Perusing the Quill and Quire blog this afternoon, I came across a National Post review of Lisa Moore’s novel February. Barbara Kay’s review was negative, if you want to use an understated qualifier, but what was more interesting than her opinion on the book was her opinion on CanLit generally and, indeed, the entire publishing industry.
Kay describes Canadian fiction as self-serving, “all about nobly suffering women or feminized men.” Putting aside for a moment the problematic insinuations contained in “feminized men” (don’t worry, I’ll come back to it later), I agree with Kay to a certain extent on this point. I have a running joke with a friend of mine when we describe a Canadian novel: “It was bleak. Snow was falling. The landscape was bleak. There was little meat that winter.” CanLit, at least the highly regarded, Giller Prize-winning stuff, does seem to be relentlessly depressing, which is too bad, because not all of us lead the bleak lives that Giller nominees seem to suggest we do.
What really inspired me to blog her review, though, was Kay’s utterly bizarre and undefended description of the Canadian fiction publishing industry. Squeezed between two em-dashes as though in an attempt to escape notice, her opinion reads: “[Canadian fiction publishing is] itself highly feminized by comparison to 40 years ago.”
Look at that sentence for a moment and try to unpack what in the name of God Barbara Kay could possibly mean. What on earth does “feminized” mean in the context of an entire business? That there are more women publishers than men? There are more male computer engineers than female, yet I can’t imagine someone calling the computer engineering business “masculinized.” And what happened 40 years ago, as opposed to 20 or 30 years ago, that made publishing suddenly become “feminized”? Barbara Kay, judging by her staff photo, looks to be in her early 50s; she couldn’t have been older than 20 during this supposed time when acquisitions editors were big, strong men (with appropriately servile female secretaries, of course). What could she be basing this judgment on? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the terrible change that took place 40 years ago was feminism, which as we all know is responsible for all manner of ills. What industry will we feminize next?
And this brings me back to her earlier description of male CanLit protagonists as “feminized men” (by which I’m assuming she means men who have feelings and express them…because, you know, that’s for girls). I can’t help but think of Xavier Bird from Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road. The dude kills a bunch of people and loses his leg.
I mean, really.
Barbara Kay’s totally absurd characterization of Canadian publishing and the books they produce as “feminized” is an insult to pretty much everyone. It’s an insult to women writers and publishers, because clearly being “feminine” is a bad thing that we should strive to correct. It’s an insult to men in publishing (and yes, they do exist – we have one in our office and we even let him out of the closet a few times a day), because they’re being made invisible. As one of the commenters puts it: “The publishers are all women and they must be pandered to.” False, and oh, so offensive. Most troubling, it doesn’t make a scrap of sense. It stands there without explanation for those of us who actually work in publishing to scratch our heads over.
Barbara Kay, I challenge you to back up your comment. You don’t need to tell me that there are more women than men in the fiction publishing industry – I know that already. What I want to know is why that makes the industry “feminized,” and what, indeed, “feminized” even means. Failing that, I’d appreciate a retraction. And perhaps a long and depressing novel.
After all, I am a woman in publishing. And I must be pandered to.