The end of the year: a time when people reflect on the most significant developments in their field, and, honestly, on myriad unrelated occurrences and happenings as well. Where are we going and what have we done? This year, I think the conversation about literature in Canada belongs to Canada’s female readers and writers for a few key reasons.
As far as the Year in Literature is concerned, recognition has to go E. L. James’ Fifty Shades series, both on an international scale and as a phenomenon in Canadian reading. Yes, they’re quite appalling: I read the first novel (who hasn’t, really?), Fifty Shades of Grey, as a “book club” discussion with a colleague. It’s badly written, pallid quasi-pornography portraying a young woman who, despite being an English literature graduate, is quick to articulate expressions such as “Holy cow!!!” and, even worse, is constructed by James not as the typically unconventional and strong heroine favoured by the romance genre but as a wet mop.
Fifty Shades of Grey is the publication that Canadian women, and to some extent men, bought and devoured this year in numbers positively dizzying to the minds of publishers, making “mommy porn” a “trending” term. Much as I deride the particular work I applaud the recognition it’s brought to a genre that obviously speaks to many people today, and which struggles to achieve legitimacy in a world where romance and erotica are still dismissed as so much “women’s fiction.” I do hope some cultural studies types are doing some serious work on the phenomenon: after this year it is impossible to ignore female readers.
On a different, yet related, point in the spectrum are the developments I consider most significant for Canadian letters this year: first, Janice Zawerbny’s announcement that she is putting together a prize for literary fiction by women, intended to rank up with the GGs, the Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the Giller in significance. Now, granted, this is a happening that hasn’t quite happened yet. Nevertheless, Zawerbny’s announcement generated debate and brought to our attention again – again, sigh – the gender inequities of the Canadian and international publishing world, and of Canadian literary prize culture. Of the three prizes I mentioned, this year one went to a woman, Linda Spalding, a ratio which is roughly par for the course for the total outcomes of awards like the Giller and GG to date, despite the fact that an equal number of women and men publish books in Canada each year, and women buy and read more books. Recognition – attention at all – is hard to come by, a product not only of straitened reviewing budgets but deep-seated attitudes toward the value of the range of literary forms and narratives in which women write, in addition to the lack or respect and overt sneers women writers still occasionally endure. I say: more power to Zawerbny, and may she be successful in creating the Rosalind Prize, a sister for the powerful Orange Prize in the UK and the newly-created Stella Prize in Australia.
In a related matter: Gillian Jerome, a poet and UBC academic who researches the dearth of women’s recognition in Canadian reviewing and prize culture, co-founded Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA) in spring 2012, an organization devoted to promoting feminist values and women’s presence in the literary arts in this country, and to critiquing the gendered values and assumptions that continue to influence Canadian literary discourse. Already CWILA has made its presence known, and provides a welcome forum for criticism and activism.
Many Canadians may believe we live in a post-feminist world, and certainly women’s range of options and our cultural power is increasing, but the numbers tell us we have miles to go. Hard work and great ideas like these make valuable and valued contributions to literature in Canada.