Diversity and Representation

I’m late to this conversation.

On May 4, Natalie Zina Walschots published a captivating post on her blog regarding the disparity between the numbers of books by men and women reviewed in the National Post in the previous year and a half. Just over a year ago, Sina Queyras wrote passionately about gender bias in contemporary literary cultures. rob mclennan subsequently weighed in on his own experience as a publisher and reviewer. These three barely scratch the surface of this conversation. The comment streams provide some further depth, and there are endless articles to be tracked down in addition.

This is an issue I’m acutely self-conscious of as a publisher. My own Apt. 9 Press skews male–of 14 authors I’ve published, only 4 have been female. In keeping with what others have said, this in part reflects my experience of soliciting and receiving submissions. I’ve had greater success actually getting manuscripts from the men I approach. It certainly does not reflect my reading, and does not reflect the gender balance of my wish list. Nonetheless, it is a fact of the current state of my publishing project. I hope over the next several years of the life of the press that this will balance out (of the three titles coming along in the Fall, for example, two are by women).

The press has been inactive for the last ten months or so, and it has given me a chance to reflect on this disparity. What I love about these conversations, debates and ideas is that a discussion of a particular marginalized and under-represented group of people can be a good first step towards discussing the problems of marginalization and under-representation more broadly. To discuss diversity and variety primarily, or even exclusively, in terms of gender is reductive. A list with a perfect ratio of men to women is not necessarily more richly diverse than Michael Lista’s body of reviews that prompted the current iteration of this discussion (I won’t comment directly on Lista here, I have not read each of his reviews). I feel that my own Apt. 9, despite skewing male, presents a varied and diverse body of work. I have published first chapbooks by writers, chapbooks by writers who have been publishing for decades, young and old, queer and straight, poetry/fiction/non-fiction (to say nothing of the diversity of forms and styles within these types of writing), women and men.

Addressing the gender disparity clearly evident in how books are reviewed in this country is a productive, worthwhile project that we should all be engaged with. I feel that we should also consider other terms of disparity. rob mclennan gestures towards the geographic characteristics of his own work, discussing his Canadian vs. Non-Canadian numbers. I admire work being done at The Bull Calf Review where they publish “Retrospective Reviews,” discussing important books from previous years. An increased number of reviewers writing from an increased number of critical positions would also be valuable; as in my academic experience, it quickly grows boring when everyone agrees. Forms of publishing also come into play. It is hard to imagine it happening, but wouldn’t it be wonderful to see a chapbook or two reviewed in a national forum?

It’s an impossible project, of course. We can’t balance perfectly the endless configurations of different markers of identity that determine how books are categorized, published, reviewed. It is possible, though, to work individually, to be conscious of one’s habits, to resist those habits, to seek out new, interesting and challenging writing. I suspect we all do this already in our personal reading, and variety is surely a goal of each of our writing projects.

Yes, I intend to review and publish more writing by women. I also intend to review and publish more varied writing under a whole host of other categories.

As Walschots list of poetry books by Canadian women since 2010 shows, there is no shortage of wonderful writing and publishing being done by women in this country, which is an excellent place to start and certainly was not always the case. I’ve been reading Dean Irvine’s phenomenal Editing Modernity: Women and Little Magazine Cultures in Canada, 1916-1956. Discussing Alan Crawley’s work editing Contemporary Verse from 1941-1952, Irvine touches on a historical version of this same discussion. I’m going to quote two full paragraphs, forgive their length:

Despite their common ancestry in the CAA poetry yearbooks and derivation from Poetry, Canadian Poetry Magazine and Contemporary Verse remained separated by their different commitments to the making of modernist little-magazine cultures, particularly to the issue of gender. Crawley’s personal correspondence, including editorial advice and recommendations for revision, inspired an entire generation of Canadian poets, especially women poets, to publish their poetry either in Contemporary Verse or in other little magazines. As Butling notes in her article on women poets and British Columbia little magazines, ‘Contemporary Verse is . . . significant for the number of women writers that it published. Thirty to fifty percent of the poems in every issue were by women . . . (Not until the eighties do we see such a high percentage again)’ (‘Hall’ 61-2). While she is emphatic that Contemporary Verse was not a ‘women’s magazine’ (62), Butling speculates on the possible reasons for its attractiveness to women: ‘Was it the greater prominence of women in wartime combined with the obvious presence of women contributors at t he start of the magazine, or editor Crawley’s open and supportive manner, or the non-aggressive nature of the magazine?’ (62).  Writing in 1938 to McLaren, Crawley hinted at the gender orientation of his editorial work on Contemporary Verse when he announced ‘what a feminist I am unconsciously’ (FMP).

The extent to which he practised an ‘unconscious’ feminism and fostered an emergent women’s modernism in an otherwise masculinist little-magazine culture can be measured by the significant volume of women’s modernist poetry he published in Contemporary Verse. In fact, around the mid-point of the magazine’s run, Crawley takes stock of the number of men and women poets represented not only in Contemporary Verse but also in the recent anthologies Unit of Five (1944) and Other Canadians (1947); he notes that in each case the men far outnumber the women and finds himself surprised to discover that ‘in twenty two numbers of Contemporary Verse covering a period of more than six years forty men have contributed considerably more poems than the women writers whose number is thirty’ (‘Notes’ 20). If Crawley’s initial ‘unconscious’ feminism facilitated the emergence of a respectable proportion of women poets, his statistical reflection on the magazine’s contents bespeaks a gender consciousness that makes plain his advocacy of an increased representation of women at a time when Canada’s modernist literary culture sustained its dominant masculinist character. (87-88)

Every review is valuable. Let’s write more, and more variously. Queyras provided a list of proactive steps towards achieving greater balance in these conversations. Her call to “DEMAND A MORE VIGOROUS AND DIVERSE LITERARY WEAVE” says more eloquently, powerfully and concisely what I intended with this post. So allow me to simply repeat her words:

DEMAND A MORE VIGOROUS AND DIVERSE LITERARY WEAVE.

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