Culture | The fictions of equality

Why the American debate about women in literature matters in Canada

Last month, VIDA, a grassroots organization representing women in the literary arts, published a study showing evidence of a considerable gender bias in the literary review sections of 12 leading American publications. The report, entitled “The Count,” revealed that in 2010 female authors were not only less frequently reviewed than male authors by publications such as the New Yorker, the Atlantic, and the New York Review of Books, but also made up the minority of reviewers.

Since its release, VIDA’s study has incited an incredible amount of discussion in the American literary community about its possible implications and explanations. Writers like Eileen Myles and Jessa Crispin have written thoughtful responses to the study, calling on female writers to raise their pens, and write themselves out of their shame and right through the literary glass ceiling.

In their responses, the (mostly male) editors and publishers on trial have confirmed that, for the most part, they are the culprits of these crimes. Jonathan Chait of the New Republic reminded us of this when he suggested that the statistic could be accounted for by men’s greater interest in “both producing and consuming opinion literature.” Peter Stothard of the Times Literary Supplement, expressed a similarly myopic view in his article, “VIDA and the pie charts,” where he wrote that “the TLS selects, without prejudice, fear or favour, the writers who have the best things to say about the books we think are important.” With that, let us move on to more unimportant things.

Canadian content

This discussion, which has thrived so brilliantly in the aftermath of the study in the United States, has been comparatively absent in the mainstream Canadian media. Neither the editors at the Globe and Mail nor those at the the Montreal Gazette have bothered to publish a response to the study – and it is worth asking whether they should. To put it another way, are the challenges faced by female writers in Canada comparable to the ones faced by female writers in the United States?

A number of factors could lead one to believe that the situation here is different. There is the towering figure of Margaret Atwood, who – for writing a novel about female subjugation that men actually liked – will forever be the reason why female fiction writers can’t complain about getting their voices heard in Canada.

There is also this year’s Giller Prize shortlist: three women, two men, and the winner, Johanna Skibsrud. To some, that might be equal enough, but what kind of Canadians, or more importantly what kind of readers, would we be if we didn’t look beyond these surfaces?

Here are the facts – and the facts behind the facts – about women writing in Canada. First, the numbers, all related to the prestigious awards that Canada holds so dear to its heart. Though subject to a different set of jurors, these awards reflect similar patterns of discrimination to those found in VIDA’s analysis. For example, in the last 25 years, the Governor General’s Literary Award in Fiction has gone to men 68 per cent of the time. Looking back to this same award’s entire history, men have won 77 per cent of the time. The more contemporary Giller Prize has an equally dirty record: only 6 out of 16 times was a woman deemed the best Canadian fiction writer of them all.

Of course, these statistics, like VIDA’s, have been pulled – probably with some injury to the record – from their context. They are, in fact, shaped by questions like how many women wrote that year, how many had their novels published, and how many of them are on the jury? We don’t know those answers and we probably won’t look them up, but these larger issues of women’s roles in the literary world probably bring us closer to the story’s truest notes.

Form and content

As Gail Scott told The Daily in an interview, “It’s not only numbers” that matter. “It’s also what’s allowed and what wins prizes.” In Canada, Scott pointed out, a lot of what gets attention are domestic narratives – stories centering around the family and the home. Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists could be considered an example of this, and Giller winner Bonnie Burnard’s Good House and GG winner Carol Shield’s The Stone Diaries are two more.

Novels that follow conventional narrative forms also tend to be favoured. “In [especially mainstream] prose there isn’t a lot of experimenting and daring going on which I think prevents a writing subject, and particularly a different type of female writing subject,” Scott explained.

The publishing industry’s preference for both conventional style and stories – “conventions” created by men when the business was, at the very least, more explicit about its misogyny – is so ingrained in the literary culture as to have equivocated the definition of “good fiction” with what ends up being fiction written by men.

Novelist and journalist Lynn Coady noted this writing in an email that, “the idea of ‘Great’ and ‘Timeless’ literature, top quality writing, is highly gendered in our culture and most of the time we never even question that.” At a basic level, making us aware of this subtle control over what perspectives count is what matters about VIDA’s study, and perhaps what makes it matter even more in Canada. If the gender bias here isn’t as statistically obvious as in America, something tells us we can find it in the prose itself.

Something’s gotta give

In a literary culture where women who push boundaries receive reviews saying “nothing happens in this novel” or “where’s the action,” we are led to wonder if the definition of what it means to make good fiction has a chance at be redefined anytime soon. But something has to give. VIDA’s study has attracted too much attention to simply fade into the background after a few months, to become just a brief nightmare for editors and publishers, and a brief glimpse of light for the female writers whose works have eclipsed by those of their male colleagues for so long.

So what will give? Will it be the literary establishment’s unapologetic favouritism toward male stories and perspectives? Or, what about women writers’ desire to write what, according to Scott, “they feel needs to be said that isn’t”? Our bets – and pens – are on the latter.


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