CBC: Elephant in the Room

I've been pondering this for a few days, thinking of ways to phrase the obvious without making it look like sour grapes. No, the book that I thought should win the Canada Read 2011 series did not win this year, but deciding the best book, like the best bagel, is a completely subjective decision, which we all can't agree on, and this is something that I acknowledge.

But a few words have to be said about the obvious.

The Canada Reads 2011 series has now been running for 10 years, and its objective was to get Canadians reading, and reading Canadian authors. The series is a win-win situation for our national publishing industry and our authors who reap the benefits of increased exposure and book sales. I must admit that if it had not been for Canada Reads, I would not have read Guy Vanderhaege's the Last Crossing, Leo McKay's  Twenty-Six or Angie Abdou's the Bone Cage, three stories that I adored. The series has also demonstrated that Canada has many world class writers, and this was not the case when I was studying Canadian Lit in high school in the 1980s.

Indeed, we have come a long way. Canadians now read books by Canadians and even enjoy them. But now we need to look a little closer at the results of the last 10 years. I've done a little research and found that of the 50 finalists over the 10 years, only 19 women authors have made it into the finals (38% vs 62%), and in this past decade only two women have actually won (20% vs. 80%). There was a glimmer of hope this year when three women actually made it into the finals, one of whom was Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Carol Shields. Unless made it into the top five, Ms. Shield's final book in a stellar literary career. Initially, it hardly seemed fair that her end-of-career book would be competing against four first-time novels.

But surprise! Terry Fallis's The Best Laid Plans, the self-published book and "the Cinderella story" won the Canada Reads' essential book of the decade title. Everyone loves an underdog! Self-published authors are smiling from ear to ear across Canada. Then the other male finalist, the graphic novelist Jeff Lemire, won the CBC's People's Choice Award. Woohoo! Both men won awards.

I don't see Fallis's win as a "Cinderella story," I see it as a perfect illustration of the sexism portrayed in Shield's Unless--in other words, the elephant in the room that no one seems to be talking about. In this semi-autobiographical book, we see via Reta, our protagonist, how women's books are often ignored and undervalued. Our cautious protagonist's rage builds throughout the book, but her anger only surfaces when her editor, Mr. Springer, wants to make her book into "great fiction," which involves her assuming a pen name and changing the point of view from the female lead to that of the male protagonist. That way men would buy the book--the age old argument! Women read books written by women and men, but men only read books written by men.

Sorry, I don't buy that men only read men and that there's no way around it, particularly with all the marketing gurus out there who can sell cars, homes and just about any other consumer product to people who don't need them or have the money to buy them. This is intentional sexism, and some people obviously like the publishing industry the way it is.

The most aggravating part is that women make up the lion's share of readers. According to a UK study published in the Guardian in March 2009, 48% of women were avid readers while only 26% of men fell into this category. An avid reader was defined as someone who "cannot put a book down once they begin it and who reliably get through a long list of titles in an average year."

As a publicly funded broadcaster, the CBC should be investigating the Canadian publishing industry and getting to the bottom of some of its sexist practices. Rather than just perpetuating rampant sexism, the Corporation should be using its considerable power to influence the very industry that it helped build. In addition, it might start by giving equal exposure to women writers, looking into who is winning all the literary prizes and creating a list of best practices that publishing companies would need to follow in order to receive a CBC endorsement.

I'm sure there's a lot more our nationally owned radio and television network could do instead of just throwing its hands in the air and saying, "We didn't make the decision. It was the panel." This is a deep-seated issue that requires a little more than a glib "oh well!" response.

I'll just close with some 2009 statistics about who is winning all the literary awards and prize money in the US:

Amazon- Top 100 Editor’s Picks 2009

77 Men
23 Women

Los Angeles Times Book Prize 2009

Innovator’s Award- 1 Man
Robert Kirsch Award- 1 Man

LA Times Favorite Fiction 2009

16 Men
9 Women

The National Book Awards 2009

Fiction- 1 Man
Nonfiction- 1 Man
Poetry- 1 Man
Young People’s Literature- 1 Man

Publishers Weekly Best Books of 2009

71 Men
29 Women

Publishers Weekly Top 10 Books of 2009

10 Men
0 Women

Slate- Best Reads of 2009

15 Men
7 Women

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 1948-2009

40 Men
16 Women

© 2010 VIDA
Author: Amy King


JWL | February 13, 2011 at 7:07 PM

this smacks a little too much of being PC and the nanny state. i read as much or maybe even more than you do
and the sex of the writer does not influence me one bit.


Heather | February 13, 2011 at 7:19 PM

Yeah, but...you're a man. It works in your gender's favour.

Laura | February 15, 2011 at 8:38 AM

Very interesting perspective. And I agree. Unfortunately, this year's debates encouraged all of this. It was shocking that Lorne Cardinal chose Unless, because he is a man. Obviously, The Birth House is a book written about and for women and men would not find it readable. And although The Bone Cage isn't geared towards women, it is directed towards the athletes of our society, something non-athletes won't understand.

In fact, I think almost all of the books got pegged into a category and if the defender couldn't talk his or her way out of it, then the book failed. Essex County was labeled a book that was inaccessible because of its form.

Although the debaters tried to label The Best Laid Plans as a political novel, Ali did a good job spinning it into a book that is accessible to all Canadians because we all live in a democracy and we all are affected by Politics (which in my opinion is nuts. It is certainly no more accessible to Canadians than any of the other books written by women. Ali just did a better job of it).

Heather | February 15, 2011 at 9:08 AM

I have to say that this isn't about the panel. They came across as ill-prepared and occasional readers at best, and obviously, a CNN commentator can spin anything to the public and make it sound reasonable. But that's spin! I didn't tune in to listen to spin. I tuned in to listen to the literary merits of five books, which did not transpire.

Thomas Marsellos | February 15, 2011 at 1:33 PM

I am a man too, so I may not be able to convince you that my question is addressed from a thinking reader's point of view and not from a male reader's point of view, but here it goes anyway:

If women do most of the reading ("women make up the lion's share of readers" as you say, and you give the numbers to prove it, and I definitely believe that), do the bestsellers lists reflect the same male bias as the awards lists you have researched and provided? If the two are in tune (which I suspect they are), then the male author bias could also reflect a female preference, not just a publishing industry male favoritism. If the bestsellers lists tell a different story, then I think the publishing industry (from a marketing and business perspective) is sleeping at the wheel. How could they deliberately favor and promote a male-biased authorship base if it doesn't pay at the bookstore?

Also, I would think that to indirectly imply that women read what's predominately available to them (chosen by men-biased publishers) would be not only patronizing, but certainly offensive to women.

In any case, although I do think there is some truth to your thesis, the elephant in the room may not be as obvious as it seems.

And to close, I favor 5 top authors at the moment (that's all I can handle). Three are women and two are men. But to tell you the truth, until you brought this subject up, I had never even thought about it.

Heather | February 15, 2011 at 9:07 PM

Of course, I'll answer your questions. I don't know the relationship between the awards and bestseller lists. Your assumption makes sense, but I don't ever recall any publication/organization disclosing the criteria for determining a winner. This list comes from VIDA.
Here's the link to the full list. You might find your answer there:

Here's an interesting link to how they calculate bestsellers. Please note that it's possible to cheat and "double-count" books: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_Sense

I'm sure if there was an investigation into the publishing world we would find out a lot of interesting things about gender and book preferences.

As for your question: How could they deliberately favor and promote a male-biased authorship base if it doesn't pay at the bookstore? I can only speculate (maybe someone can weigh in here) but from what I found in my research today, it looks like publishers go after both men and women readers by putting a good part of their promotional money into books by male authors. Here's some of the info I found. For a full list, check out the link at the end.

At Harper's Magazine in 2010:
# of women book reviewers-6.
# of men book reviewers-27.
# of reviews of books written by women-21.
# of reviews of books written by men-46.

At the London Review of Books in 2010:
# of women book reviewers-47.
# of men book reviewers-168.
# of reviews of books written by women-68.
# of reviews of books written by men-195.

At the New York Review of Books in 2010
# of women book reviewers-39.
# of men book reviewers-200.
# of reviews of books written by women-59.
# of reviews of books written by men-306.

At the New York Times Book Review in 2010
# of women book reviewers-295.
# of men book reviewers-438.
# of reviews of books written by women-283.
# of reviews of books written by men-524.

Source: Vida http://vidaweb.org/the-count-2010#more-809

What I think is obvious (the elephant) is that men keep walking away with the awards and the book sales. Remember in 10 years of Canada Reads, only two winners have been women.

I know that there are men out there who read books by both men and women. My criticism is not of men. My criticism is of the sexism in publishing and our publicly-owned CBC pandering to it, instead of questioning it and doing something about it.

Thomas Marsellos | February 16, 2011 at 1:54 AM

Thank you for your response Heather. The numbers are overwhelmingly in favor of male presence and involvement in the domain of books (both regarding those who write them and those who publicly talk about them and promote them - given that award-winning helps a book's popularity and sales).

The statistics you have given raises a topic of discussion that cries out for serious consideration. I agree with that. There is something here that suggests things are out of sorts.

Yet, I don't see how these numbers by themselves necessarily suggest sexism in the publishing industry. That may very well be the case, but we cannot draw that conclusion from these numbers alone. Particularly when the readership base has a very powerful female element that is in the position to make or break a male-biased authorship base.

It is also simplistic to assume that the whole publishing industry operates under the same motivations or readership targets. Beyond mainstream publishing, there are influential book niches focusing on male readers and there are those focusing on female readers. You'll be hard-pressed to sell a romance novel to a guy or get male authors to dominate the romance-writing field - I assume. I used this stereotype on purpose. Stereotypes exist because they have receptive markets that support them.

If there is a case for discrimination to be made here, I suspect that the answer will most likely come from the behavior and preferences of the readers and not necessarily from the practices of the publishing industry - they are only responding to what has proven to be good for them.

I have not worked in the publishing industry, but I have worked for corporations (same thing), and the underlying survival moto of a corporation always is "promote and sell what people want to buy."

Thank you for giving me the space to participate in this discussion.

Heather | February 16, 2011 at 7:15 AM

You're very welcome Loucas.

I understand your arguments, and because I don't work in the publishing field I can only speculate and look for red flags.

One red flag is the overwhelming number of men walking away with awards, prize money and book sales. Another is the press men receive for their books. Another is the sheer number of men reviewing books (I'm guessing that only a minority are reviewing books by women).

There's also the prestige of men's book. Read my post "Reads from Men," and listen to what Jonathan Franzen (Time Magazine's the novelist of the century...?) and why he didn't want an Oprah sticker on his book.

All these red flags signal that we need further investigation into the publishing industry, its practices and standards. We can both agree that from what I have dug up cries out for serious consideration. It's up to the CBC to prove its hands are clean.

Leila | March 6, 2011 at 6:30 PM

Great piece. I found Canada Reads a little maddening this year because of Georges Laroques. I don't know how many times he commented on various books saying that they weren't interesting because they were either about women or written by women. Sure, he got some arguments in return but really - someone needed to smack that ex-NHLer up against the boards.

Did you hear The Sunday Edition with Michael Enright a couple of weeks ago? He had a woman talking about how all the major magazine publications in the US (Harpers, Atlantic, etc) overwhelmingly publish men. It was depressing.

Great blog!

Heather | March 6, 2011 at 7:22 PM

Thanks for stopping by. I liked the books this year, but definitely not the panel. I didn't hear Michael Enright, but he could very well have been talking about the VIDA 2010 count. They've tallying those exact figures in publishing, such as how many women are being reviewed and how many women are actually reviewing books. VIDA also looked into how many stories were actually written by women from cover to cover. Pretty dismal, but with figures at least we have more of a leg to stand on. H

Post a Comment