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Faster Feminism Spotlight: Canadian Women in the Literary Arts

Numbers matter. 
Last year when Amy King published The Count on VIDA‘s website there was a flurry of conversation on the web and in print regarding women, publishing, and numbers. Indeed, prior to The Count poets Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young published a controversy-producing piece entitled Number Trouble. In this text Spahr and Young refute claims made by Jennifer Ashton in an article called “Our Bodies, Our Poems” in which Ashton suggests that “by the mid-80s efforts to ‘redress the imbalance’ had apparently succeeded—women seemed to make up more or less half of the poets published, half the editorial staff of literary magazines, half the faculties of creative writing programs, and so forth.” Following Ashton’s lead Spahr and Young review women’s presence in anthologies and come to resoundingly different conclusions.
In Canada the Numbers Trouble debate did not get the same kind of attention, at least not immediately.* In their introduction to Prismatic Publics: Innovative Canadian Women’s Poetry and Poetics editors Heather Milne and Kate Eichhorn cite Young and Spahr’s text as one inspiration for their anthology. Poet, blogger, and public intellectual (Montreal) Sina Queyras has been asking hard questions about the presence of women in public intellectual spaces for years. One of the stunning undercurrents in Unleashed, a collection of early blog posts, is Queyras’s unflinching refrain, “where are the women?” But aside from comments on her own posts the conversations around women in the literary arts remained siloed, for the most part. There are regional conversations, there are some conversations in the academy, and more (or so it seems to me) in creative writing communities. Last year poet, blogger, and intellectual-about-town (Toronto) Natalie Zina Walschots (aka NatalieZed) undertook her own analysis of the gender of literary arts reviews in Canada. Her post garnered quite a bit of discussion, unsurprisingly, perhaps, not all of it friendly.
Fast forward to this week. I was sitting at my computer looking at Facebook as I often do when I am procrastinating with my own writing. Lo, there’s a post from Sina Queyras that announces the launch of Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA). CWILA is the brainchild of poet, writer, teacher, and intellectual-about-town (Vancouver) Gillian Jerome. According to Jerome the idea for CWILA came from Vida’s Count, from Walschots’s post, and from her experience of organizing V125, where though they worked extremely hard to have gender balanced panels Jerome noted the conversations were not quite as balanced. Here’s a quote from CWILA’s site in which Jerome outlines the organization’s aims:
CWILA strives to promote and foster equity and equality of representation in the Canadian literary community by:
1) tracking statistics on gender representation in reviewing;
2) bringing relevant issues of gender, race and sexuality into our national literary conversation;
3) and creating a network supportive of the active careers of female writers, critics and their literary communities.
I say: BRAVO!
I also say, if you are interested in helping out you can join CWILA here. One of the most exciting things CWILA aims to do is to garner enough funds to pay a critic-in-residence. While not all Hook & Eye readers work in English departments, I wager many if not all of us have a sense of the importance of having someone write about your work. Reviews—good or bad (so long as they are fair)—are generative. They generate awareness, conversation, and frankly, they generate the culture we live in, and the canons we teach. You might also consider making a donation to the critic-in-residence fund here.

Gillian was kind enough to answer some of my questions. Here they are along with her answers:

EW: Tell our readers about yourself. You’re a poet, a teacher, an intellectual community organizer. What led you to form CWILA? Did you have help? What are your short and long-term goals?

GJ: You asked about why I created CWILA; and in a sense, I didn’t create CWILA—a group of 70 + Canadian women poets, novelists, scholars and critics did over the span of the last six weeks. But if you’re asking about how the idea for CWILA originated in me then I can speak to that.

The impetus came most recently from questions I asked myself after reading Natalie Walschots’ blog in which she discussed the imbalanced numbers of reviews—if counted by gender—in Michael Lista’s poetry column in the National Post. She counted the reviews he’d written in the last year, and out of fourteen books reviewed, only two were authored by women. I wondered: what are the numbers like at other national literary publications? What does the Canadian review culture look like in terms of gender? Is there imbalance in poetry reviews across the board? What about other genres? How might we measure these numbers against how many books are published each year by men and women in Canada? In short, counting became, for me, a very rational way to examine the gendered aspects of our literary landscape.
CWILA’s primary goal is to start a conversation about our data. Of course, we would like to improve the numbers by asking editors to take stock of their numbers. And we would like to see greater equity in reviews in all regards, not just gender. It seems to me that there is great interest in talking about these issues, connecting with other writers and critics and shifting the climate of reviews in this country among men, women and genderqueer writers. I’m very excited about our call for a CWILA critic-in-residence which will provide the successful applicant with $2000 to take time to write book reviews or a longer critical project. We are fundraising rigorously for this project and so I’d like to encourage everyone to donate to it.
I’m equally excited about the community that has been created around CWILA. It makes me happy to discover that more women writers already feel more supported and empowered about entering critical space because of what we’ve done. CWILA members would like to see more women take up public critical space in Canada and feel more supported, more confident, more capable.
EW: What role do you see the Academy playing in fostering equitable literary communities? What role would you like to see it play?
GJ: The academy plays an important role by offering discursive space to talk and write about the politics of representation. But it also has the capacity to produce more female critics who could be trained, supported and mentored to write in the national literary press. This is complicated, I understand, because so many female academics are overworked already, but it’s vital, I think, for women in the academy to enter the national conversations about books inside and outside of scholarship. Women who teach and study in universities have all kinds of training that makes them very well-equipped for these conversations. I also think that there is room for more connections to be made between the work that writers and scholars do; I would like to see more scholars value creative work and more writers value scholarly work, and for more collaborative work in these communities.
I will also say that I think many academic publications, like Canadian Literature, are already doing equitable work in reviewing books.  There are all kinds of female academics in positions of power in this country who do amazing work in fostering important conversations about womens’ writing, and work in editorial roles to ensure that womens’ books get written about and talked about, and that women review books. It’s also true that more can be done: more scholarship on books by women and more scholarship that examines the work written by marginalized writers. The most obvious example would be indigenous writers: we need more conversations about indigenous writing in English departments and more books by indigenous writers on course syllabi. I know that the conversations that I’ve had in my work with CWILA have changed the way I think about my courses and the books that I will teach. After all, the choices we make as academics shape canons, careers and national conversations about books.
 EW: How can our readers become involved?

GJ: Readers can become involved by thinking and speaking up about these issues. Engagement is an expression of attention and respect. So far, I have encountered some silence in particular parts of my literary and professional circles.  Perhaps people are thinking; perhaps they are afraid to engage; perhaps they are waiting to see if it’s cool to engage, or if it will help or hinder their careers; perhaps they simply don’t care. There are a myriad of reasons for silence in this rhetorical moment and the moments to come. It’s a complicated topic that isn’t always easy to talk and/or write about. My hope is that CWILA will provide an entry point for conversations about gender and the literary arts in Canada among writers and readers, as well as editors, publishers, agents, etc.
A few women have said to me that they don’t expect men to care about CWILA’s work, but I totally disagree: why wouldn’t men be concerned? What male writer in Canada wants the numbers for book reviews to be so embarrassingly unequal and for the conversations about books in the literary press to continue to reflect a masculinized tradition? To not be concerned is just such an outdated position in my mind.
Surely it’s the case that some men in Canadian literature want things to stay as they are because they benefit, but I am hopeful that that belief is held by the minority. After all, some of the percentages of reviews of books written by women at particular publications were as bad as percentages for representation of women writers in anthologies in the 1930s and 1940s, and in review space in the 1960s. I would find it disheartening to discover that anybody—man or woman—-involved in literature in this country doesn’t care at all about these inequities. This is perhaps why total silence on behalf of particular writers, editors, critics, scholars and publishers disturbs me. I think that saying nothing now or in the future— i.e. ever—is cowardly: it’s a means of keeping the numbers exactly as they are and hoping that the problem will go away or be handled by somebody else, i.e. the same women who have been speaking up—Sina Queyras, Margaret Christakos, Larissa Lai, Lisa Roberston, Kate Braid, Daphne Marlatt, etc. Lots of writers (male and female) are doing great feminist work in this country—I just want more of it. I want more people—women and men—to talk, write, engage in public where it counts. I want the conversation engendered by the findings to be robust, inclusive and transformative for everyone’s benefit.

A final thought: I often find myself fretting about how heavy I sound when I write my posts. Partly, as I have so often reminded myself, that is my role as a precariously employed academic worker. I often feel as though I cannot take on a single thing more, not one thing! But get this: in addition to having her own writing career Jerome is also a sessional lecturer at UBC. CWILA was formed and launched in six weeks flat! How inspiring is that knowledge?
What have you been dreaming of building? What would it take to get that underway?
*In 1984 Barbara Godard wrote an incredible essay suggesting why this may be a ‘Canadian thing.’ That essay is entitled “Excentriques, eccentric, avant-garde.” A Room of One’s Own 8, 4 (Fall, 1984): 57-75.

3 thoughts on “Faster Feminism Spotlight: Canadian Women in the Literary Arts

  1. This is all good stuff. And it made me just return to my editor, who just put two books in the mail for me, to say “Hey! Do you have any books by women I can review, instead of the two more male-authored collections you're sending me?” We'll see what happens. I'm going to keep asking.


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