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Guest opinion: CWILA, gender imbalance and the tracking of silence

Erin Wunker

There is a revolution underway in Canadian literary culture, and it starts with women and numbers. Numbers matter. Specifically, numbers matter when attempting to account for the literary culture of reviewing. Whose books get reviewed? Who reviews them? Where are those reviews being published? Counting book reviews by gender can reveal a lot – not only about literary culture in a given place, but about the pernicious silences in literary and cultural practices more generally.

Canadian Women in the Literary Arts was formed to account for and address gender imbalance in our literary discourse through the tracking of statistics on gender representation in book reviewing; to bring relevant issues of gender, race, and sexuality into the national conversation; and to create a network supportive of female writers and critics. Most of this work is accomplished by volunteers who spend hundreds of hours counting reviews and interviewing critics, editors, and writers.

Since its first count last year, CWILA has been covered in more than 35 newspapers and discussed on countless blogs. As a result, some review publications (including Q&Q) now share their numbers on a regular basis. CWILA has also launched its inaugural critic-in-residence, an annual position now held by Montreal-based poet Sue Sinclair. One of Sinclair’s tasks is to produce critical essays and reviews for publication and for CWILA’s website.

Yet there is more work to be done. Recently, poet and writer E. Martin Nolan asked CWILA: “After you call out a problem, what do you do?” While our members work diligently to address that question, the entrenched, systemic conditions that create gender imbalances – not to mention imbalances regarding authors’ race, class, and sexuality – are more difficult to count. To track these we need to track silences.

Silence requires us to look for the absences in public conversations. It requires that we think about who is speaking and why they feel entitled to speak. Thinking about silence means thinking about a continuing culture of inequity. It’s difficult, and yet it is absolutely necessary if we are to shift the fundamental imbalances of both Canadian literary culture and the country’s culture in general.

I recall taking a course on feminist theory when I was a university student. We were reading Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 treatise Vindication of the Rights of Women and discussing the author’s tone. She was so angry! Why? That a group of highly educated students couldn’t understand Wollstonecraft’s rage is indicative of the long and pernicious function of silence in relation to the rights of women.

The professor had us sit silently in the classroom for five minutes. Suddenly, she spoke. Her voice, though quiet, reverberated through the silence. And that’s what interventions into inequitable systems do: they interrupt the static of the status quo.

While CWILA is not the first Canadian organization to advocate for the representation of women working in the literary arts, it is a crucial intervention. And we need your help. At the end of June, we launched our new count. Visit the website to read our new findings, interviews, blog posts, and essays. Pass the link along. Better yet, join us, donate, and contribute to the conversation.

Erin Wunker is a CWILA member and assistant professor in the Department of English at Mount Allison University. Her areas of research are in gender, contemporary Canadian poetry and poetics, and critical theory.

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