The Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA), a national organization devoted to promoting “strong and active female perspectives and presences within the Canadian literary landscape” recently released a report looking at gender representation in Canadian book reviews. You can find the full set of numbers here, and an infographic explaining those numbers here.
Folks, the news is not good. I mean, it’s not terrible, but it’s also not great. It’s also pretty indicative a deeper gender imbalance in the literary world in general.
Let’s take a look at some of the numbers provided by CWILA, shall we?
First, the basics:
Out of the 5,613 book reviews studied, 56.9% were reviews of books written by men, 37% were reviews of book written by women, 5.02% were reviews of books co-authored by men and women, 0.14% were reviews of books written by non-binary individuals, and 0.93% percent came from “unknown author(s).” So far so good – I mean men are slightly outpacing women, but it’s not a big deal. 37% of the pie is still a lot of delicious pie (whenever I look at pie charts I always picture a big old steaming dish of apple pie, but your mileage may vary).
It’s when we start to look at who’s reviewing what (and how often) that things start to get a bit .. whacky? Out of all of the reviews written by women, 51% are of books authored by women and 43% are of books authored by men (with the remaining 6% being taken up by reviews of books that were either co-authored by men and women, were written by non-binary individuals or were written by unknown authors). Out of all of the reviews written by men, a staggering 69% were of books authored by men, while a measly 25% were of books authored by women (with, again, 6% of the reviews taken up by the same three groups mentioned above).
On top of that, while some publications (The Vancouver Sun, The Toronto Star, Quill & Quire) employ more slightly more female reviewers than male, reviews written by women still make up only 38% of the top 20 reviewers (those who wrote 50+ reviews last year) in the country.
Let’s just look at some of those numbers one more time:
25% of the books reviewed by men were written by women.
69% of the books reviewed by men were written by men.
Men review nearly three times as many books by men as they do books by women.
If that’s not a huge indication of the problematic ways we view women writers, then I don’t know what else is. Women review nearly twice as many books written by men as men review books written by women. And it’s not as if there’s a dearth of women authors writing quality books – novels written by women won the Man Booker Prize in 2013, 2012 and 2010. Books by women won both the French and English Governor General’s Literary Awards in 2013; women also won in 2012, 2010, and 2009. Alice Munro won the Nobel Fucking Prize for literature last year. There are so many fantastic, internationally-recognized, award-winning books by women (many of them Canadian – CANLIT, REPRESENT) – so why aren’t men reviewing them?
The answer is, unfortunately, pretty simple: men don’t read books by women.
There are a lot of reasons for why this is true. Some men – like David Gilmour and all of his highbrow dudebro acolytes – just don’t think that women are very good writers. See, they only like the serious, classic stuff – stuff like Chekhov and Tolstoy and Proust. They like the good ole-fashioned, tried-tested-and-true Western literary cannon, which is pretty male-dominated for reasons that I’m sure have nothing to do with the historical oppression of women and everything to do with talent and know-how. Some men have shied away from books by women, worried that being caught reading Pride and Prejudice or Wuthering Heights will somehow bring their masculinity into question. And some men have literally just never thought about it; they grew up with a toxic cultural mix of beliefs that taught them that real, serious books are written by men and only girls read books by girls. Which is tragic, and not just because every kid should should have the chance to read the delight that is Anne of Green Gables.
It’s this last group of guys who, I’m pretty sure, make up the majority of the male readers in this work. They’re guys who, in school, were told to read famous books by famous men as a matter of course. They’re guys who were never handed works of literature written by women because a teacher or a parent or a friend never thought they needed books they could better “identify” with. They’re guys who don’t question the fact that nearly all of the major works of fiction displayed at a bookstore or library are written by men. They’re guys who have never noticed that male writers are the status quo, because if you’re part of the status quo, why would you ever bother questioning it?
Women are, in many ways, treated as a special interest group. And sometimes that treatment is legitimate, like when we’re talking about reproductive rights or street harassment or workplace sexism. But that also means that literature written by women is viewed, often subconsciously, as being especially for women. And while we might praise the technical aspects of a book written by a woman, or laud its excellent storytelling or well-developed characters, we still ultimately view it in the category of other. It’s not regular a book – it’s a lady book. Probably with some kind of lady agenda. But books by men are just books. Serious, literary books.
Men aren’t encouraged to read books by women because on some level we don’t believe that those books were written for men. And yet no one ever questions why women would read books by men. It’s just taken as a given that books by men are the gold standard, and that everyone, no matter what their gender, should read them.
So here’s a challenge for all the men out there (including, but not limited to, the men who write book reviews): read books by women. Pick out a specific chunk of time – maybe a month, three months, or, if you’re feeling especially brave, a whole year – and during that period only seek out books by women. This challenge, by the way, doesn’t have to be isolated to literature – you could also have a month where you only listen to music by women, or look at paintings by women, or watch movies written and directed by women. If you’re struggling to find enough media to fill a whole month, then ask for recommendations; ask you’re girlfriend what she’s reading, or ask your little sister what she’s listening to these days. Ask your mom. Ask the woman who sits next to you at work. Ask that aggressively eye-linered punk chick who almost always ends up on the same bus as you in the morning. I mean, don’t be pushy or gross about it, and if they’re not interested in talking then back the fuck off, but still. Just try asking. I’m willing to bet that most women would be delighted to have a man ask them what they’re reading these days.
I have a friend who was recently explaining to me why she’d decided to end a blooming relationship with a nice, smart, funny man. There were lots of reasons why things just weren’t working out between them, but one red flag for her was this: he wasn’t reading any of the books she loaned him. See, book-talk was a big part of the attraction between them, and he was lending her plenty of books (which he expected her to read and which, diligently, she read), but apparently it wasn’t a two-way street. The books he gave her were, in his mind, important; the books he received were not. And before you jump in and tell me that not all men, let me say that I’ve seen this same dynamic play out in so many relationships. Men take it as a given that the women in their lives will read the books they recommend; unfortunately, they do not extend those women the same courtesy.
Guys, don’t be that guy. Read (and review, if that’s your bag!) books by women. If you consider yourself to be in any way an advocate for gender equality, then let that equality extend to the media you consume. Because women’s voices won’t get any louder if men aren’t helping to amplify them.
Not only that, but if you’re only reading books by men, then you are seriously missing out on some really fucking good books.