I’m about done writing up my book purchases from the Dominican Republic, which I’ll begin posting soon enough, and more for me to keep track of them in one place than anything else (though perhaps someone will find them interesting/useful). Anyway, there’s been a lot of hubbub this past week since VIDA released their study on the representation of women in publishing. Unsurprisingly, the situation is not so good. Fewer (by half or more) women are published or reviewed by major literary publications. Everyone has lots to say about it. (See Jessa Crispin of Bookslut’s conversation with Christian Wimin of Poetry Magazine on PBS here. Salon’s article on it here.)
Which is interesting because in a forthcoming review of a recent anthology of women poets from the Dominican Republic (keep an eye out at the Quarterly Conversation if you’re interested) I talk about gender as a selection principle and wonder whether it makes sense. I wrote this review last month, while still in the Dominican, and just after having a few conversations with poets and experts on Dominican literature about this anthology in particular, and woman poets in the Dominican in general. I had been thinking a lot about how the mere fact of being a woman does not give a literary work merit. And I stand by that, there has to be more to it. Gender alone is not a sufficient reason for something to be published. But.
When there is such great disparity (and even greater in most Latin American countries) that has to do with centuries of historic suppression of women’s voices, and the control of “taste” by the hetero-male establishment, than other ‘outside’ voices need to be considered not only first but much more carefully. Why, for example, do women hold the lead in ‘favorite love poems’ for example (Don Share, editor of Poetry Magazine, tweeted yesterday “Our readers pick their favorite love poems — HALF of them them are by WOMEN! http://bit.ly/egFZfR“)? This has to do with the intense separation of the public and the private, the sentimental and the intellectual. Women’s domain has been historically relegated to the private and sentimental, while men are public and rational. This is limiting (crippling?) to both genders, and those of us who fall somewhere between.
So yes, publishers, reviewers, critics, and academics — these constructors of taste and style — need to pay more attention to what they’re choosing and more importantly why. Forcing women’s voices (or any outsider voice, for that matter, be it on matters of faith, gender, race or sexual orientation) to conform to normative and proscriptive aesthetic principles is just as much a part of this problem as anything else. We can’t merely publish the women that either sound like the dominant hetro-male aesthetic, or ones that fit neatly into the proscriptive personal domain of women. We need to challenge the aesthetic principles while simultaneously challenging ourselves to proactively achieve balanced representation.
So this has to do with my work in the Dominican because I realized that all the books that I bought while there were by men. Not only that, at the bookstore there were almost no books by contemporary women Dominican poets, and none listed in the bookstore’s 2010 catalog of new poetry. None. So as someone researching, potentially translating and shaping some kind of aesthetic, a person in a relative position of cultural power, I’ve challenged myself to pay attention to this. To seek out women’s voices that are not readily available, and to think about what that means for my own production of culture.
The next series of posts are the books that I bought. They are all by men. But following that I’ll be posting a series about Dominican women writers based on what limited resources I’ve been able to tap from my cold perch in Boston.