My Personal 2012 CWILA Count

Gillian Jerome has since replied to this post, and I have published a brief follow-up.

Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA) completed their 2012 report, and in an article about their findings Laura Moss notes that I apparently number among the “Top 20 Reviewers in 2012.” (Please note that CWILA is using “top” to rank quantity, not quality). This seems as good an incitement as any for me to post some thoughts on the CWILA studies and how they factor into the culture of reviewing in Canada, and to expand upon this study with a report of my own: my personal CWILA count numbers for 2012.

Preliminary Matters

A few things are worth getting out of the way. First off, I should acknowledge my own proximity to this report. I am a disinterested party in the technical sense, because I haven’t joined CWILA. (The reason for this is not high-minded, but simple: I keep forgetting to join.) However, I have a few pro-CWILA biases. I agree with CWILA’s finding of a gender bias in Canada’s review culture and with a number of the group’s other assumptions and findings, although (as I will note shortly) I find certain assumptions and practices suspect.

Moreover, although I have fallen out of contact with Laura Moss, she was one of my professors during my undergraduate studies at the University of Manitoba and wrote me letters of reference for my application to graduate studies, and nominated me for an essay prize. In addition, my books editor at This, Natalie Zina Walschots, is one of the board members of CWILA, as is my friend Erin Wunker.

Yet, despite being generally inclined towards CWILA, I have particular concerns with how the organization appears to be counting my reviews. Since I am apparently one of the “Top 20″ reviewers in Canada, in the quantity terms that matter to CWILA, these concerns are significant and may skew CWILA’s numbers.

Two General Concerns

I have two general concerns with the CWILA count and its assumptions. One is the assumption of reviewer influence. Moss prefaces the “Top 20 Reviewers” list by noting that “We didn’t set out to measure the top 20 reviewers. However, we noticed that several names recur. A few reviewers have a good deal of influence.” I am not clear what Moss means by “influence” nor how CWILA is measuring influence. Unless “influence” can be quantified, I don’t quite see how its discussion is relevant to CWILA’s statistical approach — unless the word “influence” is a poorly chosen term and Moss in fact means something like “readership.”

My second, general concern, is with CWILA’s attribution of bias to editors and to publications — a fundamental aspect of its study’s methodology in terms of both how data is collected and interpreted. I want to emphasize that I agree with CWILA’s conclusion that a gender bias in favour of male writers exists in Canada’s reviewing culture. I agree that CWILA’s statistical reports, even though they appear to ignore online reviewing, can be considered “proof” of such bias, even though the study is not longitudinal. I agree this is a problem and requires rectification.

However, I don’t understand the rationale for attributing bias to editors and publications, for the simple reason that, generally speaking, books appear to be chosen for review more often than they are assigned for review. Of the 13 books that CWILA credits me with reviewing, I was assigned two: a woman-authored P.K. Page biography and a male-authored history of independent film. The others I have chosen. So, any gender bias attributable to me (more on this later) should not, I feel, reflect either positively or negatively on my books editors or on the publications for which I write. The fact of the matter is (and I suspect I am not alone in this) that I would quit reviewing books if they were regularly assigned rather than self-selected.

(Perhaps I am an anomaly in this case, and most reviewers are being assigned books? I pretty much do what I want as a reviewer.) [Further aside: People keep reporting to me that they get assigned books regularly, so I may be overextending myself on this point. I’m still undecided. Why not weigh in and help me make up my mind?]

I see this as a fundamental issue with CWILA’s approach to counting, since part of the point of CWILA’s count is to suggest that responsibility exists. CWILA places this responsibility on editors and publications, but it seems to me that it is better placed on reviewers, those engaged in the actual cultural work of reviewing. CWILA sees 2012 as a year of improvement, but I worry that any such improvements are temporary at best unless they are the result of personal responsibility taken on the part of book reviewers. Moreover, there is the question of whether a for-profit venture like the Winnipeg Free Press has any responsibility to review anything ever, let alone poetry books by Canadian women. This minefield is easily side-stepped (or, at least, the risks minimized) if we focus on the personal, ethical responsibilities of working reviewers.

In any case, neither of these general concerns are the real issue for me.

The Real Issue: Fundamental Problems Specific to My Case and Its Impact on CWILA’s Numbers

My real concern is with how CWILA counts my reviews. By my count, I published 46 print reviews: CWILA counts 13. What accounts for this discrepancy? The simple answer is that I write a monthly review column for the Winnipeg Free Press, which reviews four books of poetry per column. Only the “lead” book is listed in the headline that my editor writes. Therefore, I assume that CWILA has counted each column as one review, when it should count as four reviews — and has only counted the lead review, so that a review of one male and three females would be counted as a male review (and vice versa).

If I am correct, this would throw off CWILA’s numbers in probably every area, although I cannot say whether this might be a significant deviation or not. In any case, it certainly matters how CWILA counts my reviews in terms of what conclusions CWILA draws concerning the Winnipeg Free Press and in terms of how many poetry books get reviewed in this country.

My concern with review-counting in my case is that, while I don’t believe that it matters in terms of the validity of CWILA and/or Moss’s general claims, I think it matters in terms of the specific claims that CWILA seems to be making and insofar as its methodologies are concerned. Below, we will see the difference between how I assume CWILA is counting me and my reviews, and how I would argue they should be counted.

Do I have a gender bias in my reviewing?

This, for me, is the pressing question, for reasons of personal responsibility cited above. Even though, quite frankly, I don’t believe that I have any meaningful influence through my reviewing (a better measure of my influence would be what course texts I assign in my classes), this seems the most disturbing and troubling implication of these CWILA reports. Does the data support the assumption that individual reviewers have intentional or unconscious gender biases in their reviewing?

CWILA attaches me to the Winnipeg Free Press and to This magazine, and the implication is that I share their biases, or am a victim of their biases — when it would be more proper to suggest that they reflect my biases, and those of my reviewing peers. So, the important question is: do I have a gender bias in my reviewing?

The answer to the above question appears to be: it depends on how you count.

How I believe CWILA is counting me

Moss or someone else can perhaps correct me on my assumptions here. I assume CWILA is: (1) not reading reviews, but scanning headlines for information on who is being reviewed (I should note that, except in my case or in the case of similar, multi-book reviews, I would consider this a valid practice); (2) CWILA is, in my case, attributing “who the review is about” based on the lead title listed referred to in the headline; (3) in the case of books with multiple authors, CWILA counts them together (i.e., the three male authors of Franzlations are counted as one male author); and (4) CWILA counts the author and not the editor or translator.

Winnipeg Free Press
Total reviews: 12
Canadians reviewed: 11
Non-Canadians reviewed: 1
Male authors reviewed: 5
Female authors reviewed: 6

This
Total reviews: 1
Canadians reviewed: 1
Non-Canadians reviewed: 0
Male authors reviewed: 1
Female authors reviewed: 0

Totals:

Total reviews: 13
Canadians reviewed: 12
Non-Canadians reviewed: 1
Male authors reviewed: 6
Female authors reviewed: 6

Things look great for Canadian authors from this perspective, and I am nicely sitting at 50/50 in terms of a Male/Female ratio.

How I believe CWILA should count me

My assumption here is that what is important and of interest to CWILA is: (1) how many authors are having their books reviewed; (2) who these authors “are” in terms of their nationality and gender. I assume CWILA does not care primarily about: (1) who is mentioned in the headline (which might be interesting and relevant, but not in terms of what CWILA is currently interested in counting and reporting), nor (2) how many review articles I publish (at least, not more interested in how many articles I publish than in the number of books reviewed).

Essentially, I’m looking at how CWILA appears to count me and feeling that it’s flawed. The priority here should be on how many books actually get reviewed, and on the gender of their authors — and I reviewed 46 books in 2012, in print publications (another one, that CWILA isn’t counting, appeared online). Yet CWILA seems, in my instance, to be placing the emphasis on how many review articles I published (they credit me with 13), which seems misguided. I assume that this is the result of an oversight specific to my case, because it appears inconsistent with CWILA’s intentions. Anyway, here is how the count goes from my perspective:

Winnipeg Free Press
Total reviews: 45
Canadians reviewed: 41
Non-Canadians reviewed: 4
Male authors reviewed: 23
Female authors reviewed: 22

This
Total reviews: 1
Canadians reviewed: 1
Non-Canadians reviewed: 0
Male authors reviewed: 1
Female authors reviewed: 0

Totals:

Total reviews: 46
Canadians reviewed: 42
Non-Canadians reviewed: 4
Male authors reviewed: 24
Female authors reviewed: 22

Things look good for Canadian authors, but things also lean slightly towards male authors. Two reviews of difference means 52% vs. 48% — which may or may not seem significant from CWILA’s perspective. For me, it seems significant because of the CWILA count itself — since this sort of “leaning male” seems systemic, I can’t dismiss a mild disparity as mild. If we add in the online review I wrote, of Lazy Bastardism for Carmine Starnino, the scales tilt one author further towards Canadian Males.

How CWILA Matters

The precise way that CWILA matters is in how the organization can get reviewers like myself thinking more consciously about this issue and paying attention to their own numbers (and by inspiring more female reviewers, which it appears to have done). Even if I were sitting cleanly at a 50/50 split, I might try to intentionally bias my reviewing towards female authors for the purposes of counter-balancing other reviewers.

Generally speaking, I review what interests me. I historically haven’t thought that much about “the numbers” because I read a lot of writing (especially poetry) by female authors — in fact, my assumption has always been that I read more female authors than male authors, especially when it came to poetry. I was wrong, apparently, at least in 2012.

Which — and this is a salient point – is easy to address. There is a huge pile of books for review right behind me, that I haven’t read yet, and if even one-tenth of them are any good, then I can just prioritize what I review first to balance things out. It’s not like I have to struggle to find good books by women. At worst, I just have to count on my fingers what I’m piling up on the night table.

What the CWILA count encourages more than anything, it seems to me, is attention. The act or art of paying attention. Which is why I am self-reporting my “real” numbers — yes, CWILA needs to take my multi-book reviews into better account, but more importantly I need to hold myself to greater account, rather than trusting blind instinct in terms of selecting my reviewing choices.

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