Poet and CWILA Reviewer-in-Residence Sue Sinclair

In her recent philosophy of criticism, Sue Sinclair asks, “who does a critic serve?” As CWILA’s inaugural critic-in-residence, Sinclair advocates for criticism that “is an offering, not a decree.” The critic-in-residence post was created in the fall of 2012 and manifests CWILA’s organizational aim, which is not only to track the numbers of women publishing in Canada, but also to change those numbers.

CWILA’s activities, outlined by founder and poet Gillan Jerome, aim to change the current literary landscape in part by provoking a conversation about gender inequality in publishing. Taken alone, tracking the numbers – collecting data, convincing publications to release numbers, formulating the criteria for recording and tracking those numbers and contextualizing the data with interviews – is a hefty task. But while CWILA’s findings reveal just what the current review culture lacks, not only for female writers but for the critical community at large, they also encourage us to act.

About the time VIDA released its first Count in 2011, and CWILA was gearing up, I was volunteering as chief Editor for a literary journal within U of T’s English graduate department. Helen Guri’s Match had just been released, and she asked if I would write it up in Echolocation Magazine’s fitful reviews section.

I was surprised that her excellent book had not received more critical attention, and that her email was reluctant in tone, as if loath to disturb me, when such tasks comprised my role as an editor. Match was eventually nominated for the Trillium prize, and received the attention it was due, although the fact that many worthy publications need the beatific light of literary prizes is another concern.

Match from Coach House Books

Until Match, I had scrupulously avoided reviewing after a friend and fellow poet had warned me off the possibility of offending writers’ egos. For a young writer craving all the help they can get, this is a frightening prospect. Despite over a dozen years of writing and evaluating poems, and two degrees in the study of literature, I did not believe I had anything of critical value to contribute. I wonder now if this attitude stemmed from the slim numbers of ethnic minorities, Asians and Canadian women whose reviews appeared in the magazines and newspapers I pored over.

Another surprise – I enjoyed reviewing Match. The feeling of doing a service was an added boost. I found a way of responding to the work that was neither overly effusive or dramatically denunciatory. I began to pitch reviews like lobbed tosses, shocked to learn that in some cases I was the first unsolicited female writer to have done so.

“Who does a critic serve?” Potential readers, authors and the field of criticism itself are served when a critic creates entrances into an author’s work, gives a nuanced overview, and avoids polemic and poor reasoning. For a female writer, every piece of thoughtful criticism becomes a potential model. I began reviewing as a means of serving others, but in the end the greatest service has been to a future self.

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