In 2011, one of my classmates from Sarah Lawrence penned an open letter to The New Yorker, blasting them for their then abysmal record of publishing women’s voices. She shared her letter on our closed email listserv and received curious pushback from some of my male classmates. When I say curious pushback, it was more like: “it’s really hard to get published…” or “there are bigger concerns like the economy tanking…” or “the prison industrial complex is growing more powerful by the day…” or “what about black on black crime” (I kid on that last one, but not really). Which is to say: why should we spend our energy caring about something as frivolous as publishing an equal representation of voices that actually reflect the population? One male member on this lengthy email chain chimed in with: “Women writers aren’t that good and I just don’t read them.” To say it was all out war in that thread might be understatement.
I still hear this a lot today from dudebros in the literary world. Some of them seem to want a parade for the fact they’ve read women literary authors. Talk to me when you’re reading up to 50 percent, homie, and then tell me how many writers of color you’ve read too. I’ll wait.
It was months after that email exchange that I first learned of VIDA, Women in Literary Arts.
Since 2010, VIDA has counted up men and women writers who have been featured as authors and reviewers at major thought leader publications and literary magazines, then bakes those metrics into pie charts offering a quick gender split snapshot of their findings. For four years, by tracking these numbers, VIDA has put a spotlight on the editorial staff of these publications–insisting that they either demonstrate a commitment to achieving gender parity or reveal their steadfast commitment to preserving patriarchy by default.
Yesterday, VIDA released its 2013 Count tracking the editorial successes and failures in publishing female and male writers of The Atlantic, Boston Review, Granta, Harper’s, London Review of Books, The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, Poetry, The Threepenny Review, The Times Literary Supplement (TLS), Tin House, Paris Review, and The Nation. And this year, they’ve added 24 literary journals into their count. The addition is significant because a lot of these journals become the cultural record, shaping the literary canon, and determining what works become part of K-12 curriculum and college syllabi and end up in libraries. In addition, VIDA Co-director Erin Belieu notes that the “data suggests that specialized literary magazines have a more thoughtful balance in representing both female and male voices. It also appears that the axiom ‘Follow the money’ holds in the world of literary publishing. What we see is that when the opportunity to build prestige reputations that lead to significant financial gain and other career benefits is involved, men dominate the literary landscape. It’s another version of the glass ceiling that women workers still encounter professionally.”
The VIDA 2013 count notes some marked improvements. The leader in literary tastemaking, The Paris Review, published 50 percent female voices in 2013, and in fiction skewed just a little bit higher. Also in the most improved category is The New York Times Book Review, logging in 44 percent women. Another notable high performer in this year’s count is Tin House (56 percent women writers). Editors Rob Spillman (Tin House) and Pamela Spaulding (NYTBR) have both publicly stated a commitment to publishing more female voices, with Spaulding adding a roster of women reviewers to aid in achieving that goal. It is also worth noting that the poets continue to hold it down for gender parity; Poetry, published by the Poetry Society of America, achieved a nearly perfect gender split.
Yet there are some unsurprising disappointments this year too. The New York Review of Books (NYRB) is staunchly male, publishing 800 pieces total with 636 male and 164 female bylines. Yes, that’s 80 percent male. Joining the NYRB in the bro-club of manly bylines are McSweeney’s (76 percent), Harper (74 percent), TLS (72 percent) and The New Republic (78.5 percent). I am sort of surprised by The Nation’s performance for 2013; while I know anecdotally that there is an editorial commitment to promote gender issues and publish women writers, the overall percentage last year was just 27.3 percent.
VIDA’s Count really spotlights decisions by editors. Certainly, there is critique of the tally–most famously made by the editor of the TLS who said that his publication only wanted to print reviews of “the most important books,” which often translates to books by men. Others are quick to argues that you can’t publish women if they don’t publish books, and thus the blame should fall on the book publishers. But that shit just points to something far more insidious that is hard to account. How many editorial pitches and book proposals die by gender bias? This becomes a problem of a dog chasing its tail. It’s a circular excuse that I’m no longer willing to accept in 21st century America. We know that more women than men read books. We also know that more African-American women read books. Yet, the printed matter continues to woefully under-represents these identities.
Others have argued that we shouldn’t look to these print publications to define or validate our identities, and we should create the spaces we’re looking for to represent us. We’ve tried that and we will continue to work to render our voices and stories visible but it’s 2014, and I am impatient.
And while I support VIDA’s work, I still have concerns with the split on these numbers–gender identity is not always binary. And I’m also concerned about the representation of writers of color in these very same publications. I hope that with our support, VIDA will be able to partner with organizations to expand their accounting of gender equity to include within it writers of color and LBGTQ folks. The voices within that accounting have multiple identities. There is no single story; there are multitudes in America. I tire of waiting to enter from the margins. We are not margins. We are here. We’ve always been.
Syreeta McFadden is a writer and reader in Brooklyn and the managing editor of the literary magazine, Union Station.