14 March 2013


One of the most interesting discussions I saw at the AWP conference was one sponsored by VIDA, with editors and writers talking about the results of VIDA's 2013 count of female and male writers in various publications. This year, they were able to offer a particularly revealing set of graphs showing three year trends in book reviewing at major magazines and journals.

The only report of the discussion I've seen so far is that of VIDA volunteer Erin Hoover at The Nervous Breakdown (although I'm sure it was covered by Twitter when it happened). Hoover gives a good overview of the panel and the issues. I took lots of notes, so will here add some more detail to try to show how the discussion went.

After introductory remarks by moderator Jennine Capó Crucet, the first responses were made alphabetically by last name, and so two men began: Don Bogen, poetry editor of The Cincinnati Review, and Stephen Corey, editor of The Georgia Review. Bogen noted that, inspired by VIDA, he'd done a count of the poetry published by CR during his 7-year tenure and discovered to, really, his surprise that he'd achieved parity between male and female writers (or at least male and female bylines). How had he managed to do this unconsciously, he wondered? The best hypothesis he had was that he seeks real diversity of experience and point of view in poetry and has eclectic taste — indeed, the only poems he said he's not particularly interested in are ones that reflect his own experience. He noted that certainly the idea of parity depends on where one is counting from, as particular issues of the magazine would go one way or the other, and he tends to organize blocks of poems in between other genres in each issue in ways that have sometimes been balanced but also sometimes been entirely female or entirely male. Many times, too, he said, he does his best to read blind, paying little to no attention to a byline, and has often discovered that material he thought was "male" or "female" had been written by someone of another gender. Thus, the magic of literature.

Of the panelists, Stephen Corey seemed perhaps least comfortable with the discussion. His initial statement was simply a set of questions. (I think I managed to write them all down, but may have missed something.) When we talk about gender balance, he asked, are we talking about balance in submissions? In page counts? (Does a 30-page story count the same as a 1-page poem?) Should reviews be counted the same as poems, essays, or stories? Do you want an editor to read your work with gender in mind? Should a publication put out a call for more work by males or females? Should a publication put out an anti-call against one gender? When you read, do you care if what you read is by a man or a woman [audience: YES!], and should an editor care?

After Corey, E.J. Graff said so many interesting things I had trouble taking notes. Here's what I wrote down:

  • The count is an example of why all English majors should take a course in statistics. Graff: "I wish I had!"
  • The submission gap is enormous. With opinion pieces, women editors solicit women and are often turned down or need more time, whereas men often say yes and offer to get the piece done very quickly (important for current events).
  • Men continually send pitches after rejections, women don't.
  • Structural acculturation. We have to overcome our own socialization — and not just in terms of gender. The audience, for instance, was overwhelmingly white.
  • We must make our own choices conscious because many of our prejudices are unconcious. Graff pointed to the Implicit Association Test.
  • For students, there is a dramatic shift between the world of school and the world of work. It can be difficult to learn how to promote yourself. Men tend to do this more comfortably than women, because it's generally more socially acceptable for men.
  • Make a posse. Promote yourself and your group. Start a movement or magazine. Challenge each other, help with drafts and careers, but as a group move each other forward.
  • When lesbians and gay men started working together in the 1980s, there were many difficulties, suspicions, and prejudices. To overcome these difficulties, many groups decided on a shared leadership structure that required equal power sharing between a man and a woman rather than just one leader. Why not do that with more prizes, editorships, groups?
Katha Pollitt (a personal hero of mine, and one of the main reasons I went to the panel) then offered her perspective, particularly as someone who has a long career as a poet and essayist, as well as a former editor with The Nation. Because I love Katha Pollitt, I tried to write as fast as she talked, and so here are my notes from her initial statement:
  • Some editors are quite conscious, others not at all — and some of the latter group are women. They can be very far away from consciously considering the issue, they can be very far away from any sort of balance, and yet still think they're doing great (and thus not need to become conscious).
  • As VIDA has shown, raising the issue can, sometimes, make change.
  • At The Nation, the front and back of the magazine are totally separate. In front, the subject areas (politics, news, current events) and speed of weekly publishing means the editors have settled on "go-to" people who they know are very reliable — maybe not the best writers, but they turn in clean copy on time. These editors would need to make the time to seek out new, female experts who are reliable. Some places have made such an effort — Alternet and Mother Jones, for instance.
  • You have to think about it (make the issue conscious) because we have to compensate for elements in the culture.
  • There are too many women trying to write in too few subject areas. Look at how many women are writing about Girls! Women should try to cultivate interest and knowledge in areas outside those seen as "feminine" or "women's issues".
  • If you're not getting submissions from women, you have to ask why. Why would a woman throw herself at your wall?
  • Most op-eds are solicited. Most slush piles aren't even read by an editor. Slush is not where the problem lies.
  • Things are fairer at newspapers. They have unions and must follow anti-discrimination policies.
Then the discussion moved on to questions and comments from the audience. Again, from notes, which may distort some things simply because I couldn't write fast enough. (I'll offer some summary and response at the end.)

Q: Is gender-identified subject matter more or less appealing? Also, racially-identified? Etc.
Don Bogen: An experience can be gendered, but not to the writer. Surprised plenty of times to discover the gender of a writer whose byline was indeterminate. The otherness of the imagination is important.

Q: 99% of news is what is seen to be traditionally male. Much of human life is dismissed as female.
E.J. Graff: It's worse than you know! The Global Media Monitoring Project statistics are horrifying. Women in the news are usually victims or family members ("the wife of", "the mother of", etc.). These create our implicit biases. Though, as Katha Pollitt said, there may be a good amount of female bylines in newspapers, the top editors and the columnists tend to be male.

Q: Wal-Mart has a huge effect on the economy because it is so large, and so getting Wal-Mart to change practices can have a massive ripple effect. Is there a Wal-Mart of the literary world that we should focus on trying to change?
[Some laughter, cross-talk]
Another audience member: The Wal-Mart is in the room. Unsubscribe from magazines you don't like the numbers for, and let them know. Let Harper's know. Let The New Yorker know. Don't let your subscription lapse silently — it's important that the magazines know why you are leaving them, and what it would take to get you back.

Q: Why is the literary world so obsessed with dudes from Brooklyn?! I don't want "women's literature", I want literature. Even when women are put forward, though, they become invisible.
Pollitt: Yes, why when Jonathan Franzen writes a book is everybody else suddenly invisible? Can Karen Russell get the same amount of notice? She should, but does she? It's a problem of publicity. Some women get attention. But does the attention last? Will it last? Can we make it last? The writers are there, the quality is there, the publicity is not.

VIDA volunteer: Feel empowered. Email magazines. Use knowledge to use your money and time well. VIDA is 10 volunteers. You are many. Vote with your dollars.

VIDA co-founder Erin Belieu: Most of the media reports on the count frame the story as, "It still sucks." And it does. But there's more to it than that. Many places say they need a comment from people such as New Yorker editor David Remnick if they're going to run a big story, but the editors of the highest-profile magazines won't talk, and so the story is not seen as journalistically significant. Behind the scenes, though, there is concern. One well-known female fiction writer gots calls from multiple editors when the count was released this year — the publications were embarrassed, and they wanted this writer to contribute. She didn't have any short fiction available and also didn't want to be the token female, so she gave the editors the names of 5 other writers who might be able to give them something.

Q for Katha Pollitt: Is there a perception among editors that there are female and male subject matter? Is more male subject matter being covered?
Pollitt: War, politics, etc. — these are not "male" subjects! More women are killed by war than men. Women's lives are deeply, intimately, and constantly affected by politics. These are human subjects. The New York Times has two male columnists who started out as food writers, a subject often associated with women. Get to know a lot about something interesting in a less crowded field and you will have an easier time getting published.

And then time ran out.

The take-away message was, as Erin Hoover wrote, consciousness. The world we live in is structurally biased against equality, and as people who live in this world, if we don't consciously work toward increasing equality, we will unconsciously contribute to inequality.

I love the idea that we could follow Don Bogen's lead and try to read and publish eclectically, seeking experiences and representations outside of our own, and thus achieve equality. But I don't think it would work. I expect he's an outlier and his example would be difficult, even impossible, to replicate. Worse, a stated interest in diversity might be used as cover. I think too many publishers and editors could just say to themselves, "Hey, we're nice, tolerant, liberal people who sorta like, you know, value that diversity thing. Yeah. We'll be equal," and then go right on reinforcing the status quo. I actually would prefer that someone just say, "I couldn't care less about equality," and not pretend.

Let's go back to Stephen Corey's questions. They're good for discussion, but I think they're problematic overall. With regard to page lengths and genres, etc., it's really not that hard to compare like to like, and VIDA, for instance, offers statistics in various breakdowns (books reviewed, reviewers, etc). The "overall" stats that VIDA provides are useful as a way to view the problem generally, but yes, there's a difference between a 200-word review and a 10,000-word article. The general view is useful, though. We're not to the point where distinctions necessarily say a lot. The trends are so bad that getting too specific is pretty much a waste of time. Maybe in the future it would be an interesting exercise, but right now the information is pretty damn unambiguous and shameful. As Don Bogen showed, there's plenty of reasons for an individual magazine issue or section of an issue to be dominated by women or men, but once you step back from individual issues and sections, once you increase the data set, then consistent, significant inequality speaks for itself.

Do we want editors to read our work with our gender in mind? I've never assumed they wouldn't. I'd love to live in a world where my gender presentation was irrelevant, but I don't live in that world, and pretending I do just reinforces a status quo I loathe. My name is Matthew and I physically present as male; that affects people's perceptions of me consciously and, especially, unconsciously. How much does that matter to any one editor? I assume a bit (at least), unless they want to give me multiple results from the Implicit Association Test showing that they are utterly unaffected by gender ... at which point I might assume they don't entirely care about my apparent maleness. Otherwise, I'm going to assume they're living in the same swamp of associations that I am.

Should there be a call made for more of one gender, or against another? Oh, please. This is a question better left to concern trolls. I can just imagine the sort of call that would go out: "Dear Womens: We don't know any female scribblers. Please submit to us so we can see if you know how to write. Thanks!" Or, even better, "Hey guys! These feminazis are doing their thing and we're afraid it might hurt our reputation in this politically correct environment, so please cut it out with the submissions for a while. Once we've published some girls, then we can get back to the real work."

More interesting to me is the question: Do you care about the gender of a writer you read, and should an editor care? The audience loudly affirmed that they care about the gender of writers they read. For me, this is a similar sort of problem to whether I care about if an editor knows my gender when I submit writing to them. In an ideal world where gender is as meaningful as handedness or eye color, a writer's gender for me would be an interesting and inconsequential detail. But I don't ever expect to live in such a world. Human culture has been and continues to be meaningfully and significantly affected by gender. To not care about a writer's gender in such a world is to not care about something that meaningfully and significantly affects that writer. So yes, I notice the gender of writers I read. I care about it. The world does not just naturally drop a nicely balanced group of male, female, and genderqueer writers on my readerly doorstep. The world makes it easiest for me to read white male writers who use the English language and publish with major publishers. I make the conscious effort to seek out others. (Among the books I'm currently reading: Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin; The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates; The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde; Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde by Alexis De Veaux.) If I want to know about the world outside of my own experiences — and that really is why I read — then I have to pay attention to some of the categories the writers I read fall into. It's why I got interested in African literatures, even before I ever traveled to Africa. I can't imagine not reading such work now. Not for reasons of political correctness or some other overloaded scare term, but for purely selfish reasons: my life is richer and more interesting with such writings in it than not.

So it's probably not surprising that I think editors should notice and care, because otherwise the structures of our culture are going to notice and care for them, and will replicate the dominant status quo.

The most important thing to come out of the VIDA count, though, is a desire from editors, writers, and readers to actively fix the problem. This, it seems to me, is VIDA's real message and value. Here are the stats. If you don't care about them, then don't care about them. (You're an asshole, but maybe you're okay with that.) If these numbers shock, dismay, annoy, or even just vaguely bother you, then do something. If you're an editor, seek out female writers and work to make sure your venue is not one that posts various signs saying, "GIRLZ KEEP OUT!" (Hint: If you publish mostly male writers and seriously wonder why non-males don't submit more to you, you're behaving like an oblivious dunderhead.) Be conscious, put forth some effort, and don't start whining for cookies because you did what you should have been doing all along. If you're a reader, let the VIDA count guide you. Tin House, Poetry, and Threepenny Review are three magazines that have deliberately tried to get their numbers to be better, and they're three great magazines well worth your support. There are others, too, and will, I expect (I hope!), be more. If it matters to you, speak up with your voice and your writing, with where you submit work, and with where you spend money. We can be proactive.

And remember E.J. Graff's advice: Make a posse. Promote yourself and your group. Start a movement or magazine. Challenge each other, help with drafts and careers, but as a group move each other forward.

Update 3/22/13: Here's a great essay about the panel, VIDA, and the implications of it all by Zoe Zolbrod.