This essay by Erin Wunker is posted here on behalf of CWILA: Canadian Women in the Literary Arts
Public + Women = Risky
Introduction to the 2013 CWILA Count
“Écrire: je suis une femme est plein de conséquences.” (Nicole Brossard L’Amér, 45)
“This question of publicness can’t be underestimated, particularly, as my blog posts attest, for women.” (Sina Queyras Unleashed, 8)
Framing Thoughts on “Public,” “Women,” and “Risk”
In her 1977 publication L’Amér, Nicole Brossard wrote “écrire: je suis un femme est plein de conséquences.” Barbara Godard, a bilingual feminist critic, translated this as “to write: I am a woman is full of consequences” (These our mothers, 45). Writing, women, risk, consequences. These things are at the core of the mandate for Canadian Women in the Literary Arts. Begun as a grassroots feminist organization aimed at bringing discussions of gender, race, and sexuality into public forums, CWILA is now an incorporated organization with more than five hundred members. We have been conducting “The Count”—an annual audit of gender equity in Canada’s reviewing culture—for three years now. This our new third Count, which covers reviews published in 2013, continues to demonstrate a marked imbalance in whose books are getting reviewed, as well as in who is doing that review work. Why?
The “W” at the core of CWILA is always a contested space. In other words, as Brossard wrote in 1977, to write the word “woman” is to take a risk. Look at Brossard’s sentence. While it is tempting to read it without the colon (to write I am a woman is full of consequences) the punctuation is in fact a gatekeeper. Granted, the colon keeps the gate grammatically ajar, propelling the reader forward into fact. With a simple act of punctuation Brossard has shifted the category of “woman” into a direct relation with the work of writing. Writing is full of consequences, gendered categories are full of consequences, and writing about marginalized genders is full of consequence—be it in this introduction to the 2013 numbers, in a review, or in a blog post. And yet, the gate is ajar.
We started CWILA in part, as a concrete way to address concerns about whether or not Canada’s literary culture had representational justice. Representational justice—that is, the deliberate mechanisms that ensure marginalized groups are represented in a given context—is a starting point. Counting gender representation alone cannot ensure a just and robust literary culture, nor can it eradicate the micro- and macro-aggressions of sexism, racism, cis privilege, or homophobia. The numbers do one thing: they provide a place to start a public discussion. And let us not forget that public discussions that rattle the bars of the status quo are risky. The second epigraph that introduces this essay was written by Sina Queyras in her 2009 introduction to Unleashed, a selection of her blog posts composed between 2005 and 2008. The blog quickly evolved into a public facet of her writerly practice: it was a way of exploring, experimenting, and coming to terms with the ever-increasing relevance of the Internet in a literary life. The blog, Lemon Hound, also became a tool for asking why women writers are still disproportionately under-represented in critical dialogues about their work.
Here is the thing: blogging about inequity is risky. Writing about or as a woman is risky. Taking up public space to write about or as a woman is risky. The risks are multiple and they are polarized: you may be attacked or you may be ignored. Queyras’s blog is one site where these risks were taken up and reflected upon. Writing is a private act, until, that is, it is not. Blogging, as Queyras observes, makes this risk of public writing clear. The minute one hits “publish” on a post those heavy consequences are waiting at the gate. The CWILA Count is a public attempt to append hard numbers to the more general feeling that male writers and reviewers get the most representation in Canadian literary culture. This public attempt is not without its risks, but the possibility of representational justice is always worth the risk.
The location of the first part of our equation—public + women—is risky in part because it is an equation that is always contentious. What do we mean when we say “public” in relation to the literary arts? Indeed, what do we mean when we say “women,” and what can we mean if we are more expansive in our understanding of the outsider status of the term? For CWILA, the book review is one key place to press the equation of public + gender, and, by extension, of equitable representation.
In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf speculated about what histories and knowledges have been lost by leaving women out of literary history. That was in 1929. We have a responsibility to expand Woolf’s focus. We have a responsibility to ask whose knowledges and histories are lost, hidden, or actively marginalized when there is not representational justice in a living literary culture, let alone literary history. CWILA maintains that literary culture is one concrete place to work to consciously and ethically take into account the multiplicity of gendered identities, nationalities, and languages that comprise this country. And while CWILA does not yet have the labour power to ethically track statistics based not just on gender, but on racial and ethnic identity, sexuality, class, and ability, we are beginning to develop a set of apparatuses to track these trends. The Count is imperfect, but the trends of inequity which we track suggest that it is necessary and it is a means of asking questions about equality in public. Primarily, what the new Count data shows is that despite the often-positive reception of CWILA’s Count and the organization as a whole, there is still a significant gap in terms of equitable gender representation in literary reviews. In other words, despite much strong support from editors and publishers for CWILA’s project after the numbers are released inequity remains. Moreover, there’s been backlash. Public + Women = Risky, yes. But asking pressing questions representational justice is a necessary risk to take if we are to significantly and generatively shift Canadian literary culture.
The 2013 Numbers
A thumbnail sketch of the 2013 Number can be summed up like this: regression.
Overall, 37% of the review space counted by CWILA volunteers went to women, 57% of it went to men.
While it is a truism to suggest that the numbers speak for themselves, the aim here is to sustain public discussion about representational justice in Canada’s literary culture. We need to unpack the stories that the numbers tell.
As Count Director Judith Scholes outlines in her essay detailing our methodology, the Count is not comprehensive. It does not count every single book published in Canada. What the Count provides each year is an evolving data set that allows us to begin tracking trends over time. This year, with the indispensable labour of more than forty volunteers, we were able to expand the Count in significant ways. For example, in the Count of the 2012 numbers, CWILA began to nuance the language we use to adequately represent gender—from male/female binaries towards a more accurate male/female/non-binary representation of writers in the Canadian context—and we have continued to refine that language in the Count of the 2013 numbers.
We were able to expand the quantity of publications we counted from 25 to 31. For the first time we have the linguistic capacity to include French language publications (Le Devoir, Lettres Québecoises, Nuit Blanche, Liberté: Arts et Politiques), and we had the volunteer capacity to add three metropolitan newspapers (The Toronto Star, The Chronicle Herald, Le Devoir).
We increased the total numbers of reviews counted from 3,092 in 2012 to 5,613 in 2013. That is an 82% increase in the scope of our Count.
Thanks to our volunteers’ efforts and our Count Director’s expertise we are now able to offer a broader regional representation and begin to take into consideration the culture of critical reviews in both English and French Canada. These new numbers reiterate old stories and tell some new ones too. Put simply, there’s still a gap.
When is the last time you read a book review? Look closer at the byline of the review—who wrote it? Are you reading it online, or in a print publication? Now take a moment and look at the other books reviewed in that publication in the last month. Are they reviewed by the same people? Can you see any trends? Why did you read the reviews section? The answers to such questions, in broad terms, can tell us something about the ways in which we engage in the culture of literary economies; they can also contribute to larger, complicated narratives about equity and representation.
This is CWILA’s third annual Count. The concerns that initiated the organization were deceptively simple: it seemed as though we—readers in Canada—were hearing more about books by men than about books by women. Was this true? Could the hunch be extended to other marginalized groups? And if so, how might one gather compelling data that supported this hunch? Three years and three rounds of data-collection later, the concerns remain while we also work to ask better, more nuanced questions of the data.
For example, building on the mandate to account for, address, and advocate for representational justice in Canada’s literary culture, the Count of the 2012 reviews recorded the number of Canadian and non-Canadian authors counted. As Laura Moss observes in her essay unpacking the context of CWILA’s focus on nationality, the aim was to examine and extend the “C” for very specific reasons. These reasons, as she notes, did not include “tracking Canadian Content” or “measuring the viability of cultural nationalism.” Further, we are not the least bit interested in surveiling or policing citizenship. Rather, CWILA is invested in strengthening Canadian review culture by making it more equitable. As Moss notes, the book industry and book reviews sections in major metropolitan newspapers continues to shrink. If we are going to think about gender in relation to the nation, then we need to “distinguish between the reviews of books in general and reviews of books by Canadian authors in particular.” Like attempting to track gender representation, counting national representation affords us the opportunity to think beyond individual authors and reviewers. Tracking the “C” in CWILA allows us to think more expansively about national support for the arts in terms of publication venues, publishing houses, and what needs to shift to foster a richer reviews culture. Last year, as Moss states, we found compelling evidence of support for Canadian writers:
In the age of the corporatization of everything, the CWILA 2012 numbers are less a good news story proving vibrant cultural nationalism and more evidence of communal resistance to a weakened literary economy. Reviewers, review editors, and publication boards make choices. They have chosen to support the arts in Canada by allotting space—however dwindling it may be—to work by Canadian writers.
And yet, the conversation about the “C” in CWILA is hardly finished. Rather, the 2012 focus on national representation has inspired the CWILA team to think carefully about how to convey the complexities of national affiliation. The question of what makes an author “Canadian” is hardly new, but thinking publicly on an annual basis about it requires that we continually nuance our terms.
In 2012, 65.5% of reviews counted were of books authored (in whole or part) by Canadian writers, and 33% were of books by non-Canadian authors.
In 2013, 60% of reviews counted were of books authored (in whole or part) by Canadian writers, 39% were of books by non-Canadian writers. The remaining 1% accounts for books by unknown authors or collectives for which nationality could not be determined.
Overall, 33% of reviews counted were of books authored by Canadian men, 24% were of books by non-Canadian men, 25% were of books by Canadian women, and only 12% were of books by non-Canadian women.
Put starkly, a non-Canadian woman writer is just over a third as likely to get review space in a Canadian publication as a Canadian male writer. Our 2012 numbers revealed a similar statistic and so, the inequity that we recognized last year seems to have intensified this year. One of the questions we would do well to ask ourselves is what we can do to ethically address this tendency and to shift it.
Overall, the 2013 Count shows that the majority of books being reviewed are Canadian, but that majority is smaller. Why? Only time, consistent data collection, as well as sustained and active conversation will tell.
Growing the Count
In the Count of the 2013 reviews we introduced a new focal point—language. A clear limitation of last year’s count was its sole focus on English language reviews. We were criticized, rightly, for failing to count French reviews in our “Canadian” numbers. For us, the “C” in CWILA stands in—or aims to stand in—for all gendered, racial, and socio-economic communities located in the country now called Canada. And yet in practice, as a non-profit organization run almost exclusively by volunteers, we are hampered by our own limitations. Last year we simply did not have the resources to count in both official languages. This year we made it a priority to figure out how to do so. With the labour of our dedicated volunteers and editorial teams we expanded the linguistic content of the Count.
We were able for the first time to count French language publications: Le Devoir, Nuit Blanche, Lettres Québécoises, and Liberté: Art et Politique in addition to counting the French language reviews in Canadian Literature. We added these four new publications based on circulation and numbers of reviews published. This inaugural sample of French language representation in the Count is partial. It cannot give us more than a glimpse into gendered statistics in French language publications. And yet, it allows us to practice our mandate a little more fully. If we are ever to adequately account and advocate for representational justice in Canada’s literary culture then we will continually need to expand our fluency in the languages and the cultures that make up this shared space. In doing so, we have decided to publish essays in both English and French and to consider the results of the Count through first the integrated data you see here, and, next week, with a careful focus on considering the French numbers on their own. Next week’s spotlight will include an essay on the French language context written by Evelyne Ledoux-Beaugrand, with an English translation of her essay by Bronwyn Haslam.
Our initial foray into counting French language publications underscores that talking about representational justice in a public forum, while risky, can effect positive change. Of the 1,259 French language reviews counted, only 27% are on books authored by women, while 62% of the French language reviews we counted are about books written by men.
These are not heartening statistics. However, they are familiar. These statistics which, don’t forget, represent our first foray into a French language Count, are strikingly similar to the statistics from our initial Count in 2011 when only 41% of the reviews we counted were about books written by women. In fact, the numbers we have collected from French language reviews are not so terribly different from the 2013 English numbers. One very interesting percentage emerging from the French data, however, is this: 10% of the review space we counted is dedicated to male and female co-authored publications.
Does this suggest that collaborative creative and critical work is being rewarded with review space in Quebec? Perhaps, but only a broader, more sustained Count will provide the data we need to say for certain. What is clear is this: in both French and English Canada, discrepancy and inequity are still the order of the day. Of the total reviews counted (5,613) there were 1100 more reviews of books written by male authors than there were of books written by female authors. That, friends, is a big number.
Here is what our initial data on French language publications suggests:
A French-speaking Canadian female author has half the chance of being reviewed as a French-speaking Canadian male author and less than a non-Canadian male author.
Male authors publishing in French get 2.3 times more review space than female authors publishing in French receive.
French-speaking Canadian male authors receive six times the review space of non-Canadian female authors.
Non-Canadian male authors writing and publishing in French get three times the review space than non-Canadian female authors, and slightly more than Canadian female authors.
And, as in the English language reviews counted, our French data shows that men are still more likely to review male authors than female authors. Why?
It is crucial to underscore that the French language data is in keeping with the initial 2011 results of the English language data. In other words, our numbers show a systemic gender inequity across languages in Canada. What can we do to generatively address this unhealthy imbalance? It is time for a truly intersectional and coalitionary feminist response and call to action. The numbers are a place to begin.
The CWILA Effect
The numbers are a place to begin asking better questions about representational justice in Canadian literary culture, yes. But if we are truly to foster a sustainable and inclusive literary culture we must also think carefully and publicly about the less-visible stories the numbers begin to tell.
The 2013 Count shows similar trends to the 2012 Count—women are less likely to receive attention in the form of review space, and male reviewers are far more likely to review books written by men than books written by women.
Of the 5,613 reviews counted, 57% cover male-authored books, while 37% cover female-authored books.
Of the female-authored reviews counted, 51% were reviews of books written by women.
Of the male-authored reviews counted, only 25% were reviews of books written by women.
The statistics show that while women tend to review men and women’s books equally, men review men’s books twice as often as they do women’s books. Why is this still the case?
In an interview with Chelsea Novak, Literary Review of Canada editor Bronwyn Drainie noted that women reviewers were more likely to turn down requests to review than men. While being clear that this was her own observation based on ten years of experience (rather than something she had quantified with data), she observed that the reasons women turned down requests to review were different than the reasons cited by men. Namely, the responses Drainie hears are based on being overworked: “I’m just too busy”; “I’m overloaded”; “I can’t take on anything else.” Drainie speculates that she hears these kinds of responses from women because they are, in fact, doing a disproportionate amount of service labour, such as writing reviews. “Everyone wants women to be represented,” says Drainie, “and since there are fewer and fewer of them, more and more gets loaded on their shoulders than on the shoulders of all the men.” Drainie’s observations and speculations are compelling, and they point towards other hidden stories the numbers may tell: stories of workload, gender expectation, and gendered and racial diversity to name a few.
For example, as Ivan E. Coyote suggested in an interview with Tina Northrup in 2014, the “W” in CWILA is a contested space in a multiplicity of ways yet to be adequately considered. Last year, we added the category of “genderqueer” to begin to account for writers and reviewers who do not identify with the gender binary. This year, in consultation with trans women, trans, non-binary, and genderqueer writers and reviewers, we have refined how we present our data. We rely on the self-identification of writers and reviewers as well as the triple checking of pronoun usage to quantify data on writers and reviewers who identify outside the gender binary. And yet, this is only the beginning of the story. CWILA cannot hope to adequately address these issues or cultivate coalitions between woman-centred politics and gender critical politics more generally without writers and reviewers who identify outside the gender binary being actively represented within the organization itself on the board and in editorial positions. This, then, points to more risky and more urgent stories the numbers begin to tell. What will it take to continue to evolve CWILA into the kind of organization in which trans women, non-binary persons, women of colour, Indigenous women, and other severely marginalized groups want to take part? What will it take to feel as though we are truly working with a common purpose?
The story that emerges is this: while the Count will never be comprehensive, it is a crucial starting point for opening up public conversations about representational justice in Canadian literary culture. The Count may never adequately represent the diversity of genders, languages, and racial identities that make up this country’s literary culture. What it can do is get us talking and thinking about who is speaking and why. It can get us talking and thinking about who feels a part of that “us” and who does not. The Count can serve as a starting place for moving discussions about gender inequity and the micro- and macro-aggressions of living in a patriarchal culture into a wider public discourse. That discourse is risky, but it is a risk CWILA feels the responsibility to take.