The presence of sexism in the literary community
In an interview this September, David Gilmour, Pelham Edgar Professor of Literary Studies at the University of Toronto and winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award, claimed he does not “love women writers enough to teach them.” What followed was outrage. It came pouring out of newspapers, social media sites and student demonstrations.
And then, sometime in the aftermath of all the anger, debate and discussion, another point was uncovered: the fight against sexism in the literary community is still very much alive.
“We have a cultural bias that literature really is the providence of men,” said Gillian Jerome, founder of Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA). “I think women hold this bias just as much as men. I think there is a lot of internalized misogyny around who gets to produce culture, who is literary, who can be a master.”
Jerome founded CWILA in May 2012 after noticing the ways in which men and women took up space at the Vancouver Poetry Conference.
“There were an equal number of men and women at the conference,” Jerome said. “What I found at the panel discussions and readings was that in almost every single case, men would…take up the talking space. And yet really bright women were sitting there.”
CWILA strives to promote equality and a strong female presence in critical culture by fundraising for two programs; the CWILA Count and Critic-in-Residence program.
“Natalie Walschots…counted Michael Lista’s book review section in the National Post and she found that he was reviewing men significantly more often then he was reviewing books by women,” Jerome said. “And that’s when I started asking questions.”
Those questions led Jerome to begin to do her own research. In the first year, CWILA counted 2,500 book reviews. What they found, according to Christine Leclerc, who sits on CWILA’s board of directors, was a gender gap in the review community, and the need to encourage more women critics.
The 2012 CWILA Count for example, found that in 2011 17 per cent of the Walrus’ reviewers were female, and 88 per cent were male. In 2012, that number shifted drastically and became equal.
“We do see a lot of Canada’s major book review publications changing their practices as a result of the release of the CWILA count in the past couple of years,” Leclerc said. “(But) we did come to see that there is also a need to encourage more women to participate in review culture.”
Susan G. Cole, who is the senior entertainment editor of NOW Magazine, and one of the very few female critics in the journalism industry, agrees.
“I get a lot of really strong response from my film writing because a woman’s perspective is heard so seldom. The first thing I wrote about (in film) was why I hated No Country for Old Men…and I got a huge response from women who said, ‘Well, finally somebody is saying some of the things we wouldn’t hear from anybody else other than a female critic.’”
Jerome says a large contributing factor for the lack of female critics could be due to the social make-up of reviewers in Canada.
“If you have a community of people who are producing reviews in the country and (the majority) of that group are men, that carries with it its own kind of cultural capital,” she said. “It can be difficult to break into those networks if you are, say, a woman who is queer, or a woman of colour, an indigenous woman, etc.”
Despite their findings, Jerome and Leclerc both view the act of reviewing to be an important part of an author’s career.
“I moreso see (reviews) as part of a conversation. I put something out into the public sphere and then someone else has an interaction with it and then they respond. Instead of seeing it as something I need to deal with, I see it as someone engaging with my work,” Leclerc said.
Canadian author Susanna Kearsley has been writing books for 20 years. She is the author of over 10 fiction novels, including the recently published The Firebird. It was reviewed by numerous publications, including The Toronto Star.
Kearsley says there have been very few circumstances in her career where she has felt her novels had been reviewed differently because she was female.
“I’ve found reviewers by and large have reviewed the book, which is what you want them to do, and not the person,” Kearsley said. “I’m more concerned about having the book and the work looked at respectfully and seriously, instead of having somebody focus on me and what I’m wearing.”
Like Jerome and Leclerc, Kearsley believes reviews are an integral part of an author’s career, and one that she appreciates.
“I have a certain intent when I’m writing but I have to accept that the book as itself is going to connect with the reader in a very intimate way,” Kearsley said. “I think what’s most gratifying is that it connects it all…that somebody in this very busy day and age actually takes the time to sit down and read your book.”