Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Time to crack open the canon

This story is slightly old news now, but at the beginning of the year, Vida, an organization for women in literary arts, published statistics on women authors reviewed in publications, as well as who's doing the reviewing. The statistics are dismal, but perhaps not terribly surprising.

What is more surprising however, is some of the nonsense that came from the magazine editors featured in it. In an article published in the Guardian (The full article here:, Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement, said "And while women are heavy readers, we know they are heavy readers of the kind of fiction that is not likely to be reviewed in the pages of the TLS.
The TLS is only interested in getting the best reviews of the most important books," Stothard continued. "Without making a fetish of having 50/50 contributors, we do have a lot of reviewers of both sexes and from all over the world. You have to keep an eye on it but I suspect we have a better story to tell than others." (emphasis mine)

So you get that? Even though women buy something like 80-85% of all fiction, it's not the Important or Right kind of fiction. We all know that women flock to mindless drivel in fiction right? *heavy sarcasm* And trying to even the disparity in the authors reviewed or the critics reviewing or even just to point it out is making a fetish out of it?

Way back in 1929, Virginia Woolf published A Room of One's Own. In it, she says: "Speaking crudely, football and sport are important; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes, 'trivial.' And those values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing room. A scene in a battlefield is more important than a scene in a shop--everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists." It makes me furious that we are still dealing with this mentality over 80 years later. That although we are finally accepting more views into the literary canon, women's and POC's viewpoints are still considered alternative. Alternative, not essential, less Important, of less Worth, or less Substantial than that of the male privileged set.

And then John Freeman, the editor of Granta magazine, said "While numbers and graphs like this are helpful," he said, "conspiracy theories are not, because we have to ask a deeper question, which is how gendered are our notions of storytelling? I have been on mostly women-run prize committees which questioned their own feminist bona fides and then voted for the men's books." So again it's a conspiracy to point out disparities in our world and to maybe try to do something about them. And gee John, maybe the women ended up voting for the men's books because women are told from birth that their interests, their hobbies, their books aren't as Important as men's. Even the most feminist woman can't get away from internalizing to some extent that conflict and some of the misogyny. In the end, Anne Bronte said it beautifully and simply, "If a book is a good book it is for both men and women." Maybe it's time for the privileged male to finally take off his blinders and crack wide open the canon, and realize that if women and minorities have been slipping inside another's head/skin when they read books, watch film, look at paintings/photographs/sculptures, etc, because they've had to learn how, being othered or erased completely by the white male; that privileged males can learn to slip inside another's head as well. And see that another's story has just as much merit and worth. I have faith that they are smart enough to be able to do it.

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