rough couple of years in CanLit, the consequences of which are still unfurling. We all probably need to take some time to reevaluate what our roles are within community, whether we have the data or not.
Data is compelling. We trust numbers. They seem to prove something concrete by giving us a hard edge to hold onto. Like VIDA in the US, CWILA’s work highlights the embedded biases within literary culture and provides a springboard for insight, conversation, activism, and new practices. For example, CWILA’s 2015 Count found that while gender parity had almost been achieved amongst book reviewers in Canada that year, books reviewed were mostly authored by men. So, simply having more reviewers who are women and non-binary doesn’t necessarily translate into more critical conversations about literature by women and non-binary authors.
The last two counts revealed that literary culture in Canada favours men’s writing, though book reviews are inching towards gender parity—but there’s so much more to this story. More recently, mainstream media has started to glimpse the well of toxicity that feeds the gendered bias of book culture and the many other biases that orient literary culture. Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of abusive behaviour and harassment in literary communities. Review culture, though important, is only one facet of this broader, knotted issue. I think many readers and writers are grappling with how art and literature aren’t these apolitical, spotless, progressive, transcendent spheres—art is messy and beholden to the toxic hierarchies that structure everything else in society.
Recently, universities have begun to interrogate, suspend and fire professors in creative writing departments, spurring outcry from the literary elite. Mainstream media outlets stumble to acknowledge that literary culture has pressing and deeply rooted issues when it comes to gender, race, sexuality, classism, colonialism, ableism. We are in the midst of a jagged cultural reckoning. Abusive behaviours that have been swept under the rug for ages have begun to come to light, and still, mainstream outlets struggle to even name these instances as oppressive.
And so these aforementioned numbers from the previous CWILA counts suggest, as many of us innately know, that change isn’t straightforward—and numbers don’t necessarily transform organizations. Hiring more women doesn’t immediately do away with entrenched sexist structures and views that enable sexual harassment. Bringing marginalized writers into an institution that is predicated on exclusion doesn’t dissolve oppression. These structures were built out of bias and abuse, and those brought in to assuage disparity have to deal with the day-to-day effects of navigating an institution that historically and presently doesn’t really want them there. The core doesn’t change. Replacing shitty stats with slightly better stats doesn’t undo or even question the culture we’re all steeped in. If anything, marginalized writers step into the environment and are tasked with doing the work of mitigating the abuses while the institution continues its typical operations. Anyone who has entered an academic or literary institution and been made to feel the power they don’t have could tell you this without data from a count or a study.
So, I don’t have numbers to bounce off of this year, and that’s actually okay—I’m not certain the data can accurately describe or deeply address the power imbalances at work in our literary communities and institutions. I respect what the previous counts have highlighted and all the work that’s gone into collecting that data. I think it has been a useful jumping off point and can work to add to the conversations we’re having, but the last two years have brought forward issues that can no longer be contained or quantified—they need to be interrogated and parsed out in intimate and dynamic ways. We need conversations to push further and deeper and call for nuance and multiplicity, because we have a lot to work through in ways that aren’t easy to resolve.
For the past two years, it has felt like trauma and grief have been radiating in profound and relentless ways. And yet, the presence of things like sexual assault and white supremacy in literary culture isn’t new—this stuff saturates our society. I think contemporary culture is somewhat comfortable acknowledging discrimination in abstract terms. But how do we then press to see what’s specifically activating that discrimination? The powers of colonialism, white supremacy, patriarchy, heteronormativity, ableism define the laws of institutions and trickle down to minute interpersonal interactions.
Literary culture is struggling with the aftershocks of abuses of power and the recent public outings. These stories aren’t new; what’s new is the way people are talking about it a little more publicly because of social media and alternative media outlets. However, when assault comes up in mainstream media, it’s denied, minimized, barely spoken of in plain terms. Newspapers and magazines disproportionately allocate space to famous abusers, allowing them to tell their harrowing sides of the story. Meanwhile, survivors and their supporters face libel suits for even speaking about their experiences to friends and family. I don’t know exactly what accountability looks like on a grand scale, but it definitely isn’t this.
In light of this pause from The Count, I want to ask: What about the stories that underpin and uphold the numerical points? Where do we put those suppressed stories? How are they received? What stories, poems, essays have been sacrificed to these wells of toxicity? How many writers have been silenced by powerful figures and institutions? What has been given up to protect powerful figures rather than contending with them?
We need to stop to consider what we don’t even know we don’t know. When designing The Count, we can’t find what we’re not looking for. Which stories slip between the cracks? Which layers of abuse are beyond our sightlines? Which perspectives does privilege inherently occlude?
I don’t think we’re going to resolve these issues anytime soon, but we’ve started to dig and pull up the roots. Now comes the work of truly looking at all that is and isn’t there.