Wednesday, 2 February 2011

The Count 2010: A Response (Or, a Baffled Entreaty)

Can someone explain something to me? I feel like I'm staring something in the face, something that's both obvious and yet disturbingly elusive. Something that I feel like I've known forever and yet have only just discovered. Something, no doubt, that many gender theorists and world-weary feminist friends of mine will say has been the status quo for years.

The thing that I am actually staring at right now is a list of nicely plotted, ever-so-innocuous pie charts. The pie charts are part of The Count 2010, a study completed by VIDA outlining the participation of the genders in major literary publications across the United States and Great Britain. “Participation” includes both the work of magazine writers (reviewers, etc), and the reviews of books written by different authors. Most major publications (The NY Review of Books, The London Review of Books, etc) are outlined in the study. And most of these publications, without fail, show a gender bias in favour of men.

I should, before I say anything else, note that the results of the study were not, in the broad sense, surprising. I was not surprised to discover that the majority of the publications reviewed have more male reviewers, or that the publications themselves reviewed more books written by men. This is one of those ever-present truths that contributes to the world-weariness of my more militant friends. What did surprise me, however, was the degree to which the disparity operates. How is it possible that The New York Review of Books reviewed 306 books written by men in 2010, and only 59 books that were written by women? How can The Times Literary Supplement review 1036 male authors, and only 330 female authors, in the course of that same year?

I’m stumped. If you go to the article itself, you’ll notice, in the comments section, that many astute readers have pointed out that these figures are probably not indicative of the publishing industry as a whole – there are, as many have noted, a plethora of small presses and smaller journals out there that regularly feature female contributors in various capacities. This is true. But you’ll also probably notice the call for dialogue, and the entreaty from VIDA members to stand up and start talking/discussing/looking at the reasons that there might be for these discrepancies. I’m still in shock, and I’m afraid that my reasons, or my guesses, won’t be that educated. Or that substantial. However, as someone who has been studying, living, and working in this world in some capacity for the past fifteen years, I’m going to take a stab at saying something nonetheless.

When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Victoria, the majority of my classmates were women. The majority of the faculty and sessional instructors were women. Based on this, I (erroneously, as it turns out) never really felt as though I was encountering any difficulty as a female writer. I thought we were all one and the same. I didn’t think there was such a thing as “male” and “female” writing, and I figured that once I entered into the larger publishing sphere, the only thing I’d be up against was the question of whether my writing was good enough to be published, or not. (So naïve, I know now, but still so true for that moment in time.)

Then I moved overseas for a while, and did a Masters degree in writing. As luck would have it, I was the only female student in a class of three, and thus the question of gender balance became an issue almost immediately. What also became immediately apparent was my worry over whether my concerns about gender were justified in the first place. I had two instructors: my female instructor said that she was worried about it too, and advised me to pay attention; my male instructor said that he didn’t think it would be an issue.

They were both right, as it happened. I am always uncomfortable on some level when discussing gender issues because I worry that the act of examining these issues makes them into problems in the first place. And so of course the worry about being pegged as a female writer meant, in a way, that this pegging would come up somewhere along the line. I was looking for discrepancies between how I judged my work and how my male counterparts judged it, discrepancies based at least in part on gender, and I found them. I also worried over how my classmates approached the class, about how they spoke to both the female instructor and myself (a worry that was corroborated by my female instructor, who admitted later on that she found them both at least a tad condescending), and whether or not I needed to increase or decrease my critiques of their work in relation to their belief that I was being too “girly” about issues that they didn’t deem important.

I should say right here, before I say anything else, that my male colleagues were also really, really lovely.  Very charming, and very polite, and very funny, and also quite supportive of what I was trying to do as a writer.  Sometimes I worry that I over-thought everything. I worried so much about gender politics that I made them, I think, into something a great deal bigger than they actually were. (Or perhaps I’m being unfair – the Poetry cohort in my year was composed of eight students, seven of whom were women, and the jokes that were leveled at their male colleague didn’t stop.)

Regardless of the above, however, I might have moved on and out of that year -- without really pinning that much importance to gender issues outside of my own neurotic brain -- mostly oblivious to the question of gender dynamics, were it not for an exchange that happened between one of my male colleagues and one of the Poetry gals towards the end of the year. We were sitting around a table in a lovely little Scottish pub, drinking our pints, when the question of feminism and gender issues came up. My male colleague blinked, in an I-can’t-quite-believe-we’re-talking-about-this kind of way, and said, “But as far as I’m concerned, the fight for feminism is over. I mean – there’s no difference between you and me as we’re sitting here. You can do everything I can do, and vice versa. Why do we need to keep talking about it?”

Which, on the surface, seems a most lovely, enlightened thing to say. But it troubled me then, and it troubles me now. The abolition of slavery did not eradicate the problem of racial tension, and it would seem to me that the same kind of problem still exists with the male/female gender dynamic – the acknowledgment (in the West) of female equality has not done away with the more underground, insidious elements to gender inequality. (I am not at all qualified to comment on the rampant, active gender inequality still at large in various parts of the world – let’s just acknowledge here that it’s a huge problem, and it persists in being a huge problem regardless of how many educated men think that feminism is a dead debate.) Specifically, the acknowledgment of female equality, on paper, hasn’t done a whole heck of a lot to even out the playing field when it comes to Western literature. As anyone who has paid attention to trends in North American literature over the past forty years can see, the industry has been ruled largely by men and by male perspectives. Witness John Updike. Normal Mailer. Martin Amis. When people speak of great contributions to American literature over the country’s history, you get names like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ezra Pound.  I am not denying that these names deserve their place in the pantheon -- what I am saying is that you don’t hear so much (though they are there, ‘tis true) about Beecher Stowe, or Flannery O’Connor, or Toni Morrison. Or, that is, you might hear about them, but you always hear about them in terms of their specific place in the literature. Beecher Stowe was a great abolitionist writer. O’Connor was a master of the Southern Gothic. Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature, yes, but she also wrote a book that was made into a movie with Oprah Winfrey. Do you hear these names in conjunction with the term “Great American Novelist”? Leaving aside for a moment the fact that the term itself is more than a little ridiculous, let’s acknowledge that fact: you don’t. The Great American Novel is reserved for the likes of Updike and Mailer and Pynchon, and, more recently, a certain Mr. Franzen of Freedom fame. People might speak about Joyce Carol Oates in terms of her prolific nature, but Joyce Carol Oates hasn’t made it to TIME magazine.

So on the one hand, it’s all well and good for a man to stand up and say that he doesn’t think there’s any difference between himself and the woman sitting next to him on the table. That’s good. That’s more than good, in fact. But the problem here is that this doesn’t hold true for the publishing industry at large, or the world at large, and that’s precisely why the feminist debate needs to keep going. Five years ago, one might have been applauded for saying that they thought racial inequality didn’t exist in America – so many things that have happened around the current presidency are connected, in some way, to the fact that the inequalities are still there, and all the more powerful for being so underhanded. So too, for women writers. So too for the feminist debate. If you get complacent about something like this, you just allow for things like the statistics mentioned above to become the status quo. You allow the poison to be put into the water, where it spreads to everyone in ways you cannot see.

As a Canadian writer, my gut instinct is to wonder if the same figures would show in a survey of Canadian publishing. I want to say that they’d be different – I was, after all, raised on a steady diet of Atwood and Munro, and you can’t look at CanLit these days without encountering a strong contingent of vocal female writers. Three of the five authors short-listed for this year’s Giller Prize were women. Yet in the sixteen year history of the prize, only six women have won – that’s just under a third of the prizes awarded. And while part of me is beginning to waver even as I write this, to whisper and doubt and say Amanda, you’re just getting all touchy and super-sensitive about everything, the other part of me wonders if the figures in Canadian publishing would show something to the same effect. As the article in VIDA shows, the numbers don’t lie.

But what do the numbers reflect, in the end? I grew up with wonderful notions of being able to write and be an artist and practise my craft to its fullest extent – when I moved into that fancy world of publishing, I realized that there’s a heck of a lot more to the publishing industry than good books. Like anything else, publishing is a business, and like most businesses nowadays, they’re all about how best to push the product. Writing is as captive as anything else to the trends of the market. I wonder if it’s not entirely a coincidence that JK Rowling and Stephanie Meyer, both hugely successful women writers, also managed to fit nicely into a genre that takes the question of style or literary importance entirely out of the fray, in the same way that Beecher Stowe, O’Connor, and Morrison have written books that get pigeonholed in a way that manages to negate their literary merit. (I have my own thoughts as to the literary merits of Twilight, of course, but for the moment that is neither here nor there.) What’s interesting, here, is that the Great American Novel, and hence the Great American (or Canadian, or British) Novelist, is somehow seen as something that goes beyond the confines of genre and therefore, subsequently, elevates itself above the marketplace, even if The Great American Novelist does not turn out to be a billionaire. Yet literary fiction, in its elevation of all things anti-genre, has become its own genre in the end. The distinction? A Pulitzer, a Giller, a Booker; a narrative that might be hard to follow or (if you’re a male writer) ingenious in its portrayal of domestic concerns. The books still sell – they’re just packaged in a slightly more upscale way. They aim for the “intellectual”, “educated” audience, as opposed to women who read romance novels or mystery fans who go for Agatha Christie. Publishers market the books, this "genre above genre". in effect, as the Lindt Easter bunny to the Cadbury Crème Egg, seemingly unaware of the fact that those of us who relish our Lindt also find those Crème Eggs pretty damn tasty.

The point: The Great American Novel, or whatever you want to call it, despite being a vehicle traditionally inhabited by men, and seen in some way as being superior to the literature written by a great many women (and genre writers, for that matter), is nonetheless subject to the same whims of the marketplace. It is, in the end, just another product to peddle. In the end, the essays that men write and the novels that they create get sold in the same bookstores as everything else.  So why, given the fact that everything gets reduced to product in the end, is so much effort put into promoting the product from male writers as though it’s more important?   Why are more male writers reviewed?  Why are there more male reviewers on staff?  Why do people automatically assume that a man who writes of domestic concerns is writing heavyweight stuff, while a woman who writes of domestic concerns is all about flashy pink covers and making women cry?

I’m baffled, folks.  Baffled, a little heartsick, a little tired of it all.  A little unsure as to how I can best get my voice behind this in a way that’s going to grab some notice.  Because the grand irony, of course, is that I am one of those women writers, and I would like, very much, to be known as a Great Canadian Novelist.  I want to be true to my art, but I also want it to thrive – I am ready to peddle my product as far as need be, whether it fall into the Lindt camp or not.  But I would also like, very very much, to live in a world where our male and female writers are given equal exposure, and where good writing is given its due regardless of what it chooses to discuss.

Am I asking too much?  The figures would seem to suggest it ... 


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