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Back in November 2017, I wrote an article called A curriculum of white men isn’t enough. It looked at the issue of diversifying the literary canon in the wake of Cambridge University students receiving abuse over an open letter they wrote on the subject. I talked about defence against rising individualism in the wake of Brexit Britain and the need for students to take as much responsibility for questioning the curriculum as the lecturers. However, a recent survey publication from the VIDA organisation has caused me to revisit this topic, now from the stance of literary criticism.
The main VIDA count surveys 15 notable publications to analyse how they represent women writers and gender minorities in the pieces they publish. They found that only 2 of the 15 publications had a 50/50 split between men and women writers, while 8 of these publications had under 40% of women writers working for them. The worst of these was the London Review of Books, with 27% of pieces by women, and The New York Review of Books, at 23%. In their larger literary survey of 24 publications, the statistics improved somewhat with 15 publications having 50-60% women writers. Still, half of these 24 publications witnessed a decrease in women writers since 2016. As well as this, of all the magazines surveyed, fewer than 50% writers of colour represented were also women or non-binary.
These statistics are worrying. Since writing my article in November, I have seen surges in the #MeToo campaign and noted more and more articles on social and economic inequality in publishing. But at the same time, we seem no closer to reaching a state of gender equality in publications like these. This isn’t to say that men shouldn’t be writing articles, but that there needs to be a showcase of equal male and female representation. Otherwise, we face the issue of seeing the world through one very particular white male gaze. I am not proposing an absolute paradigm shift, to completely alter our current filters of understanding the literature we read; this is too big an ask. Instead, I seem to be repeating a point I made in November, that we need a gradual and active shift towards the inclusion of more female and non-binary writers into our literary world viewpoint.
However, how does this relate to English Literature as a subject, and more specifically at Lancaster? Naturally, this survey focuses on high-end journalism and literary magazines rather than academic writing, but surely some comparisons can still be made. The compulsory English Literature 201 module, Theory and Practice of Criticism, introduces second years to the major critical concepts and debates. I took a look at the primary text for this course, A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader from Anthony Easthope and Kate McGowan, which lists 25 central critics in its contents. Of these 25 writers, only 6 were women, and only two critics were not white Europeans with only one female non-white writer overall. Suddenly that 23% female writers in the The New York Review of Books doesn’t look so far off, with this core text averaging a similar 24%.
This isn’t to say that Lancaster isn’t making improvements. The department has recently added black and female writers to the Romanticism module in the second year, and Sharon Ruston, a lecturer in the department, has been leading the Athena Swan committee this year. They have had discussions during the Athena Swan process about surveying our courses to see how many authors of our primary texts are women or people of colour, possibly as part of a more extensive review of our Part II courses. Although, such a reviewing process is likely to take a while due to its scale, and discussions have mainly focused on primary texts rather than secondary critics.
Slowly but surely, things are beginning to change, but as the VIDA survey states ‘achieving gender parity is not a one-time goal’. I can’t help but feel we’re still missing the core of the problem.
I spoke to Catherine Spooner, who offered a quote for my last article in November. She said ‘statistics show that around 80% of undergraduates and MA students studying English Literature at Lancaster are female, but this proportion drops sharply at PhD level and at each stage of promotion until there are more male than female professors. We need to understand why this is so that we can address it.’ Spooner highlights this same crucial point: while these changes are being made, it’s still not enough to combat gender inequality in writing: fiction or criticism.
The way I see it, two options lead us towards the same result of men having the majority over women in the literary criticism syllabi, and subsequently literary publications. Either, female critics don’t exist or have been purposely written out of curriculums. If they don’t exist, in the sense that there just isn’t enough of them in history to create an equal 50/50 split, then to some degree we would have to accept this. However, in this case, wouldn’t it be our responsibility to question why that is, to bring female critical perspectives onto these older texts from our contemporary times?
Contrastingly, history has seen female critics be purposefully written out, not in a malicious sense but in that current academics aren’t focusing on them as major works. Arguably, they include more Barthes than Beauvoir because Barthes was more influential. In this case, then we can proactively seek them out and bring them to the forefront. We know some must exist in history through the 24% present in the 201 module alone. In both cases, while they offer explanations as to why there is unequal representation in criticism and publications, it seems that the responsibility falls to us as students. I feel slightly like I’m repeating myself from the November article, but we as students still have a responsibility to seek out alternative critical perspectives actively. If we do face this danger of viewing the world from that particular white male lens, then it is up to us to shift it, with slight changes in viewpoints to address the core problem. That no matter how many female authors or writers in a gender minority we include on our curriculums, if we continue to view them with the same critical eyes we always have, then nothing will really change.
While this article reiterates several of the same points from November, I am more assured from the VIDA Count than I previously have been concerning gender equality in literature and literary criticism. While statistics are not at their peak, and progress seems somewhat slow and daunting, there is finally a sense that this white male lens will no-longer stand as the norm. The number of people unwilling to let this inequality stand is promising, as it means that the future of literary criticism may change with the tides of contemporary literature. Hopefully, we will be able to look back on our past literature, the classics in the canon and outside it, and question their validity in each place. And at the very least, the number of female and minority critics will increase in the future until those unequal statistics become less so. There are a lot of ‘hopefuls’ there, but then I am hopeful.