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Many Canadian women hold a place in popular culture as iconic writers. From Lucy Maud Montgomery to Margaret Atwood to Alice Munro, women loom large in the Canadian literary scene. When it comes to the contemporary literature scene, female writers are still struggling to be acknowledged and heard.
Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA) works to highlight and create awareness about this imbalance through an annual count. The count focusses on finding out the number of books published by women, non-binary individuals and men, as well as the number of reviews published about books by women, men, and non-binary individuals.
Clarissa Fortin spoke with former count director and CWILA board member Judith Sholes and CWILA executive director Sheila Giffen about the trends the count reveals and the effect they hope it has on Canadian literature producers.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Has the count started for 2015 yet?
Judith Sholes: Yes it has begun. We started counting actually the first week of January ... we have a full roster of volunteers working with us to count 31 publications.
Since the count began have you seen it growing?
J: Well last year kind of spiked at 32 publications ... to count anymore (this year) it would be quite difficult because we are kind of maxing out here with around 40-45 volunteers per year and that's about... the maximum we can handle with the resources we have in terms of supervision and just dealing with that many people.
[We're] dealing with that number of reviews ... With 32 publications we're counting upwards of 5,500 reviews a year. This year we dropped one only because they're no longer doing reviews.
Potentially in the future we'll get more resources and we'd like to add more publications. We'd specifically like to add more French-language publications.
Sheila Giffen: We would like there to be more and that's one of the things that we're working on as an organization is making more of our resources bilingual and expanding our count more into getting more of a sense of French literary culture and what are the issues of gender discrimination there.
In terms of how the count has expanded over the years, it started with 14 and then it expanded to 25 and then 32 so it's kind of grown year by year but now we're sort of trying to keep it stable and that's both a question of resources. Until we have the resources to add more we'd like to have a stable data set so we can analyse trends more easily across years.
Which results of the count have been the most surprising to you over the years?
J: To be perfectly honest not a lot of the results are very surprising to us. The reason the count began was sort of founded on an idea shared by many women literary producers in Canada that kind of came together and talked about this over a period of time. That there [was] just not enough of women's presence within review culture but also in the newspapers in general.
We kind of assumed that the numbers wouldn't be great in terms of the amount of women's books they reviewed or the amount of women who were writing reviews. And in fact that was the case but it has been improving.
We hesitate to say that it's a trend toward improvement because we've only been doing this for four years and our data set has changed so significantly in those four years that it's hard to make that kind of comparisons right now, but we do notice that the relationships that we're developing with the publications that we count.
For instance, if a publication is open with us about their reviewing practices and we have sort of an ongoing connection with the editor.
We have these conversations begun and we continue these conversations with them. We find that actually their numbers evening out over time.
A lot of the publications we started counting say four years ago are now at or around [gender] parity.
S: We've seen kind of tangible evidence of editors and different literary producers paying attention to our numbers and these numbers sort of having an impact on the choices that people make.
What kind of different choices are they making based on what you found?
J: We did a couple series a couple of years ago with editors. They gave us a sense of how they are involved, the extent to which they're involved in choosing what reviews getting published or even assigning reviews or deciding on pitches. What we saw was that editors were more aware, were making active choices to involve women's books more or to review women's books more themselves or to assign more.
This actually happened quite significantly a couple of years ago -- to assign more women to do the reviews. And that by default added quite a few more women's books because women were reviewing women's books sort of on an equal scale with men's whereas male reviewers were tending to just review men's books.
Yes that was one of the most interesting stats that I saw, that male reviewers review very few women's books. Why do you think that is?
S: I'm not exactly sure. I don't know why but that is a trend we see year after year that men review men's books about two and a half times more often than they review women's books.
Do you think it indicates maybe a lack of respect for women as writers consciously or unconsciously?
J: I mean I would say there's definitely an ingrained patriarchal point of view but I'm not sure that necessarily represents a lack of respect for women writers by individual reviewers. I just don't think that.
S: I think it's sort of in keeping with sort of a general historical trends about what books get the most attention. On the one hand it sort of comes down to individuals and what they choose to review, but there's also a bigger literary culture at play and there's sort of expectations that certain books that get talked about should be reviewed and the fact that there are more men's books receiving attention in general is sort of all bound up in longer histories of our literary culture where male authors are more heavily featured.
J: I think it's impossible to answer that question simply -- I think it's a hugely complicated answer. We've been trying to figure out like, strands of that answer for the last three years and we still don't have a nice neat answer to give except: this is still happening.
S: And part of it too is that what we're not looking to do is to sort of attack people and attack individuals for embodying discriminatory practises when it comes to reviewing. These things are very complicated and it's not that we expect people to be perfectly even-keeled individuals who review men and women equally.
But what we want these numbers to do is to be an occasion for self reflexivity about the choices that you make and to, you know, give pause and think about whose voices are heard and whose stories are told and how can the choices that editors and readers and reviewers and publishers and literary producers across the board, what kind of choices can they make to make literary culture more equitable... so yeah I think we sort of hesitate to think about pointing the finger at people and saying alright you're embodying the patriarchy!
You mentioned that you've seen some change. Do the results make you hopeful from year to year?
J: Where I see improvement the most is quite literally through those relationships we're making with reviewers, the editors at certain publications. That's where we're seeing the most positive change.
And even with publications that when we first counted them had quite bad numbers, are really sort of taking a look. They might not have even been aware of the problem, they hadn't thought about it before and as soon as they did you started seeing the change. It wasn't like anybody was trying to make this happen it was just an invisible problem and that's exciting and that gives me hope that just bringing these numbers up has produced the conversation that brings into awareness what people are actually experiencing but were never able to prove.
Anything else to add about the results of the count?
S: The trend that we tried to highlight this year was the gender gap in non-fiction book reviews. If you look at our infographic from 2014 there's a whole section on genre and gender.
Of all the books reviewed, a substantial portion of them are non-fiction books -- about 40 per cent of the book reviews we counted are non-fiction books. But if you look at the gender breakdown within non- fiction 61 per cent of the non-fiction books are written by 29 per cent are by women. And we put a spotlight on some publications that review a substantial amount of non-fiction books and the gender gap that's at play there. This is something that we see year after year after year and across a lot of different publications, that women's non-fiction is not reviewed very much.
There's a fairly even split between book reviews by Canadian authors or by non-Canadian authors but if you look at the numbers for non-Canadian authors there are significantly more men reviewed than women. Put differently it shows you that if there are international titles that get reviewed in Canada, it's mostly men's books.
What does that say about women's fiction by non-Canadians in terms of the international reputation of books and how that plays out different gendered dynamic?
Are there any ways you hope to expand the count as the years go on?
J: We had questions about whether we want to include a whole new metric in our count. This comes up every year. This is the question of whether we should be counting race. But we haven't really come to an ethical or even an agreed upon idea about what that would look like.
S: There was a panel discussion at UBC that was taped and put on YouTube and there's a link on our blog on the website. The panel featured Laura Moss, Madeline Tien and Mary Chapman and they were discussing what will be the challenges and risks of counting for race -- how could we do that ethically? How could we do that responsibly?
Where we're at right now is we feel that a count like that would require more resources than we have because the only ethical way we can imagine doing that is to invite authors to self identify and that's something that the organization on which we're sort of based, although completely independant from, Vida has done.
They did a women of colour count and they asked authors to self identify as whatever they chose to and it required a massive effort assembling a huge database and compiling contact information from authors and reaching out to them and that is whatever form it might take for us if it ever does it would be a huge endeavor and at the moment we don't feel we have the resources necessary to do it well.
It's one of those things that we talk about as an organization, but we haven't been able to responsibly take on.
J: So one of the ways that we are trying to grow the count essentially is to grow beyond the count. We're trying to have the conversations in place of collecting those kinds of numbers. We do interviews, we do essays and we do panels and literary events that we're trying to engage the wider community on these issues and get people to speak for themselves and their experiences.
If this count continues five, 10, 20 years down the line what do you hope it will have accomplished?
S: Well hopefully in 20 years there will be no need for the count because all the discrimination will be gone!
All joking aside that would be the end goal. The purpose of this count is not to just keep counting forever. We want to keep collecting these numbers for as long as they are still a useful way to get conversation going for long enough that we can really talk about trends and the purpose of the count. What it really is is an activist strategy to collect concrete numbers about something that is happening and present those facts in a way that is quantifiable and irrefutable.
It's a strategy that we're using to open up a conversation about what are the barriers to equitable representation in Canadian literary culture. Why is it that women often take up less space is public discourse, in public spaces and what can we do to change that? The count is a way that we're addressing those issues. We'll keep doing the count for as long as that's a good way of addressing what we see as a problem in Canadian literary culture.
Clarissa Fortin is rabble's book intern.