4/4: The Spectacle of Absence – Gillian Jerome on the CWILA Count

Kim Minkus

When I interviewed Vancouver poet Maxine Gadd in March of this year for TCR’s 40th Anniversary Issue she inspired me in many ways. Her warmth, intelligence and fierceness are evident both in the interview and in the plays and prose pieces that appeared in the same issue. Maxine’s highly political and poetic life continues to engage with the issues closest to her, such as the social challenges of the Downtown Eastside and the social, artistic and political position of women. Maxine told me that “women have to get out there and blow their own horns,” and she was frustrated with what she continues to see as the same fights and the same questions – “Where is my ego? Where is the ego of other women? Where are all the other women? Where are their egos and genius?”

It is as if the literary women of Canada heard Maxine and the summer of 2012 is shaping up to be the Summer of Women in Canada’s literary world. Over the next two months I will be highlighting four women in a series I am calling “4/4 = 4 Women 4 Questions.” Gillian Jerome, Meredith Quartermain, Aisha Sasha John and Rita Wong will be answering four questions each. I have chosen these women for their energy, resourcefulness, dedication and fierceness in their commitment to their literary, artistic and political projects. Each interview will be preceded by a short introduction. First up: Gillian Jerome

In 2010 the American literary organization Women in Literary Arts (VIDA) conducted a statistical analysis of gender representation in the major English language literary journals. The resulting report, which broke the numbers down into pie charts, looked at the gender of reviewers as well as that of the authors of books reviewed. The numbers revealed surprising discrepancies between the sexes and the 2011 VIDA count shows little improvement. Women reviewers are few and books by women are being reviewed in far fewer numbers than those of their male counterparts even though the publication numbers indicate that the gender split for books published is roughly 50/50.

In the summer of 2012 a number of Vancouver women initiated a similar count and thus began Canadian Women in the Literary Arts. Women writers from across the country joined the project and either helped in the count or contributed interviews and essays to CWILA’s website. The results, once again, indicate that the numbers of women reviewing are low and that there is an under-representation of women in the books being reviewed. Gillian Jerome contributed an introductory essay for the site that can be read here; below Gillian, who was the force behind CWILA, responds to my questions.

KM: Recently I read an essay by Barbara Godard in which she referred to the absence of representation by women in literary communities (particularly conferences) as “the spectacle of absence.” There is of course a hidden irony or double-meaning here and it resonated with me when I considered the CWILA count – that what is missing becomes the most visible. With this in mind what is your greatest hope for CWILA as an organization?

GJ: My hope is that women will be so powerful and articulate in our public discourse about literature that the project of gathering data on gender representation will become relatively unimportant. Wouldn’t it be fabulous if women’s books were talked about so often that this work would be redundant? We might proceed by not only believing in that possibility, but actively pursuing it. CWILA has already made a difference; more people are already writing essays and reviews, rethinking what it means to create a robust, reasonable public discourse, and considering how to do so. I hope that all of this work will manifest in a more intelligent critical culture in Canada.

I would also really like to see our conversation shift to address other absences: the relative absence of a public discourse on race and class in the national press, for example. Indigenous voices are systemically and recursively silenced in this country. The conversation that CWILA has begun will shift, I hope, to address other spectacles of absence besides the glaring problem of gender. We are actively seeking indigenous writers to interview about the topic of absences in public conversations about books, and my hope is that we can expand, with depth and complexity, the conversations we’ve already started. CWILA is posting a call for essays this week; we are hoping writers interested in talking about race, for example, will respond.

KM: On June 29th in the National Post Michael Lista responded to Jan Zwicky’s essay “The Ethics of the Negative Review” in which she posited that choosing to write only positive reviews is a valid position to take as a reviewer. Lista’s “response” read as an attack, and Zwicky responded to the attack with a biting counter-strike. Since then Lista has lobbed another response at Zwicky and others have joined the fray. One outcome of all this is that Lemon Hound and The Rusty Toque have both responded with very concrete offers for women reviewers. I can only see all of this as positive in terms of an outcome, what is CWILA’s response or reaction to all of this? (Note: on July 13th Jan Zwicky wrote another article for the National Post – “On Critical Culture”)

GJ: I can only speak for myself, as the founder of CWILA, and as one of 200+ members. The exchange between Michael Lista and Jan Zwicky is important because it gets to the heart of a couple of problems, not only in our reviewing culture, but our literary culture in general. The first problem is ethos: too many of our public literary gestures—from reviews to panels to, ahem, literary cage matches—are performatively antagonistic; the speaker or writer uses the rhetorical space to create a persona rather than engender an intelligent critical conversation. I don’t necessarily agree with Jan Zwicky’s position that one need not write negative reviews ever. I’ve written some critical reviews and have even celebrated at least one or two negative reviews. But that Jan Zwicky even wrote a rebuttal to Michael Lista was, to me, a symbolic gesture—and an incredibly courageous choice—that will resonate in our literary culture for some time.

The second problem is related to the first and it’s the problem of the deeply entrenched sexism in our literary culture. Some people say that they can’t see this; I suspect that not seeing sexism is a choice. One need only to create a very public feminist gesture, like CWILA, to watch it surface. And I’m speaking about both the explicit language articulated in the discursive material made public, but also the very strange private messages sent to various women involved. These have been aggressively sexist and laced with all kinds of fear and fury. They also renew my commitment to this work. It has pleased me deeply to see editors reaching out to women by calling for more reviews and essays, and I hope that more and more women respond to these calls and produce good critical work. But there are less tangible manifestations of the work that CWILA has done. All kinds of women have written to me saying that they feel less alone, more supported, and less afraid to articulate their thoughts publicly—and those shifts are vital.

KM: CWILA managed in a very short period of time to successfully secure funding for a Critic-in-Residence. The stated aim of this residency is to “foster vital criticism that promotes public awareness of women’s literary and critical presence in Canadian letters.” What was CWILA’s vision when it created this residency?

GJ: When we talked on the listserv about the reasons why some women don’t review, I heard many women say that they are already overworked and underpaid. We wanted to consider an intervention that could respond to material needs. Someone on the listserv suggested that we create CWILA prizes for best review and reviewer, and that suggestion instigated a fascinating conversation about the imperialist and capitalist basis of a “best of” culture. Prizes can remind us of the some of the ugliest parts of market culture that are really hard to avoid, these falsely instantiating gestures that say, “this is better than this.” The whole prize approach can be strangely hierarchical and imperialistic in the ways it makes inflated declarations of excellence—all kinds of spectacles of absence can be found in an analysis of literary prizes.

KM: You are a poet, teacher, mother, writer, community worker and I am sure the list goes on. In your own practice as a writer, how do you perceive the importance of reviewing? Do you have any suggestions for addressing the difficulties of “time” and “balance” that were voiced by many of the writers you interviewed?

GJ: Critical work is fundamental to my artistic practice. I resist the idea that my artistic practice is somehow separate from my critical and/or political work, but I am the first to admit that they require very different energies from me, very different ways of being. I am fundamentally uninterested in living an apolitical life. What is this “balance” we speak of, anyway? We live in a screwed up world, and it seems to me that there must be a way to make it better, to bring it closer into balance, for all beings, without being entirely screwed up and out of balance as individuals. Nevertheless, when people tell me to slow down, and strive for balance, or a happy place, they are, to my ear, speaking the language of a particular kind of privilege that doesn’t register with me. I will happily lose sleep and “balance” to work for something I believe in; in fact, I have and will continue to live through short-term periods of stress to get things done. We make choices, and the time to do the work, in balance with all of life’s other demands, follows. That said, I value my time away from public conversations, and take long breaks from social media to attend to a particular kind of interior life that I require to make art and live my life happily with the people I love the most. I resist your request to offer suggestions because I’m not in a position to give out advice—people who burn out learn to make choices differently? There, that’s as close to giving advice as I’ll get.

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