Hepburn and Tracy debate the ethics of literary criticism
Text/Book, the Toronto Standard‘s books column, is written by Emily M. Keeler and Chris Randle, plus occasional guests.
Perhaps it’s unwise to butt into this debate, but I can’t really help myself. Something I love is at stake. When the brand spanking new Canadian Women in the Literary Arts foundation launched this past May, I was overjoyed to see the breadth of perspectives represented. Modelled after VIDA in the U.S., CWILA has a stated mission of addressing the gender gap in Canadian media, especially literary media. By counting the number of female bylines in our country’s major book review sections, and tallying the number of woman-authored books that are reviewed, the organization is able to provide a relatively clear, if bleak, picture of just how far we are from gender parity across the literary mediascape.
And like VIDA, CWILA has painted this picture in pie charts. Pie charts make me nervous, hopeless as they are at representing the complexity of the issue at hand. They aren’t necessarily indicative of the gender breakdown of new Canadian books; they don’t represent the number of times editors invite women to submit work; by relying exclusively on the quantifiables, the exact numbers of female bylines in any given media venue through exactly one year of its publication cycle (whether they run a stacked weekly review section or just one or two reviews per season), the entire issue is patly flattened into a few numbers. If you’ve been following VIDA’s development over the past four years, you’ve likely heard these critiques, and CWILA sensibly goes above and beyond pie slices in their efforts; the website also boasts interviews with various Canadian critics and editors, and a very exciting and important residency program for a woman working in Canadian letters. Like I said, I’m very pleased and inspired to see CWILA offering something more than just another serving of name and shame pie. And yet.
In addition to their presentation of the humbling numbers and an introductory essay expositing their aims as an organization, CWILA republished an essay from poet and philosopher Jan Zwicky, which describes the editorial stance she took during her time as the reviews editor for one of Canada’s revered literary journals, Fiddlehead. In this essay, which originally ran in The Malahat Review, Zwicky gives a rationale for reserving review spaces for “enthusiastic” rather than “negative” reviews. This is a reasonable stance for a single journal, or a single editor to take. But by having this essay be the first and so far only essay to appear on CWILA that does not specifically address the organization’s development–which, remember, is heavily focused on the gender politics of reviewing–it seems as if the founders of the organization may well be endorsing the practice of silencing negative reviews across the Canadian mediascape. And what’s more, because the organization is meant to promote the work of women in the literary arts, there is an implied invitation to gender this single perspective on the ethics of reviewing as somehow more womanly, or at least more friendly towards female critics and authors. This last point is, from my perspective (as a woman who frequently finds herself reviewing Canadian books), a humungously problematic development.
This issue has only been compounded by the ensuing reaction; a week ago Michael Lista, who, as both the poetry editor at The Walrus and the only poetry columnist at the National Post sits in a position of concentrated power when it comes to framing the discussion of poetry in this country, wrote a piece arguing against Zwicky’s essay. While Lista seems to admire CWILA’s mandate to bring more women into critical prominence,he is baffled–just as I am–by the inclusion of Zwicky’s “The Ethics of the Negative Review” as one of the organization’s foundational texts. He quotes Zwicky’s advice to critics who have been assigned a work unworthy of jubilant endorsement–“I am suggesting simply that, in public, we keep our mouths shut”–and he rightfully describes the sentiment as “a miserable, low thing to tell another woman, another writer, another human. No, it’s more than that: It’s unethical.” I couldn’t agree more. If the point of CWILA is to broaden the discursive playing field, to give women more chances to use our voices, why would they tell us to be anything less than clear, loud, and resonant?
Zwicky responded to Lista earlier this week in the very same pages in which he had taken judicious aim at her argument. She described their close agreements on many points, the necessity of criticism in the ongoing construction of our literary culture, their mutual appreciation for great works of art that free us rather than just rattling our everyday cages. But she also accuses him of illiteracy, and rather indelicately implies that the Post should fire him. In short, she gives his response to her piece a very negative review, even as she suggests that the paper she’s writing in should aim higher in its poetry coverage than “simply whipping up froth and slather.”
Though in watching these two masterful stylists, poets both, I find myself increasingly taken in by just that, the delicious froth and slather. The snarling and gnarling and high-flying literary references. The deft punches and blocks, the brutal elegance of this dance of impassioned jabs and jeers. For me, at least, this is one of the joys of great criticism, even at its most negative. At its best you get to watch fine minds sharpening themselves on the world. What could be more thrilling?
Judging by the way that much of the Canadian literary community seemed to alight on the issue on Twitter this past Wednesday, it’s clear that I’m not the only one flipping my lid over Canadian literature’s most recent bout of rock-em-sock-em poetics. For example: Mark Medley, the National Post‘s books editor,* glibly dropped this little gem: “Are you not entertained? #CanLit”; and Sina Queyras, a hurricane of deep thinking and poetical-political insight in her own right, tweeted out a tantalizing path that may do more to direct our attention to what’s truly at stake than the compelling circus I’m describing: “I’m going to put my money where my mouth is and offer a prize for the best review by a woman in a Canadian venue…” I responded with two early and totally off-the-cuff nominations: Chandler Levack on Jonathan Franzen’s Farther Away and Emily Landau on Grace O’Connell’s Magnified World. Both, I later realized, were critically astute excavations of their material, and both reviewers ultimately found the texts in their care lacking. Perhaps equally tellingly, neither of these reviewers were addressing works of poetry.
What it comes down to is this: I’ve enthusiastically enjoyed watching Lista and Zwicky in rhetorical combat. I’ve smacked my lips at their mutual disdain for each other’s attitudinal flourishes, like his sardonically over-familiar, even faux-casual use of her first name and her seemingly willful misreading of his interpretation of a T. S. Eliot essay. I continue to be riveted by the many responses, respectful and otherwise. And yet.
The rub is that, at least partially because of the strangely gendered flavour of this debate, I feel too personally invested in this spectacular gong show. As a young woman working in Canada as a book reviewer I can’t afford to tell editors that I wont be able to file a review they’ve assigned because I didn’t like the book. And I hope to never devalue my own abilities as a reader, writer, and reviewer so deeply as to presume that my opinion on any given text is only valuable if I can serve it with a smile.What’s more is that, as a reader of reviews, I can’t even begin to imagine the deleterious effects of standardizing literary criticism straight across the board. Am I the only one that reads criticism of all stripes for the thoughtfulness and writing that the good stuff, the best stuff, inherently encourages? I don’t have cable, for example, but I follow Emily Nussbuam’s work like a shadow.
Michael Lista wrote: “The purpose of a review, good or bad, is to begin a conversation, not to end it.” I doubt that any reader, author, or reviewer out there can find fault with that, though Jan Zwicky wrote against “the idea that a kick in the nuts is a good way to start a conversation.” As for me, I guess I’m just greedy enough to hope, as both a reader and reviewer, that I forever get to have it both ways; one thing I’ve learned from this whole brouhaha is that sometimes a good kick is exactly the thing to shake things up.
*Full disclosure: I sometimes review books for the National Post, so Medley is also occasionally my editor. Hi, Mark!