March 12, 2013
Know any writers? Facebook and Twitter much? If so, you know that last week VIDA announced its 2012 Count. For three years, VIDA’s pie charts have shown in stark relief the gender bias at several top-tier literary publications. Yet for many of the writers and publishers engaged in heated discussions about The Count at the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Boston, the “real story” was in VIDA’s three-year comparisons, which looked at publications’ numbers since the first Count in 2010.
VIDA found that The Paris Review, New York Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, The New Republic, and The Nation were publishing either the same consistently small number of women over a three-year period—and in some cases, fewer women now than before. As Amy King wrote in VIDA’s “mic check” on The Count numbers, many editors have clearly chosen to ignore—or even disdain—the tallies.
VIDA’s all-volunteer staff, along with thousands of VIDA supporters who care about creating a publishing landscape that values all writers, now find ourselves standing at a microphone, asking: “Is this thing on?” “What I find so staggering about these numbers,” said Meg Wolitzer, who read for VIDA on Saturday at AWP (and who looked at the rules of literary fiction for men and women last year for The New York Times), “is that many publishers seem to be saying: ‘Scream your little head off. We don’t care.’”
Three years into counting, VIDA’s challenge (and my challenge, contacting journalists to ask them to cover VIDA’s story) has been to provoke a larger media conversation beyond the ho-hum “more bad news from VIDA” response. Unfortunately, the “conversation” seems to be missing the voices required for a story. For the most part, The Count has been met with a wall of silence from the publishers whose numbers most demand a response. This is understandable, but it is another example of bad behavior. As VIDA co-founder Erin Belieu put it at VIDA’s “Numbers Trouble” panel at AWP on Saturday: “They’re trying to ignore us to death.”
For “Numbers Trouble,” VIDA engaged publishers at AWP (some of whom performed their own tallies) and advocates to dig into The Count. To the mostly-female audience in attendance, it became clear at the panel that reversing gender bias depends on making it conscious. As E.J. Graff noted, “Not thinking about it means reproducing what we’ve got.” VIDA’s Count is not just disappointing information, as some might suggest, but a call to action—extending from editors who aren’t publishing women to women who may not submit their work as often as men for a variety of complex reasons. “If magazines aren’t getting submissions from women, they might ask why,” Katha Pollitt suggested. “Perhaps women are saying, ‘why would I throw myself at that wall?’”
Over the history of the VIDA Counts, publishers have pointed to a male-dominated submissions pile. Danielle Pafunda has already written extensively on why the submissions numbers don’t count on VIDA’s website, and nationally best-selling writer and VIDA Board member Cheryl Strayed has added for this Count: “People suggest that women don’t submit work to magazines often enough. Then how has a fantastic magazine like Tin House managed to rise in The Count with no negative effect on the quality of its content?”
Good question. In contrast to other publications, the editorial team at Tin House has put in the effort to change their numbers—and they have done it. The three-year comparisons also show that magazines like Poetry and Threepenny Review have noticeably improved. But such improvements depend on systematic change at a publication, as Tin House‘s Rob Spillman told VIDA. It is not enough to call up a couple women who have already been widely published in The Count’s aftermath. All is not well because a few magazines have achieved a parity of sorts—or because a few “special women” have been invited into the circle of success referenced by Adrienne Rich, and by Erin Belieu in Thursday’s “Second Sex, Second Shelf” AWP panel.
By mostly reinforcing white male dominance, the vitality of whose voices are heard and passed on is at stake. “Literary venues who aren’t paying attention have fallen in my estimation,” said Cheryl Strayed. “Their increasing irrelevance to readers is turning them into dinosaurs.” Many publications claim to want to publish “only the best writing,” but isn’t that up for debate? “For me, it’s about publishing experiences that are distinct from my own,” said Don Bogen, poetry editor of The Cincinnati Review, at “Numbers Trouble.” Stephen Corey, editor of The Georgia Review, asked: “Do you care if what you are reading is by a man or a woman? Should an editor care?”
The answer to both questions, for VIDA’s supporters, is yes. VIDA co-founder Cate Marvin announced at AWP that VIDA plans to disseminate subscription recommendations on a national level to promote publications that consistently strive for gender balance. This year, VIDA also included contact information for the editors of magazines that were counted, and included in their pitch to the AWP audience a plea to contact those editors and pressure for change.
“Instead of being angry about it, we have to get active about it,” Elissa Schappell said at the VIDA reading on Saturday. But AWP is just one audience at one conference, and the push for activity needs to be heard beyond that room. We know what we’d like editors at top-tier publications to do. For women writers, getting active means submitting more, and submitting again if we’re rejected. For everyone who cares about these issues, getting active means telling offending publications that we won’t subscribe to them (or continue to subscribe) unless they respond thoughtfully to VIDA’s Count. How else will we be heard?