Diversity: a numbers game

(I recently finished an 11-year run as a weekly book news columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press. Now, without that part-time job holding me back from speaking my mind, I feel free to post an essay I wrote a few years ago on “diversity” and the literary world. Enjoy. Or not.)


A Numbers Game

If you’re a writer, you’ve seen versions of this countless times: “We aim to ensure that our catalogue is reflective of an inclusive and multicultural Canada. We especially welcome work by Indigenous writers, writers of colour, LGBTQ2S+ writers, deaf and disabled writers, and women.” (Submission guidelines, Book*hug Press)

Maybe you’ve taken it on faith that a statement like this is a necessary corrective after centuries of white, male Eurocentric domination of literature. Or maybe you last paid attention to Canadian literature in the days of Pierre Berton and Farley Mowat.

So you may not be aware that “especially welcome” in the statement above often means a policy of deliberate racial (and gender-based) exclusion carried out by government-grant-receiving publishers and literary organizations. The literary world today is awash in an ever-growing flood of diversity-focused mentorships, scholarships, awards, festivals, special editions of journals, publishers’ statements and committees, all of which justify their actions by pointing to white, male dominance of the literary world. I’m a Canadian, so the examples I cite will be from my country, but I’ve seen enough awards lists, calls for submissions, publishers’ statements and conference line-ups from the U.S. and the U.K. to make me confident that my diagnosis is applicable across the English-speaking world. Here are a few recent Canadian examples of what are meant to be necessary correctives to systemic bias:

  • The 2022 version of Canada’s national short story prize, the Journey Prize, was limited to black writers only (this in a country where black people made up 3.5 per cent of the population in 2016).
  • The Festival of Literary Diversity has emerged as one of the most well-funded and heavily publicized literary festivals in Canada, featuring only BIPOC (black, Indigenous, people of colour) writers, plus a few white writers who are disabled or trans/non-binary. The founder and director of this festival is the books columnist for CBC Radio’s daily arts and culture show, Q.
  • Penguin Random House Canada recently announced that it will accept unsolicited manuscripts, but only from BIPOC and LGBT+ authors. Venerable Canadian publisher McClelland & Stewart also announced a one-month opening for unsolicited manuscripts as “part of our ongoing commitment to amplify the voices of Black, Indigenous, and racialized writers.”
  • The Writers’ Union of Canada runs an Ontario Arts Council-funded conference called BIPOC Writers Connect, in which 20 established BIPOC writers read manuscripts and offer advice on writing and grant applications to emerging BIPOC writers.
  • Diaspora Dialogues, a federally and provincially funded non-profit, offers a variety of writing mentorship programs for emerging writers. Based on profiles on the organization’s website, of the approximately 180 writers mentored over the years, BIPOC writers have accounted for about 65 per cent and women have been about 80 per cent of the total.
  • VS Books, an imprint of Canada’s Arsenal Pulp Press, only publishes BIPOC writers.
  • ECW Press, one of Canada’s most prominent independent publishers, has announced a mentorship program for BIPOC writers. So has children’s publisher Annick Press.
  • Many literary journals in Canada (which receive most of their income from government agencies), including Prairie Fire, Grain, Room, The Fiddlehead, Prism International, The Malahat Review and CV2, have created special Indigenous or BIPOC issues, some of them more than once, despite, of course, running works by Indigenous and BIPOC writers in their regular issues.
  • Atlantic Canada Publishers announced a writer-in-residence position in Halifax (12.2 per cent BIPOC at last census) for BIPOC writers.

All of these actions are justified on the grounds that they are necessary to give excluded voices a chance to be heard. All these actions are defended by prominent figures in the literary world – writers, academics, agents, editors – who still talk about the white, male Canlit canon as if the Canadian literary world hasn’t evolved since the 1950s, and who use this white, male domination as the reason for all of those special calls for Indigenous writers, writers of colour, women writers, LGBT writers and so on.

Perhaps this is in part because Canadians, like their American neighbours, overestimate how many people of colour there are in their country. In 2013, the Center for American Progress and the Rockefeller Foundation released a study that showed Americans on average estimated that people of colour (including Latinos) made up 49 per cent of the U.S. population, at a time when the actual figure was 37 per cent. In 2001, Gallup found that on average, Americans estimated that 33 per cent of the U.S. population was black, at a time when the census showed the correct number to be 12.5 per cent (it’s currently 13 per cent).

This distorted perception is likely greater in Canada, where, in 2016, visible minorities and Indigenous people combined made up 27 per cent of the population, an increase from 14 per cent as recently as 1996. If you think Group X makes up a much larger share of the population than it actually does, seeing that group represented in proportion to its share of the population would look like under-representation. (This doesn’t explain why Canadians might see Canlit as traditionally male, given that it emerged into prominence in the 1960s and ‘70s with Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro as standard-bearers.)

It is taken as given that the literary establishment continues to teach, publish, promote and reward white, male writers at the expense of women and Indigenous and visible minority writers. For years, I’ve been reading essays with titles like “The Unbearable Whiteness of Canlit” and feeling that this vision is deeply disconnected from the reality of what gets published and promoted today. So, armed with not a penny in government research funding, I’ve done some research.

I’ve recently calculated the ratio of white/BIPOC writers and male/female writers among those shortlisted for Canada’s most high-profile literary award (the Giller Prize, awarded since 1992) and  featured on Canada’s most high-profile book promotion (CBC’s Canada Reads, on the air since 2002) in order to get a snapshot of Canada’s most successful writers of the last three decades. I’ve also examined a sample of the lists of writers participating in literary festivals and featured in CBC “writers to watch” articles over the last few years, in order to see if the literary establishment is displaying biases right now.

And here’s what I’ve found. Shortlists for the Giller Prize (usually five books per year, occasionally six) have been fairly evenly divided among men (72) and women (81). White writers (118) appear at first glance somewhat over-represented relative to BIPOC writers (36), if you don’t consider Canada’s shifting demographics since 1992. The 23 per cent of Giller shortlist positions since 1992 occupied by BIPOC writers should be compared to the BIPOC share of the Canadian population over time, which was about 14 per cent when the Giller began and 27 per cent at the time of the last census, in 2016. So it’s hard to see a white male bias in the Giller. (It’s worth noting as well that 14 BIPOC writers have won the Giller, giving BIPOC nominees a much better batting average than other nominees.)

Now let’s look at Canada Reads. In 21 seasons since it debuted in 2002, men have been slightly over-represented (57 men, 48 women, an imbalance resulting from the 29-21 male-female imbalance in the first decade of the show). If we look at the racial breakdown, we see that BIPOC writers are over-represented relative to Canada’s population, getting 44 per cent of 105 spots in the annual battle of the books. The balance has been shifting further in recent years. Since 2014, three to five of the books featured each year have been by Indigenous writers or writers of colour.

I’m confident that the Giller Prize and Canada Reads are not anomalies and that, especially for the last decade, many other institutions in literary culture would show a similar or more marked tendency. I recall in 2018 when the five-book shortlist for the City of Toronto Book Prize was 100 per cent BIPOC writers and this was hailed in one headline as “diverse.” As if there is no diversity of insight or experience among the other 47 per cent of Torontonians.

Now, it might be argued that the make-up of two prominent awards doesn’t indicate that the publishing industry as a whole lacks a pro-white-male bias. But it seems improbable that Canada’s leading literary gatekeepers (editors, publishers and prominent authors) might exhibit such a bias in their day-to-day work but then set it aside when sitting on award juries.

Now let’s shift the focus from the last few decades to the last few years. Which writers are being published? And perhaps more importantly, of those who are being published, which writers have the promotional resources of their publishers placed at their disposal to give them a chance at meaningful sales? To gauge this, I counted the numbers of male/female and white/BIPOC writers at four randomly selected literary festivals (Ottawa and Vancouver 2019 and Eden Mills and Winnipeg 2020) and did the same with two “writers to watch” articles for each of 2018, 2019 and 2020 published on the CBC Books website. (Those “X buzz books for this spring” pieces you see all the time online are less the product of digging by whatever media publish them than they are curated lists of the books that received the most marketing push from publishers.)

Here’s what I saw. The Vancouver festival featured 108 writers in 2019: 61 women, three trans/non-binary and 44 men. Of those 108 writers, 62 (57 per cent) were white, and 46 (43 per cent) were BIPOC. The Ottawa festival that year was 58 per cent female and 35 per cent BIPOC. In 2020, the Eden Mills festival was 61 per cent female and 39 per cent BIPOC. The 2020 Winnipeg writers’ festival was 50/50 male and female and 33 per cent BIPOC. (The Winnipeg racial tally is skewed somewhat by a contingent of Francophone writers, all but one of whom was white. Among Anglophone writers at the 2020 Winnipeg festival, 39 per cent were BIPOC). So the evidence suggests that, at writers’ festivals, women and BIPOC writers are represented in numbers somewhat greater than their share of the population.

Now let’s look at those “writers to watch” pieces on CBC Books. Looking at two of these per year for three years, I came up with a total of 74 books by men and 124 by women getting this kind of valuable advance promotion, and 133 by white authors and 86 by BIPOC authors. So, a 40 per cent share for BIPOC writers and a 63 per cent share for women.

You may have recoiled a little at the idea that I have spent many hours googling writers in the news in order to count them by racial category. Me too. I’m appalled that I found it necessary to do this in order to counter this narrative of white, male hegemony in current literary circles.

I am not calling for awards, contracts and publicity to be given out on a proportional basis. Women buy more books than men, so it’s no surprise if more women want to write and there’s no injustice in the industry catering to women’s interests when it comes to signing and promoting authors. The experience of being in a racial or cultural minority might be more likely to inspire people to become writers – witness the flowering of American Jewish literature in the 20th century. The desire to write and the talent to do it very well make for a rare combination and we can’t expect that combination to show up by quota. Maybe the “disproportionate” results I see are purely innocent.

Except that they are accompanied by countless indicators of a literary culture that is working to create much more disproportionate results in the future, when all those beneficiaries of race-based emerging writer awards and mentorships are ready to move into positions of literary leadership.

If literary gatekeepers – the publishers, editors, conference organizers and the like behind those exclusionary measures I referred to above – are going to use race-based criteria to bar the majority of the nation’s population from many of their programs and publications, there had better be compelling evidence to justify those measures. But the success of BIPOC writers over the last two or three decades, and especially in the last five years, suggests that these extraordinary measures are not justified. Remember, books promoted between 2018 and 2020 were written and landed publishing deals before the affirmative action initiatives that I listed above, and yet BIPOC  writers managed to be moderately over-represented in Canadian literary circles without them. (And that some of these measures target women generally as excluded from Canadian literature is so preposterous as to be laughable.)

But far from easing off on the affirmative action, the people piloting the good ship Canlit are pushing the throttle harder.

The chair of the Canada Council, our largest arts-funding body (a federally funded institution that had a $360 million budget in 2021), in an interview with the Toronto Star, called the institution he headed a “colonial” institution that needs to be changed. Given that this is a man who campaigned to destroy a white author and editor’s career over an awkwardly worded call for writers to work to bridge cultures (the Appropriation Prize kerfuffle of 2017), we can guess what this might mean. In my own province, the government-funded arts council, which dispenses financial support to individual artists and arts groups, has recently announced a new set of “strategic priorities” focused on equity, diversity, reconciliation and projects that “build communities.” The money quote in this document reads: “Refine program assessment criteria that favour a Eurocentric concept of excellence to instead focus on impact.”

Of course, it has always been difficult to find a publisher and an audience. Being a writer has always been a struggle, often a lonely one, to convince the world that one has something to say that is worth reading. But for a not statistically insignificant share of the population, that challenge is becoming increasingly difficult, as opportunities of all kinds become more rare, as the traditional indifference of the world turns to outright hostility and as literature increasingly becomes a subsidiary branch of the greater enterprise of gender and racial social justice. A few of us are still keeping at it, even as it becomes increasingly clear that we aren’t welcome and the audiences who might be interested in our work are being isolated or even driven away.